Vermont Black History Month

“Big Joe” Burrell, iconic saxophone player

Republished from Vermont History, Vermont Historical Society

“Big Joe” Burrell was an iconic fixture in the Burlington music scene from the late 1970s to his death in 2005. He inspired an entire generation of Vermont musicians, received two keys to the city of Burlington, and is memorialized by a life-sized statue on the Church Street Marketplace.

One of seven children, “Big Joe” Burrell spent his early years in his hometown of Port Huron, Michigan, surrounded by his musical family. At age 10, his mother borrowed $5 to buy him a saxophone which he taught himself to play. When he reached his teens he dropped out of high school to focus exclusively on music.

In 1943 he joined the army and played in the military show band. He saw service in Africa, Italy, and the Philippines. Later in life he remarked on the overt racism he experience while serving in the U.S. Army. After a two year struggle with tuberculosis that ended his military career, he moved to Toledo, Ohio, and formed the Red Tops Organ Trio.

At a gig in Akron, he met B.B. King and was invited to join the legendary guitarist’s band. Burrell spent two years with King before joining Count Basie’s Orchestra and then as a musician with the Miller Sisters. From the late 1960s to 1970s Burrell lived in Toronto where he played in Big John Little’s jazz band. On his way to New York in 1976 he stopped in Burlington where his nephew taught at UVM and fell in love with the city and its music scene. He decided to stay.

For the next three decades Big Joe became a fixture in the Burlington music scene. He formed the Unknown Blues Band and performed in clubs and festivals throughout New England. Their regular gig at Hunt’s Club drew standing-room-only audiences and resulted in the album “Live at Hunt’s.” After Hunt’s closed, Big Joe played a gig every Thursday night at Halvorson’s Upstreet Cafe until his death in 2005.

Big Joe received two keys to the City of Burlington and is honored by the Discover Jazz Festival with the annual Big Joe Burrell Day. In 2010, a life-sized statue of Big Joe by Burlington sculptor Chris Sharp was unveiled on the Church Marketplace.

2 replies »

  1. Loved going to those shows at Halvorson’s – Loved Unknown Blues Band – Loved Joe Burrell!

  2. Heard him playing one snowy winter night on an empty upper Church St. Classic surreal moment in time when he was there just for me but playing like he was in front of thousands.

    I can still hear his sax echoing down the street.

    Great man, doing great work.

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