The Nation’s Largest African American Video Oral History Collection Mobile search icon Mobile close search icon
Advanced Biography Search
Mobile navigation icon Close mobile navigation icon

Charles Burrell

Charles Burrell has enjoyed an outstanding career as a bassist for the Denver Symphony Orchestra and is also considered a master jazz bassist; one of the few musicians to have mastered both genres. Born in Toledo, Ohio, in 1920, Burrell was raised in Depression-era Detroit, Michigan. His mother, Denverado, the daughter of an A.M.E. minister from Denver, Colorado, provided inspiration and direction despite the family's poverty.

In grade school, Burrell excelled in music. When he was twelve, he heard the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra under renowned conductor Pierre Monteux on the family's crystal radio. He resolved to play one day for an orchestra under the direction of Monteux, whom he began to idolize. He developed his skills on the bass at Detroit's famous Cass Tech High School, where eighteen of the principal musicians of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra taught. Principal bassist Gaston Brohm agreed to teach Burrell if he would promise not to play the classics for the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. Burrell considers Oscar Legassy of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra his best teacher and greatest influence. After high school, Burrell landed a job playing jazz in Detroit's Paradise Valley at a club called B.J.'s.

At the start of World War II, Burrell was drafted into the all-black naval unit at Camp Robert Smalls, at Great Lakes Naval base near Chicago. There, he played in the unit's all star band with Clark Terry, Al Grey and O. C. Johnson and took classes at Northwestern University and with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. After the war, Burrell used the G.I. Bill to attend Wayne State University in Detroit. He excelled in his music courses, but was discouraged by the racism of his advisors. In 1949, Burrell joined his mother's relatives in Denver, Colorado, and was soon hired by the Denver Symphony Orchestra. Eventually, he fulfilled his dream of playing for Pierre Monteux by joining the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra. In 1965, he returned to the Denver Symphony Orchestra and met his wife, Melanie, a cellist.

One of the first blacks admitted to the faculty of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, Burrell has mentored and taught some of the finest musicians in the country. Among his students are bassists Tony Knight of the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra, Major Holly, and the late great Ray Brown. Other musicians guided by Burrell are jazz pianist George Duke and Burrell's niece, jazz vocalist Diane Reeves.

Accession Number

A2002.113

Sex

Male

Archival Photo 1
Interview Date

6/21/2002

Last Name

Burrell

Maker Category
Marital Status

Married

Occupation
Organizations
Schools

Cass Technical High School

Archival Photo 2
First Name

Charles

Birth City, State, Country

Toledo

HM ID

BUR06

Favorite Season

None

State

Ohio

Favorite Vacation Destination

Denver, Colorado

Favorite Quote

When you go through life, be serious but not too serious.

Bio Photo
Speakers Bureau Region State

Colorado

Birth Date

10/4/1920

Birth Place Term
Speakers Bureau Region City

Denver

Country

United States

Favorite Food

Beans

Short Description

Classical bassist Charles Burrell (1920 - ) is a jazz virtuoso and professional classical bass player with the Denver Symphony Orchestra. One of the first blacks admitted to the faculty of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, Burrell has mentored and taught some of the finest musicians in the country. Among his students are bassists Tony Knight of the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra, Major Holly, and the late Ray Brown.

Employment

Denver Symphony Orchestra

San Francisco Symphony Orchestra

San Francisco Conservatory of Music

Favorite Color

Beige

Timing Pairs
0,0:0,3:2352,42:3248,53:7480,141:7928,149:8248,155:9400,182:11192,220:12024,241:12600,254:12984,261:13432,314:13880,328:14328,336:18182,367:18587,373:19154,382:20855,412:21179,417:22394,432:23285,449:24014,461:25148,481:25796,496:26120,501:29036,574:29603,583:30170,592:30575,598:31142,606:36164,714:36488,719:43295,756:46270,806:51790,880:52054,885:52780,905:53374,918:54562,951:57334,1005:57862,1015:58522,1027:59050,1042:62548,1120:62878,1126:63472,1137:63868,1144:69560,1171:71377,1194:71693,1199:72325,1211:73115,1224:73431,1229:73905,1237:75485,1265:75801,1270:78882,1320:79435,1336:79751,1341:80620,1358:81173,1367:83227,1398:89475,1434:91131,1468:93201,1510:96730,1530$0,0:4368,121:4914,135:6318,166:7020,177:9594,246:9906,251:12792,293:13650,307:14976,337:27798,470:29562,507:30654,544:31242,554:34730,587:35090,593:35594,605:36314,623:36746,630:37178,639:40634,722:41066,729:42434,765:54585,951:55152,959:55881,988:56448,1002:56853,1011:62930,1139:72852,1348:73262,1354:73754,1361:74082,1367:74492,1373:78865,1400:79210,1406:79624,1413:80935,1443:81418,1454:82522,1477:83005,1486:83764,1498:86800,1556:87076,1561:88525,1596:91900,1605:92250,1612:93580,1635:97681,1665:98682,1678:99046,1683:99865,1695:100593,1705:101412,1720:101776,1725:105240,1739:105978,1750:107454,1778:108110,1788:109422,1806:113932,1897:114588,1908:114916,1913:115408,1921:115818,1927:119333,1936:119617,1941:123025,2005:123309,2010:123664,2017:123948,2022:126646,2085:126930,2091:127569,2104:128066,2113:128492,2121:128918,2129:129415,2146:133036,2238:137802,2249:139594,2323:139850,2328:142598,2359:143286,2373:143802,2380:145694,2422:146124,2428:149778,2452:151605,2478:152040,2484:153345,2503:153693,2508:158145,2544:159705,2581:160030,2587:160290,2594:160745,2603:161395,2615:161720,2621:162435,2633:163085,2645:163540,2653:163930,2665:164190,2670:164450,2675:165100,2686:166010,2706:172200,2764:172540,2769:174325,2809:174665,2814:176195,2853:176960,2870:177470,2929:185420,2993:185954,3027:191972,3118:199559,3208:200189,3221:202205,3264:209450,3359:210980,3380:213990,3410:214282,3415:215158,3438:215742,3447:218710,3498:218974,3503:219634,3517:220822,3539:221152,3545:222208,3567:227484,3621:228276,3639:229244,3654:231092,3683:232148,3716:234084,3750:234788,3759:238370,3792:243650,3891:247440,3935
DAStories

Tape: 1 Story: 1 - Slating of Charles Burrell interview

Tape: 1 Story: 2 - Charles Burrell lists his favorites

Tape: 1 Story: 3 - Charles Burrell talks about his family origins

Tape: 1 Story: 4 - Charles Burrell talks about his siblings

Tape: 1 Story: 5 - Charles Burrell recalls his neighborhood in Detroit as a young boy

Tape: 1 Story: 6 - Charles Burrell talks more about the Detroit neighborhood of his youth

Tape: 1 Story: 7 - Charles Burrell talks about his exposure to music as a child

Tape: 1 Story: 8 - Charles Burrell talks about his childhood personality

Tape: 1 Story: 9 - Charles Burrell recalls his mother's personality and his religious upbringing

Tape: 1 Story: 10 - Charles Burrell talks about his interest in music as a boy and his first exposure to the bass violin

Tape: 2 Story: 1 - Charles Burrell talks about his siblings and about his weight as a child

Tape: 2 Story: 2 - Charles Burrell recalls the schools he attended in Detroit

Tape: 2 Story: 3 - Charles Burrell talks more about high school and the teachers who influenced him

Tape: 2 Story: 4 - Charles Burrell recalls his early interest in classical music and his personality

Tape: 2 Story: 5 - Charles Burrell recalls his first jobs playing music

Tape: 2 Story: 6 - Charles Burrell talks about his music education and recalls one of his first teachers

Tape: 2 Story: 7 - Charles Burrell talks more about his early jobs in music

Tape: 2 Story: 8 - Charles Burrell recalls his enlistment in the Navy

Tape: 2 Story: 9 - Charles Burrell talks about his music career while in the Navy and the jazz musicians he met there

Tape: 3 Story: 1 - Charles Burrell recalls his experiences in the military

Tape: 3 Story: 2 - Charles Burrell talks about his experience at Wayne State University and his move to Denver

Tape: 3 Story: 3 - Charles Burrell details his experiences in Denver

Tape: 3 Story: 4 - Charles Burrell talks more about his experience with the Denver Symphony Orchestra

Tape: 3 Story: 5 - Charles Burrell discusses his wives

Tape: 3 Story: 6 - Charles Burrell recalls the highlights of his musical career

Tape: 3 Story: 7 - Charles Burrell talks about his favorite classical music

Tape: 3 Story: 8 - Charles Burrell talks about his music techniques

Tape: 3 Story: 9 - Charles Burrell talks about classical bass players and his mentor

Tape: 4 Story: 1 - Charles Burrell talks about his move to the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra

Tape: 4 Story: 2 - Charles Burrell talks about what it means to be a Principal musician

Tape: 4 Story: 3 - Charles Burrell recalls some of his more notable students

Tape: 4 Story: 4 - Charles Burrell talks about classical music and the treatment of blacks in the industry

Tape: 4 Story: 5 - Charles Burrell describes his personality and talks about his current family

Tape: 4 Story: 6 - Charles Burrell discusses his hopes for the black community

Tape: 4 Story: 7 - Charles Burrell talks about his mentor Al McKibbon

Tape: 4 Story: 8 - Charles Burrell talks about other jazz musicians from his past

Tape: 4 Story: 9 - Charles Burrell gives his opinion about the classical music scene

Tape: 5 Story: 1 - Charles Burrell talks about his practice regimen

Tape: 5 Story: 2 - Charles Burrell talks about Charles Mingus

Tape: 5 Story: 3 - Charles Burrell talks about his early move to Denver

Tape: 5 Story: 4 - Charles Burrell recalls his classical music experiences in the 1950s

Tape: 5 Story: 5 - Charles Burrell reflects on how he might be remembered and his music legacy

Tape: 5 Story: 6 - Charles Burrell recalls the first time his father saw one of his performances

Tape: 5 Story: 7 - Photo - Charles Burrell with his wife Melanie Markay Burrell, Denver, Colorado, 1990

Tape: 5 Story: 8 - Photo - Newspaper clipping of Charles Burrell performing, Denver, Colorado, August, 1984

Tape: 5 Story: 9 - Photo - Charles Burrell posing with his bass violin by Fred Larkin, Denver, Colorado, 1980

Tape: 5 Story: 10 - Photo - Charles Burrell with his bass violin and smoking a cigar by Fred Larkin, Denver, Colorado, 1980

Tape: 5 Story: 11 - Photo - Charles Burrell's niece, singer Dianne Reeves, age seventeen, 1973

Tape: 5 Story: 12 - Photo - Publicity photo of Enrique Jorda, Conductor of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, San Francisco, California, 1959

Tape: 5 Story: 13 - Photo - Publicity photo Charles Burrell with his bass violin, San Francisco, California, 1960s

Tape: 5 Story: 14 - Photo - Concert program from the Denver Symphony Orchestra, March, 1967

Tape: 5 Story: 15 - Photo - Charles Burrell performing with Kevin Smith at a noontime concert on the Mall, Denver, Colorado, 1982-1983

Tape: 5 Story: 16 - Photo - Charles Burrell performing at a jazz club with Billy Horner, Al Hayes, and others, Detroit, Michigan, 1946-1947

Tape: 5 Story: 17 - Photo - Charles Burrell with Conductor Allan Miller, Denver, Colorado, 1982

Tape: 5 Story: 18 - Photo - Charles Burrell performing with his bass violin, 1984-1985

Tape: 5 Story: 19 - Photo - The Great Lakes Naval Training Center band with Charles Burrell on the tuba and Al Grey on trombone, Grosse Ile (Detroit), Michigan, 1945

Tape: 5 Story: 20 - Photo - Charles Burrell with his wife, Melanie Markay Burrell, and members of the Denver Symphony Orchestra, Denver, Colorado, 1980

Tape: 5 Story: 21 - Photo - Charles Burrell at the organ, 1961

Tape: 5 Story: 22 - Photo - Donald White, cellist with the Cleveland Orchestra, posing with Charles Burrell's car, 1965

Tape: 5 Story: 23 - Photo - Charles Burrell and Louise Duncan, Denver, Colorado, 1985

Tape: 5 Story: 24 - Photo - Charles Burrell and Philip Fath before a performance with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, San Francisco, California, 1960

Tape: 5 Story: 25 - Photo - Charles Burrell posing with his bass for the 'Rocky Mountain News' newspaper, Denver, Colorado, June, 2002

Tape: 5 Story: 26 - Photo - Charles Burrell with members of his Navy jazz band, Great Lakes Naval Training Center, Great Lakes, Illinois, 1941-1942

DASession

1$1

DATape

1$3

DAStory

10$6

DATitle
Charles Burrell talks about his interest in music as a boy and his first exposure to the bass violin
Charles Burrell recalls the highlights of his musical career
Transcript
So when did you get interested in music?$$When I was twelve [years old]. Through one of those--as I often say, a fluke. You know, I hadn't thought about taking up an instrument or anything, but one Friday afternoon at three o'clock in the afternoon in junior high [Condon Junior High School, Detroit, Michigan], which was the seventh grade, the teacher came around whose name was Harrington. And he announced that they had a few more instruments left in the music room, and did anyone want to play with the band. Well, I--oh yeah I raised my hand, "Yeah," you know, I'm bored to tears at three o'clock Friday afternoon. And I went in there, and he looked and he said, "Oh my," he says, "Well, Charlie, all we have left is a, a big old aluminum bass," which was in the corner, a big brown, heavy alum- aluminum bass, you know. I said, "I'll take it," and my love affair grew from there. You know, I never looked back. And I did all the things, thank God, right that I had to do in terms of making, making it possible to play it, but I made the big mistake--I didn't know it then, of learn--of trying to play bass first before you played another instrument, to set your intonation and in your mind, as to notation, to hear better, because if I'd played piano like most of the affluent kids did, piano or violin, I would have been much more equipped to play the bass. But I started the hard, hard way, but I stuck with it. And little by little, I clawed up and everyday was a--like I said, everyday was Christmas, you know.$What were some of the highlights of your musical--,$$Experiences?$$--yeah, experiences here in Denver [Colorado]?$$Hmm. There were so many of them, I can't begin to relate how many of them there--but with the orchestra, I can tell you one of my most outstanding experiences was being able to play a half a program with [Benjamin] Benny Goodman. That was back in 1983. Benny Goodman--oh, maybe before that. Benny Goodman was on the stage--as a matter of fact, it was back in the '60s [1960s]. He was on stage playing the [Wolfgang Amadeus] Mozart 'A Minor Clarinet Concerto' for the first half of the program. And the second half, he decided to do by himself. I mean, you know, but he got up and started playing the second half. And as the boys say, "He was dying on the vine," you know, that puts it mildly, okay. So I was sitting back there, and I knew what he was doing. So he was playing this song, and I never will forget, it was 'Sweet Georgia Brown.' I knew that by, you know, playing years of that. So I started playing the bass in back of him, and he heard this sound back there, and he looked around. And he couldn't believe it. And he'd--yasher (ph.) is what they called it, yasher, okay. He looked back, and he waved, with his clarinet, you know. So I carried the bass all through the orchestra and (unclear), played the whole second half, Benny Goodman and me, okay. The whole second half. And that was--I have a picture of that too, but that was quite an interesting experience with me. And as I said before, of course, the most outstanding experience in my whole life was when I walked on stage in San Francisco [California] and my ambition had been since I was twelve to play under the very famous French conductor, Pierre Monteux. And my big thing out there was when he walked on stage, he was eighty-five then or eighty-six [years old]--walked on stage and to conduct, I felt that my whole life had been consummated and was all well worthwhile. I had arrived. I had been there, done that and arrived, okay. So that was the greatest moment of my life, actually. I think it took me about a week to get over that because I was so--I didn't know I was so emotional, but I was so emotional inside, you know. The people looked at me and said, "So are you all right?" I was crying for a week because I was happy, you know, because I had played under Pierre Monteux, and I had tried for forty years to get there. So that was a culmination of forty years of patience, hard work, and keeping clean, okay. And that was my biggest experience in my whole life. I've had hundreds of other experiences because the average person that I've been associated with has given me a reason, okay.$$Did you tell Pierre--$$Monteux.$$--Monteux your story?$$Oh, no. No, no. No, he didn't have time for me, little small me, but--and after, he didn't have to know it, I knew it. And that was a big thing, you know, to play under Pierre, you know. Like I said, I called my mother [Denverado Howard Burrell] back in Denver and said, "Mom, I've played under Pierre." She says, "I told you you could make it, didn't I, okay?" And I said, "Thank you, Mom," you know. But that was my great moment in my life, really, was being, being on the same stage with Pierre Monteux. And when he lifted the baton, I was just in heaven, okay, heaven. Everything to me was heavenly, okay, like a stroke from upstairs, you know. I couldn't believe it. And like I said, it took me a week to come down off that high in terms of just being able to eat and sleep because I was so emotionally attracted, you know, and satisfied with it because like I said, for years--you have no idea, you know. It took a long, long period of time to get there, eighteen years of studying, you know, ten years of playing with the Denver, the Denver Symphony [Orchestra]. Yeah, it took a little, little while there, you know. But that was all it.