Talking Points

Ever wish you could ask the mayor about urban development, or a battalion chief about fighting the Waldo Canyon fire, or a Nobel Prize winner about the nature of reality? In our first-ever Interview Issue, we asked 18 of the city’s brightest, most outspoken leaders and personalities those questions, and many more. Turn the page to hear them speak out—in their own words.
January 2013

Charles Burrell photo

Charles Burrell

The 92-year-old bassist, who was one of the first African-Americans to play in any American symphony orchestra, still delights in telling story after story about his extraordinary life. Interview by Luc Hatlestad

How were you introduced to music?

My whole life has been a fluke; I didn’t plan anything. One day, growing up in Detroit, the band teacher at my junior high school said they had some instruments left and asked if anyone wanted to play. Lo and behold, there was an old aluminum bass in the corner. You couldn’t wreck it. I took lessons right away. My mom told me, “If you want to be a musician, you have to do it right.” I was only 12 years old, but I paid my own way, 25 cents a lesson. I carried the bass in a little red wagon all through junior high because I couldn’t carry it by myself. 

Where did you find the money for that?

Selling rags, bottles, just hustling. I did errands for people, anything that had to be done. Plus, I had a little secret: We lived near the railroad tracks, and when the train would slow down, my younger brother and I—he’s only 90 now—would climb up on it and throw off coal, then pick it up and sell it. 

What was it about music that caught your attention at such a young age?

I’d won an old crystal set radio by selling candy, and I was playing it when I heard something that struck my fancy. I didn’t know then that it was the San Francisco Symphony, conducted by the marvelous Pierre Monteux, but that’s what hooked me. It was Tchaikovsky’s Fourth, and I said to myself, “One day I’d like to play for that man.”

Did you have any idea what an uphill climb that would be?

Oh, no. But my mother said, “Son, you can do anything you want to do, but just make sure you give to it every day.” And that’s what I did for the next 20 years. I stuck with it until I learned how to play jazz, which is what helped me in the classical world, because I was making money and putting beans on the table. There were no blacks in the symphony then, or working at the radio stations. But that didn’t bother me. I just practiced and practiced. 

How did you land in Denver?

Around 1949, I came because my mother had been born here, and I’d always wanted to visit. I got a job at Fitzsimons Hospital, pushing bedpans. I met a fellow, John VanBuskirk, on a trolley car. He had a long case that I recognized as a bow case, so I struck up a conversation. I started studying with him, and he asked me if I’d like to play with the local symphony. Biggest shock in the world, but I said I’d do it. He arranged for me to have an audition with Saul Caston, who was one of the first white men to help break the color barriers in orchestras. It was a two-hour audition, but he talked to me for one hour and 55 minutes, and then told me to play a G scale slowly, two octaves. Took me five minutes. That was it. He said, “I can use you.” Scared the living shit out of me. I wasn’t ready, but he took a chance on me.

So for the hour and 55 minutes he was talking about music?

Life. He was psyching me out, but I know all about that; I’m from the ghetto. I spent 10 years with the symphony, from 1949 to ’59, and for a while I played in the first mixed-race jazz trio in Colorado. One of the musicians was Al Rose, whose niece is Diana DeGette.

You were playing clubs around town?

Clubs my ass, baby. These were joints

How did you end up in San Francisco?

I went to L.A. to study with a famous teacher, Herman Reinshagen. For an audition, he gave me a song, “Old Black Joe.” Does that tell you something? The San Francisco Symphony came down there every summer for a few weeks, and when I was there, Arthur Fiedler had also come as a guest conductor. They were short a bassist—I later learned it was because no one wanted to play with him because he was such an asshole. They asked me to do the summer season with Fiedler. After that, they invited me up to San Francisco. After one or two years with the symphony, they announced that the Pierre Monteux was going to be a guest conductor. I had the pleasure of playing under him for about a week, and I said to my mother, “Mom, my life is complete.” I’d spent so many years trying to get to that mark, and it was the culmination of my ambition.