[Congressional Record Volume 157, Number 22 (Friday, February 11, 2011)]
[Extensions of Remarks]
[Pages E211-E212]
From the Congressional Record Online through the Government Publishing Office [www.gpo.gov]

                     TRIBUTE TO MR. CHARLIE BURRELL


                           HON. DIANA DeGETTE

                              of colorado

                    in the house of representatives

                       Friday, February 11, 2011

  Ms. DeGETTE. Mr. Speaker, I rise today to honor the extraordinary 
life and exceptional accomplishments of Mr. Charlie Burrell, known 
internationally as ``the Jackie Robinson of classical music'' and the 
``titan of the classical and jazz bass,'' on the occasion of the 
celebration of his 90th birthday.
  Charlie was born in Toledo, Ohio, in 1922, and raised in Detroit, 
Michigan. An acclaimed contrabass player, he was one of the first 
African-American musicians to break the color barrier of a major U.S. 
symphony. Honored by the Alphonse Robinson African-American Music 
Association for his invaluable contributions, he has received accolades 
from his colleagues for having opened the door for other African-
American musicians by demonstrating that they did not have to be 
relegated to stereotypical musical styles.
  Charlie began the pursuit of a musical career at an early age at the 
encouragement of his mother. A chance hearing of a performance of the 
San Francisco Symphony led to his desire to become the first African-
American musician to perform with the company--a dream he would realize 
twenty-eight years later.
  Although a dedicated student of classical music, Charlie and his 
friends embraced jazz music and practiced it whenever possible. At 
seventeen, Charlie was even asked to join the Lionel Hampton Big Band, 
affording him the opportunity to travel the country with some of the 
jazz greats of the time. Upon graduation from Cass Technical High 
School in Detroit, then one of the most prestigious music schools in 
the nation, Charlie saw his classmates move directly into professional 
symphonies, while he was unable to because of the color of his skin. 
But that never deterred his resolve to play.
  In 1941, he attended the New England Conservatory of Music and then 
joined the Navy where he was stationed at the Great Lakes Naval Base 
outside Chicago. There, he was selected to join the first-ever all-
Black Navy band, a recruiting device the Navy developed to encourage 
African-American enlistment. Following his honorable discharge from the 
Navy, he attended Wayne State University with an eye towards teaching 
music in the public schools. At the time of his graduation, he once 
again faced the challenge of discrimination when was told by the 
administrator of music for the Detroit School System there would be no 
African-American music teachers in their schools.
  But Charlie continued to pursue his dreams. After he was turned down 
for auditions with four different companies, he moved to Denver, 
Colorado, where he worked at Fitzsimons Army Hospital and enrolled in 
the University of Denver to earn his teaching certificate. He later 
taught for the Denver Public Schools. A chance meeting with John 
VanBuskirk, the lead bass player with the Denver Symphony, led to an 
audition with the company. Charlie broke through the color barrier of 
the time to become the first African-American musician to join the 
Denver Symphony Orchestra.
  And in 1959, realizing his childhood dream, Charlie Burrell went on 
to become the first African-American musician to ever play in the San 
Francisco Symphony. During his five-and-a-half year stay in San 
Francisco, he also became the first African-American to play with the 
San Francisco Opera and the San Francisco Ballet orchestras, and the 
first African-American professor at the San Francisco Conservatory of 
  Upon arriving back in Denver, he was hired again by the Denver 
Symphony Orchestra where he performed for more than thirty years. 
Whenever top jazz musicians performed in Denver, Charlie was often 
called on to play with them.
  During his lifetime Charlie has mentored and performed with many 
musicians. He has played with nearly all of the great names in the jazz 
world: jazz bass great Milt Hinton; jazz stride pianist Fats Waller; 
Lionel Hampton; jazz trumpeter Clark Terry; bassist Major Holley; and 
jazz trombonist Al Grey. One of his favorite vocalists was the late 
Billie Holliday. He is especially proud of his cousin, the renowned 
pianist George Duke, and his two-time Grammy award-winning niece, jazz 
vocalist Dianne Reeves, both of whom he taught and mentored.
  On a personal note, Charlie played bass in a jazz trio founded by my 
uncle Al Rose. The Al Rose Trio became the first racially integrated 
jazz group in Denver, and when my uncle passed, Charlie asked me if he 
could be my Honorary Uncle--which he is to this day.
  Retired from the Denver Symphony Orchestra since 1999, Charlie 
continues to be an active member of the community, on occasion playing 
his bass with his Cousin Purnell Steen's swing quartet. A comment he 
made during a PBS ``Special Jazz in Five Points'' broadcast best sums 
up his life, ``Music is my great love affair, and, in fact, it is my 
first, and always has been, my first.''
  Charlie has been and continues to be an inspiration to musicians 
young and old all across our country, but we in Denver are incredibly 
blessed and proud to call him one of our own. I join all my 
constituents in wishing Charlie a very happy birthday and 
congratulating him for his lifetime of achievement.

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