Told He’d Never Get A Job As A Black Music Teacher, Charles Burrell Became A Renowned Classical Bassist Instead – Colorado Public Radio

CPR Classical’s Ray White interviewed Burrell in February 2020. Listen here.

When Charles “Charlie” Burrell, who grew up in 1920s and 30s Detroit, was in seventh grade, his music teacher walked into the classroom and asked if anyone wanted to join the orchestra. Burrell took the last instrument left in the storage locker: a gigantic string bass.

Burrell later heard the San Francisco Symphony play Tchaikovsky’s 4th Symphony on the radio. He was hooked and it became his goal to someday play under that orchestra’s director, Pierre Monteux. So Burrell began a diligent practice schedule, mixing both classical and jazz music into his studies.

Burrell wanted to be a music teacher. That goal was interrupted by World War II. He enlisted in the U.S. Navy and was stationed at the Great Lakes Naval Base in Chicago. There, he played in an all-black big band with greats such as trumpeter Clark Terry and trombonist Al Grey. He also took advantage of the nearby Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Northwestern University to continue mastering classical bass.

Screenshot from
Charlie Burrell in his Navy uniform. Photo is property of Charles Burrell.

After the war, Burrell went home to Detroit and attended Wayne State University on the GI Bill so he could continue his music education.

But he was told he would never find work as a Black music teacher.

He decided to leave college. Burrell’s mother