Most people celebrate their birthday with candles, a cake, and a few friends and family. But most people aren’t Charles “Charlie” Burrell.

The double bassist—who has been called the Jackie Robinson of classical music—will turn 99 on October 4. To celebrate, the Colorado Symphony is performing Tchaikovsky’s 4th Symphony in his honor.

It’s a fitting tribute as the symphony played a pivotal role in launching Burrell’s historic career. When he was 12, Burrell heard the epic piece being performed via a crystal radio—an early type of radio receiver—and “fell in love,” according to an interview he did for the San Francisco Symphony. He would go on to study classical music, master the upright bass, and become the first African American musician to have a contract with a major symphony in the United States.

While he was born in Ohio and grew up in Detroit, Michigan, Burrell moved to Denver to be with family (his mother was named Denverado) in 1949. He joined the Denver Symphony Orchestra, which would become the Colorado Symphony, that same year—and made history as the ensemble’s first African American member.

Purnell Steen, a jazz pianist and Burrell’s cousin, remembers watching that first performance from the audience as a kid. “Charlie had promised me, ‘Come to the symphony and you’ll see me play,’” Steen recalls, adding that he watched as every musician came out, but he still didn’t see Burrell. “I was so disappointed,” he says. “I started crying.” Finally, Burrell entered; he was the last musician to cross the stage, just before the conductor. “It was seminal moment in history, a seminal moment in my life, a seminal moment in Charlie’s life. He once told me, ‘It was the longest walk in my life.’”

In 1959, Burrell headed to the Bay Area to play with the San Francisco Symphony (he performed Tchaikovsky’s 4th Symphony there). He came back to Denver in 1965 and played with the Denver Symphony for three decades. A talented jazz musician as well, Burrell frequently performed at Five Points’ Rossonian and played bass with the likes of Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald.

Although Burrell retired from the Symphony in 1999, his influence is still being felt two decades later, which is part of the reason why Friday’s performance is dedicated to him. “Charlie is a beloved figure within this orchestra,” says Anthony Pierce, Colorado Symphony’s chief artistic officer. “The musicians have such respect for what the man did in his career. [He is] a beloved and exalted member of our community and has been for a long, long time.”

Pierce says the orchestra is practicing the piece and there is a lot of energy in the room already. “Everyone knows it’s Charlie’s birthday and that’s going to translate into the performance,” he says. All of which indicates that this will be a must-see concert—and that Charlie Burrell’s legacy is still being written.

The Details: Brett Mitchell will conduct the performance on Friday, October 4 at 7:30 p.m. in the Boettcher Concert Hall. Tickets are $15–$89 and can be purchased here

Natasha Gardner
Natasha Gardner
Natasha Gardner is a Denver-based writer and the former Articles Editor for 5280.