The Jackie Robinson of classical music, Charles Burrell, just completed 102 trips around the sun!
Whether it’s a guitar, bass, violin, or another instrument, we’ve covered a plethora of talented Black instrumentalists. Ifetayo Ali-Landing was only 14 years old when she won the National Music Competition for playing the cello while Julius P. Williams became the first Black president of the Conductors Guild. We’ve also covered The Gateways Music Festival Orchestra, who made history as the first all-Black orchestra to feature at Carnegie Hall!
Charles Burrell is the first Black musician worldwide to be hired under contract by a symphonic orchestra. From a young age he’s had a passion for music; he says he doesn’t know how it started, but he knows it has always been a part of him. We reported on his 100th birthday back in 2020, full of family and friends who came together to celebrate his centennial milestone; we’re happy to still be celebrating his journeys around the sun two years later! On his special day, he made his way to Charles Burrell Visual & Performing Arts Campus, a school that's been renamed in his honor. To his surprise, many students were there to greet him and sing happy birthday. “I’m gonna cry,” Burrell stated as he watched them hold birthday banners and wear shirts with his name on them.
Burrell told WMAR 2 News "I didn't think I would make it past 20.” 82 years later, with his 7-year-old great-grandson Lincoln Burrell able to experience life with him, is nothing short of a blessing. "I've been told that he was like a great bass player," his grandson said. "I've never heard any of these songs because my dad told me cameras weren't invented yet, so, like, they couldn't take any videos." The young boy currently attends a performing arts school named after his grandfather. “Everybody is just like, 'Oh, my Gosh. You're Charles' great-grandson! Oh, my God!'” he told reporters.
Despite the trials Mr. Burrell faced as a musician, he has been an inspiration. Other musicians, such as jazz pianist Purnell Steen, who saw him play 73 years ago at his debut concert, often talk about how impressive Charles Burrell was.
Steen says, "He had to walk a tightrope because he knew there were people who despised him from both communities, from the Black community and the non-Black community. In the Black community, many people were jealous, and they thought that he had sold out his heritage."
Burrell says he didn’t let it deter him. “Just do the things you’re supposed to do, you know?” His one birthday wish is that the world will get together and be happier.
Happy birthday, Mr. Burrell!
Photo: Denver7/Kim Huynh/Charles Burrell