The Story Of Charles Burrell

Charles Burrell Was The First Black Musician To Be Hired Under Contract By A Symphonic Orchestra

Pioneering Black Musician Charles Burrell

At 103 years old, Charles Burrell has lived an extraordinary life, breaking racial barriers in the music world. In 1949, at age 26, Burrell made history as the first Black musician to be hired under contract by a major American symphony orchestra, the Denver Symphony Orchestra (now the Colorado Symphony Orchestra).

As Burrell recounted on his 102nd birthday, performing with the orchestra amidst racism was like “walking a tightrope.” Yet his passion for music powered him through. “I wish I could name it, but I can’t,” he said. “It’s just overwhelming.”

Charles Burrell’s Legacy As Role Model and Inspiration

Burrell’s daring achievement opened doors for generations of Black classical musicians. The centenarian has many admirers, including his own great-grandson and fellow musicians like jazz pianist Purnell Steen.

Steen witnessed Burrell’s historic 1949 symphony debut firsthand at age 8. “To see him step across that stage really impressed me,” Steen recalled. “He served as a role model.”

Though Burrell downplays his influence, his greatness speaks for itself. As Steen puts it, “He’s the lone eagle…He soars to great heights, and leaves others in his wake.”

Local Legends Carry On Charles Burrell’s Musical Legacy

Burrell’s Colorado legacy lives on through other musical luminaries. His own family boasts renowned singer Dianne Reeves and Steen himself, whose career highlights include playing for Martin Luther King Jr.

Famed blues musician Otis Taylor also shares Burrell’s pioneering spirit. After finding success abroad, Taylor returned home to Colorado. Here he not only performs nationally acclaimed “trance blues,” but also mentors up-and-coming musicians.

Likewise, Denver native Sheryl McCallum has enjoyed a versatile career spanning blues, gospel and theater. After years on Broadway and TV, McCallum now stars in an original musical about rhythm and blues artist Ruth Brown.

At 103, Charles Burrell Remains Humble Musical Inspiration

Despite his world-changing career, Burrell stays humble, offering simple advice to carry on his legacy: “Just do the things you’re supposed to do…and respect other people.”

After a century spreading inspiration through his music, all Burrell hopes for is a happier world with less anger. If we follow in this quiet pioneer’s footsteps, not only pursuing our passions, but doing so with respect and care for others, we’ll be one step closer.