When bassist Charles Burrell was nineteen years old, his ambition was to be the first African-American in a symphony. It took him nearly two more decades to get there, but when he joined the Denver Symphony in 1949, he became the first person of color to be under contract with a major orchestra in the United States.
Raised in Detroit, 97-year-old Burrell was a skilled classical player, also fluent in the language of jazz. Burrell says he got into both genres around the age of twelve, back when music lessons cost a quarter. He moved to Denver in 1949 to join his mother’s relatives who lived here.
Both classical and jazz are intertwined, says Burrell. “But you knew what to do with each one of them because the classical was written, and you had to play by that. But jazz, you’d kind of learn how to be a little more relaxed with that. We used to call it doing your own thing.”
Burrell, who is being inducted into the Colorado Music Hall of Fame as part of its Jazz Masters & Beyond class next Tuesday, says he’d finish playing with the symphony and then take his bass to Five Points to jam at the Rossonian, where he was house bassist from 1949 until 1959, around the time the Denver jazz scene was “really raging,” he says. “All of the best entertainers in the world were coming in and performing at the Rossonian.”
There Burrell performed with legendary jazz players like Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, Earl “Fatha” Hines, Mose Allison, Cedar Walton, Errol Garner and others. He also played with the Al Rose Trio at the Playboy Club, on Colfax Avenue at Race Street.
“That was the first of the integrated bands in Denver,” Burrell says. “Al Rose was Jewish, Lee Arrelano was Chicano, and me. That was my big thing.”
In the early ’50s, Burrell played tuba in George Morrison’s band on an express train from Denver to Cheyenne.
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“The big incentive to go up there was the fact that after we got up to Cheyenne, they’d give us a big eighteen-ounce T-bone steak,” Burrell says. “In those days, it was magnificent, but the sad thing was it only paid $10 up there and back, but that was all right, because we were still making money.”
While Burrell says that he’s had the pleasure of playing with many people over the years, his most memorable times are performing with his niece, jazz singer Dianne Reeves, who’s also being inducted into the Music Hall of Fame.
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Burrell remembers that during his time with the Denver Symphony, he had the chance not to play during the summer. “I decided to take up the option and play with Nellie Lutcher during the summer, where I was making my good money...and then come back to the symphony, where I was struggling. I had a good time playing all over the place.”
After a decade with the Denver Symphony, Burrell moved to San Francisco in 1959 to become the first person of color in the San Francisco Symphony. He says being the first African-American in the Denver Symphony wasn’t bad because he knew where his position was.
“I knew what was going on,” he says. “They treated me halfway decent here, but there was a little race thing going on, like, ‘He’s all right, but he’s negro.’ My big relief from all that crap was when I got with San Francisco, they treated me like a person, like a royal person. It was marvelous. That was the big point of my life, when I got there and had the opportunity to play under one of the most famous musicians of those times. His name was Pierre Monteaux, who was one of the best conductors of that era who was from France.”
Colorado Music Hall of Fame Induction Concert: Jazz Masters & Beyond, with performances by inductees Philip Bailey and Larry Dunn (of Earth Wind & Fire), Dianne Reeves and her band, Ron Miles and Bill Frisell, and a tribute to Charles Burrell, with Purnell Steen & Le Jazz Machine, 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, November 28, Paramount Theatre, $49-$99.