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Historic symphony musician Charles Burrell turns 102

Posted at 1:46 PM, Oct 17, 2022

A hundred years ago, you would not have seen a person of color in a symphonic orchestra. Charles Burrell, who just turned 102 in October, is responsible for changing that.

Burrell is the first Black American musician worldwide to be hired under contract by a symphonic orchestra.

On his birthday, he attracted a full-house audience at Dazzle Jazz Club in downtown Denver.

"I didn't think I would make it past 20," Burrell said.

Burrell says he doesn't know how his passion for music started. It's always been a part of him.

"I wish I could say and name it, but I can't," Burrell said. "It's just overwhelming."

From a young age, he fell in love with classical music. He first performed in Denver and then in San Francisco. He's been an inspiration for many, including jazz pianist Purnell Steen, who saw Burrell perform 73 years ago at his debut concert.

"To see him step across that stage really impressed me," Steen said. "And the response that 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 the non-Black community. In the Black community, many people were jealous and they thought that he had sold out his heritage."

Burrell says he just focused on his love for 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've been told that he was like a great bass player," Lincoln Burrell said. "I've never heard any of these songs because my dad told me, like back in, like cameras weren't invented yet, so, like, they couldn't take any videos."

He goes to a performing arts school that was named after Burrell.

"Like everybody is just like, 'Oh, my Gosh. 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 thankful to be so close to a man who he says served as a role model.

"He's the lone eagle because eagles are solitary, eagles soar to great heights, and they leave others in their wake," Steen said. "And that's what Charles Burrell did."

"I hope that the world will get together and get to be happier, not angry," Burrell said.