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From the Land of Band Box Records

Breaking Down the Color Barrier – Denver Symphony Trailblazer

November 25, 2017
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“Charlie Brown” Burrell

The following Post inspired by my reading recently of the autobiography  “The Life of Charlie Burrell – Breaking the Color Barrier in Classical Music” by Burrell with Mitch Handelsmn, 2015.  While the book focuses more than half of it’s content on Charlies love of and journey into the world of classical music, the local jazz music scene narrative based on Denver’s Five Points neighborhood is more than enough for a great read!

Denver was the base of a rich musical history anchored in the “Five Points” community of Denver, and unfortunately for many, a history we would not experience first hand due to the cultural barriers of our time growing up in the 1950’s and 1960’s.

Charlie Burrell was born In 1920 in Toledo, Ohio and grew up in Detroit Michigan where he developed his love of music, and set his sights on becoming a classical bass musician.

Burrell came to Denver in the late 1940’s to seek employment which was nearly out-of-reach in Detroit.  Charlie had a family foundation in Denver, with many aunts, uncles and relatives living in the city, primarily in Denver’s “Five Points” neighborhood.

Five Points was primarily a segregated enclave for black residents – something that developed over the decades.  The neighborhood had first been mostly an upper middle class white area of the city in the mid 1800’s.

As more blacks migrated to the Mile High City it quickly became obvious (to no one’s surprise) that most areas of the city were unofficially but strongly ‘off limits’.  A black community began forming and consolidating into the area just northeast of Denver’s central downtown and by the 1920’s a segregated community came to pass.

Before making his way to Colorado, Burrell was well on his way to entering the dual musical worlds of both classical and jazz.

He was drafted into the armed forces during World War II serving in a segregated Navy unit and performing with an “all-star” combo which included life-long friend Clark Terry as well as other noted jazz musicians with Al Grey and others.

Burrell’s Symphonies

The San Fran Symphony

Charlie picked up the stand up bass early in his life during childhood and headed in a different direction; the classics.  This placed him in rare company – and to some degree isolated him within his Detroit environment.  But while classical music would become a major part of Burrell’s life experience – he was also drawn to jazz – switching from employing a bow – to picking the bass – a talent which would later afford him with a skill in the technique of pizzicato which he would teach to cellists.

The Denver Symphony formed in 1922 originally as the “Civic Symphony Orchestra”.  In 1934 during the Great Depression, the “Denver Symphony Orchestra” was founded – in part – to organize local musicians and provide some security in the way of guaranteed income.

The orchestra’s debut performance took place on November 30th, 1934 at the “Broadway Theater”.  Weekly performances were held in Denver’s Municipal Auditorium.  The musicians performed in one of two combinations, either the community or professional orchestras.

Charlie was selected as a “contract” player with the Symphony (which became the Colorado Symphony) in 1949 – the first black most likely to contract with a major symphony anywhere in the Nation – and where he would remain before and after a sojourn to San Francisco where he was again contracted into one of the top symphony orchestra’s in the U.S., the San Francisco Symphony.

Jazz and Charlie in Five Points

Parallel with Charlie’s symphony pursuits was his long affiliation with combos of others and his own within Denver’s Five Points community.

Image result for hi8storic five points denver

Denver’s Five Points – Way Back

Al Rose Trio & The Playboy Club

Charlie with Al Rose and Lee Arrelano trio – played at the “Playboy Club” located at Race Street and Colfax Avenue (not the later Playboy of Hugh Hefner which was located around Sherman and 17th or 18th near Downtown Denver which opened in 1967.  Was owned by Bob Wallach.

The Trio would continue into the early 1960’s with Al, Lee and Lee’s brother Andy Arrelano.

Jazz piano player Erroll Garner frequented the Playboy and would come often to the Burrell home for dinner.  Rose would eventually move to his favorite Colorado town located in the Southwest part of the State – Durango.  Upon his departure Burrell would form his own trio.

The Charles Burrell Trio at the Band Box Lounge

Upon forming the Charles Burrell Trio with piano player “Rags” Leon Ragsdale, and drummer Louie Gater.  They were often joined by vocalist Helen Stuart.  The Band Box  (located at 3100 East Colfax) had formerly been known as the “Pick-A-Rib”.  The trio would remain at the Band Box for about two years, and changed the local jazz scene when their following would be a near-balance of white and black admirers – something that was nearly non-existing in Denver at the time.

Johnny Smith (Image from "The Denver Eye")

Morey Bernstein’s Piano Lounge

Bernstein of Finer Arts

Bernstein – Piano Lounge Owner

And then he goes on to say that he (Burrell) worked with Rags at another lounge in downtown Denver called the Piano Lounge which was owned by the Finer Arts label owner Morey Bernstein – another Denver character who is very hard to locate information on.  Burrell talks about Morey’s composition of an extended piece titled “Israel, Oh Israel!” offering it to the Denver Symphony – but getting turned down.  Later on the Israel Symphony (much more renown than Denver’s symphony – would record the concert and it would be released on Morey’s own label.
They were rounded out in that trio with a drummer who also “tapped danced” named Curly Russell.

The House of Joy & the Denver Version of the Ink Spots

Cowan’s House of Joy

In another chapter Charlie talks about musicians all hanging out at the home of Jeanette Cowan (2017 Park Place) which was a “haven for jazz musicians” – Her younger brother was none other than Joel Cowan.
Then he says “He (Joel) and my (Burrell)) cousin Herman McCoy were both with a spur group of “The Ink Spots”.  They went to Japan and the Fiji Islands and so forth.  They had quite a successful little tour there for two or three years, you know”.    The Jade recording here shows that Charlie recorded with Cowan and with drummer Shelley Rhym and the Pico single illustrates that the cast of characters were often intermingled in the Denver scene – with Cowan, George Holmes, Herman McCoy and “Rags” Ragsdale all participating.
The Park Place address was referred to by the musicians as “The House of Joy”.  The house still stands to this day (shown below)

Benny Hooper’s and Lil’s

Five Points Jazz Stronghold – Ex-Servicemen’s/Benny’s in the Basement

For several Burrell played along side noted Denver jazz and be-bop drummer Shelley Rhym in Rhym’s combo which also included Charlie Sandborn on saxophone.  Burrell relates that the combo played in a venue which is little remembered today but was a major gathering place for the Five Points’ jazz musicians – Benny Hoopers located in a basement of the “Ex Servicemen’s Club” in the 2600 block of Welton Street in the heart of Five Points.

At various times the big names would play and gather at Bennys and included Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Lionel Hampton and Sarah Vaughan.

From the Denver Public Library: “The Ex-Servicemen’s club was founded by Benny Hooper who was born in Five Points on May 2, 1893. He served during World War I. Upon his return from the War, he opened the Ex-Servicemen’s Club with the pay that he had saved during his time served. During the 1930s, Hooper opened the Casino Dance Hall next door to the Ex-Serviceman’s Club.”

Lil’s After Hours Club was located at nearby 29th and Welton just down the street from Benny’s. This gathering spot is even more obscure in it’s history today than Benny’s and the Ex Servicemen’s.  The proprietor was a Frank Miller.  The club featured Rhyms and his group for about five years, during which time Charlie would often sit in with them.

Julius Watkins – Mose Allison – Cedar Walton – a few Greats Who Passed Through

Burrell relates how the entire jazz scene in Denver grew out of a huge vacancy of jazz spots between Kansas City all the way to California.  The neighborhood became a natural stop-over for the musicians and close ties were formed between the national acts and locals.  Two regular players at Lil’s were Mose Allison a white jazz musician (keyboards) and piano player Cedar Walton who was a student at The University of Denver.

Burrell recalls how engaging and friendly Allison would be within the confines of the jazz venues but aloof later on and seemed to forget about his early associations with the Denver black musicians from that time when he was starting off.

While in Denver Walton would form friendships with passing through jazz notables including John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, and Richie Powell and then would go on to jazz fame with Art Farmer, Art Blakley’s Jazz Messengers and others.  Another regular was jazz french horn player (an oddity in jazz) Julius Watkins who fled to Denver for a couple of years just to break away from the hectic New York jazz scene.

Louise Duncan

Louise Duncan – Pianist Supreme

Charlie formed a close friendship with the extraordinary piano player Louise Duncan, who did not usually perform or play in Five Points.  Her usual venue was a long-gone Lakewood, Colorado spot named “The Aviation Club”.

The location was just off Pierce Street and Colfax.  I was able to frequent the Aviation from time-to-time since my future wife’s family had a membership (this WAS NOT a country club in the vein of Cherry Hills, Denver Country Club and so on – but a comfortable place for the “little people”.  The club included a nice olympic-size pool along with a very tiny little par three golf course – probably no more than four or five holes – and finally a quaint little restaurant where Louise chose to play for a considerable length of time.

She was also booked into downtown Denver’s elite restaurant, “Strombergs” (owner Al Stromberg) in what would come to be called “Larimer Square”.  Burrell would make her acquaintance at Stromberg’s where he would dine often after a Denver Symphony performance.  He helped her obtain a considerable boost in performing fees which established their friendship.

Burrell recalls, “I got a lot of my real broad experience in terms of being a good bass player playing with her, because she wouldn’t play in the traditional keys like B-flat, E-flat and A-flat.  She’d play the blues in F-Sharp or B-Natural.  And I had to follow her, you know, it was a challenge!”

Colorado Music Hall of Fame

Charlie Burrell enters the Colorado Music Hall of Fame on November 28th, 2017 along with members of Earth, Wind and Fire and – what has to be special for Charlie – accompanied into the Hall with his niece – Dianne Reeves – who came from Detroit and grew up in Denver, graduating for Denver George Washington High School.  Dianne is an internationally renown artists who has received four Grammy awards.

Charlie and Dianne remained very close during her growing up and he was instrumental in encouraging her to move forward – often critiquing her style and approach and providing invaluable advice.  Dianne is included in Charlie’s biography contributing memories.

Charlie’s Niece – Dianne Reeves

Charlie’s biography and just chock full of tales and tidbits – so many undiscovered by Denver music historians.   The book makes me realize that only the tip of the rich local music past from Denver has been adequately presented.   Down the road, hopefully, we will gain access to the ‘hidden’ musical heritage of our city.

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