Historic symphonic musician Charles Burrell turns 102

A hundred years ago you wouldn’t have seen a person of color in a symphony orchestra. Charles Burrell, who just turned 102 in October, is charged with changing that.

Burrell is the first black American musician in the world to be hired under contract by a symphony orchestra.

On his birthday, he drew a packed audience to the Dazzle Jazz Club in downtown Denver.

“I didn’t think I would get past 20,” Burrell said.

Burrell says he doesn’t know how his passion for music started. It has always been part of him.

“I wish I could say it and name it, but I can’t,” Burrell said. “It’s just overwhelming.”

From an early age, he fell in love with classical music. He performed first in Denver and then in San Francisco. He was an inspiration to many, including jazz pianist Purnell Steen, who saw Burrell perform 73 years ago in his first gig.

“Seeing him take that step really impressed me,” Steen said. “And the response he received was very unpleasant and I was emotionally conflicted because I didn’t know what he had done wrong. He had to walk a tightrope because he knew that there were people who looked down on him from both communities, from the black community and the non-black community.In the black community, a lot of people were jealous and they thought he had sold his heritage.

Burrell says he focused on his love for music.

“Just do the things you’re supposed to do, you know? said Burrell. “And don’t be silly with what you do. You know, respect other people.”

Seven-year-old Lincoln Burrell is her great-grandson.

“I was told he was like a great bassist,” Lincoln Burrell said. “I never heard any of those songs because my dad told me, like back then, cameras hadn’t been invented yet, so, like, they couldn’t take videos.”

He goes to a performing arts school named after Burrell.

“Like everyone is like, ‘Oh, my God. 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 grateful to be so close to a man he says has served as a role model.

“He is the lone eagle because eagles are lonely, eagles soar to great heights and leave others in their wake,” Steen said. “And that’s what Charles Burrell did.”

“I hope the world will come together and be happier, not angry,” Burrell said.