A hundred years ago you wouldn’t have seen a person of color in a symphony orchestra. Charles Burrellwho just turned 102 in October, is responsible for changing that.
Burrell is the first black American musician in the world to be contracted by a symphony orchestra.
On his birthday, he drew a full crowd Dazzle Jazz Club in downtown Denver.
“I didn’t think I’d make it past 20,” Burrell said.
Burrell says he doesn’t know how his passion for music began. It was always a part of him.
“I wish I could say and name it, but I can’t,” Burrell said. “It’s just overwhelming.”
He fell in love with classical music from an early age. He first performed in Denver and then in San Francisco. He was an inspiration to many, including jazz pianist Purnell Steen, who saw Burrell perform 73 years ago at his debut concert.
“It really impressed me to see him walk across that stage,” Steen said. “And the response he got was very nasty and I was emotionally conflicted because I didn’t know what he did wrong. He had to walk a tightrope because he knew there were people who despised him from both communities, from the black community and In the black community, many people were jealous and thought he had sold out his inheritance.”
Burrell says he just focused on his love of music.
“Just do the things you’re supposed to do, you know?” Burrell said. “And don’t be a fool with what you’re doing. You know, respect other people.”
Seven-year-old Lincoln Burrell is his great-grandson.
“I was told he was like a great bass player,” Lincoln Burrell said. “I never heard any of these songs because my dad told me, like I was there, like cameras weren’t invented yet, so, like, I can’t take any videos.”
He attends the Burrell School of Performing Arts.
“It’s like everybody’s like, ‘Oh, my God. You’re Charles’ great-grandson! Oh, my God!'” Lincoln Burrell said.
Lincoln Burrell says he’s proud to be related to Charles Burrell. And Steen says he’s grateful to be so close to the man he says was his role model.
“He’s a lone eagle because eagles are lonesome, eagles soar to great heights and leave others behind,” Steen said. “And that’s what Charles Burrell did.”
“I hope the world comes together and becomes happier, not angrier,” Burrell said.
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