In 1932, a twelve-year-old Charles Burrell heard a recording of the San Francisco Symphony playing Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4 on his crystal set radio. Burrell, who had just started playing the upright bass, hauling it between his Detroit home and school in a little red wagon, told his mother that he wanted to perform with the San Francisco Symphony one day.
Burrell would eventually accomplish that goal after spending years studying classical music in high school and at Wayne State University in Detroit, and working on his jazz chops before moving to Denver, where his mother was born and where some of his family lived, in the late ’40s.
His path to the symphony started with a chance encounter. According to his autobiography, The Life of Charlie Burrell, the Fitzsimons Army Hospital in Aurora hired him as a “bedpan specialist” in 1949. While taking a streetcar to his job, Burrell noticed a guy holding what looked like a pool-cue case. But Burrell knew it was a case for a bass bow.
That guy happened to be John Van Buskirk, the principal bass player for the Denver Symphony Orchestra (which dissolved on 1989 and became the Colorado Symphony the following year). The chance encounter led to Burrell studying with Van Buskirk — who, after a few lessons, asked Burrell if he was interested in playing with the Denver Symphony. Van Buskirk connected Burrell with conductor and music director Saul Caston, who interrogated the bassist for nearly two hours, asking him about his background and where his mother and father were from, before asking him to play.
Burrell says Caston asked so many questions because he wanted to see if a black man would fit in with the all-white symphony.
“That’s what he was doing,” Burrell says. “I knew that right off the bat, after he was almost finished. I was happy to be accepted and all that sort of thing.”
Burrell says the audition was both memorable and frightening.
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“Being from the ghetto, I realized what he was doing,” the 98-year-old Burrell says. “And I was on my best behavior. I remember that, because when he got down to about an hour and 55 minutes, the culmination of that interview was, ‘Play me a G scale, slow, two octaves up and back.’ It’s wicked, man; it’s the most wicked thing you can do. But I did it. I’d been accustomed to doing that while I was practicing for all those years.”
When Caston hired the bassist for the Denver Symphony in 1949, Burrell became the first African-American to receive a permanent contract with a major American symphony.
Being a black musician in a primarily white orchestra wasn’t as difficult as it could have been, Burrell says. But he recalls at least one uncomfortable incident.
“I was very cool in my actions and so forth in what I had to do,” he says. “One fella, who was a drummer, was kidding around. He didn’t know it, but I overheard him say, ‘Well, those people are like that.’ I knew what he was talking about.”
Burrell waited until after the rehearsal to confront the drummer on the sidewalk, grabbing him by the tie and setting him straight. What’s ironic, Burrell says, is that after that incident, they became the best of friends.
While Burrell spent many years studying classical, the bassist, who was inducted into the Colorado Music Hall of Fame as part of its Jazz Masters and Beyond in 2017, was also a skilled jazz player who performed with legendary singers like Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan, as well as instrumentalists Charlie Parker, Gene Harris and Ben Webster. He had discovered both music forms when he was twelve. There were nights when Burrell might play a symphony gig and then play in Five Points at the Rossonian, where he was house bassist from 1949 until 1959.
Since the Denver Symphony had twelve- to fourteen-week seasons in the early ’50s, the jazz gigs helped pay the bills. But Burrell had to find other ways to make money. He was a janitor at the Denver Municipal Auditorium, and his manager, Tom Seymour, also got him a job applying linseed oil on seats at Red Rocks. According to his biography, it took Burrell six weeks to do 9,000 seats, driving between Denver and Morrison daily in a green 1936 four-door Dodge.
“And I did a thorough job, if I must say, in doing that!” Burrell wrote. “I mean, I didn’t leave an inch unturned! I always believe whatever you do, do it the best you can, and I did. And of course that car — I had to get rid of it because it was nothin’ but linseed oil!
“I was profoundly proud of this because that was not the easiest job in the world to work out there in the sun eight hours a day doing that,” he continued. “But I did accomplish it — my big contribution to helping Red Rocks! I got the city wage, because I was under the auspices of the city and county. But I was grateful that Tommy Seymour helped me when I needed help making money. It helped me through that summer tremendously.”
In the mid-’50s, Burrell was part of the Al Rose Trio, which he says was the first integrated band in Colorado with Rose, a Jewish pianist, and Lee Arellano, a Latino drummer. They played all over the state, including regular trips to the Strater Hotel in Durango.
After a decade with the Denver Symphony, in 1959 Burrell got a job playing with the San Francisco Symphony after meeting its principal bassist, Phil Karp, who also got Burrell a spot on the Pops Orchestra under the direction of Arthur Fiedler.
Burrell, who was the first African-American to play with the San Francisco Symphony, says he was treated so royally that he often cried tears of happiness. He even got to play Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4.
“I’ll never forget,” Burrell says of the performance. “It made me cry because it was so magnificent to me. It was a touch of beauty. I never thought I’d play that before. When I got to the last movement, I suddenly realized, ‘Hey, this is a real piece of art, but boy, oh boy, it’s tough.’ And that’s why I think I liked it so much. It was a big to-do for the bass section in the last movement. That’s my favorite. It goes so fast and furious and all over the place, and when you got through, you had to go see a chiropractor or something.”
During his five and a half years with the San Francisco Symphony, he also taught at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, where he instructed his cousin, keyboardist George Duke, who would go on to join Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention. Burrell would also later mentor another of his cousins, Denver-based jazz singer Dianne Reeves, who has won five Grammys.
While in the Bay Area, Burrell chose not to play summer seasons with the symphony but instead gigged with the great jazz pianist Earl “Fatha” Hines. “He was a hell of a good musician,” Burrell says, “and he paid well. It was a real pleasure playing with him.”
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In the mid-’60s, Burrell moved back to Denver; he spent the next three decades with the Denver Symphony, retiring in 1999 at the age of 79. To commemorate Burrell’s 99th birthday and the seventieth anniversary of his debut playing Symphony No. 4, his cousin, local jazz pianist Purnell Steen, helped organize a tribute with the Colorado Symphony, which will play the piece in his honor on Friday, October 4. Burrell plans to attend.
Burrell, who still lives in Denver but doesn’t play bass much these days, says listening to Symphony No. 4 brings back magnificent memories, and for years he couldn’t play it without shedding a tear. Burrell says playing with people from different backgrounds over the years helped shape his life mantra.
“It’s very simple,” he says. “Be yourself and don’t be prejudiced. That’s all there is to it. I had to be with different races, and I had the thrill of knowing them and how to be treated. One of my best friends who bought my first Model A car for me and was Anglo, he taught me a lot about the psychology of treating people pretty good. And my mother was a marvelous disciplinarian in terms of how to treat people and how to be yourself. She taught us all how not to be prejudiced.”
Tantalizing Tchaikovsky, 7:30 p.m. Friday, October 4, Boettcher Concert Hall, Denver Performing Arts Complex, $15-$89, coloradosymphony.org.