“There weren’t any racial problems at all. We just had individual kid problems.” Purnell Steen’s memories of his childhood in Denver are as vivid today as they were in the 1940s. Years before he became a renowned jazz pianist, Steen found his passion for music while growing up in a multiracial neighborhood in the Mile High City.
“I started studying music at the age of 4. I wanted to be a concert pianist,” Steen recalls. “And then when my cousin, Charles Burrell, came to Denver to desegregate the Denver Symphony in 1949, then the deal was sealed. I knew that I wanted a career path in music in some kind of way.”
For Steen, who was so captivated by his love of music, it wasn’t until high school when he began to experience his “great cathartic awakening.”
“My cousins went to such exotically named schools such as Booker T. Washington, Phillis Wheatley, and I said, ‘Who are these people?’,” Steen recollected. He recognized that his early education prevented him from attaining an understanding of — and an appreciation for — his Black American heritage.
After auditioning to attend The Juilliard School, Steen was waitlisted and ultimately denied — he recalls four Black students nationally would be admitted that year. Steen instead enrolled at a nearby university to study piano but soon found that faculty would not support his career aspirations.
“Negroes don’t perform classical music,” the Dean of the College of Music declared. Steen tried in vain to convince the Dean that Black Americans excel in all forms of musical performance — citing his cousin’s trailblazing career.
“They let him in and there’ll never be another,” the Dean retorted. Steen realized he would not be supported as a music major and ultimately chose to major in history.
Undeterred, Steen felt compelled to address discrimination in higher education. In the early 1960s, he became a member of the NAACP National Board of Youth and leader of the Boulder, Colo., branch of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE).
Steen’s leadership roles thrust him into a series of nonviolent protests, including a “sympathy demonstration” at Woolworth’s in downtown Denver, and the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in August 1963. Steen was starting to break in his marching shoes.
With every fiber in my body, I will continue to do what I can. [I will] make sure that freedom for all people is a reality in the United States.
In 1963, the university hired a new president who approved segregated university-endorsed housing. In response, Steen led a group of students to stage a sit-in demonstration outside of the president’s office.
As Steen recalled, “[The president] wouldn’t give an inch and we weren’t about to either.”
Steen continued his activism as he and fellow student lobbyists were sent to Washington, D.C., to attend the weeklong First Student Leadership Conference on Religion and Race on behalf of the NAACP. There he met Mississippi native Dee Benson, who published a campus newspaper exposing the horrors of racial violence and injustice in Mississippi. For his act of journalism, Benson’s life was threatened.
Steen, captivated by Benson’s story, accompanied Benson to the Department of Justice Building in Washington, D.C., to seek help of Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy.
Energized by his audience with Kennedy, and encouraged by his successful advocacy on the part of Benson, Steen’s involvement with the movement deepened. He continued his activism throughout the height of the civil rights movement in the 1960s to open doors for students that walked in his footsteps.
As he pursued a career in music, Steen would ultimately defy the Dean of Music’s low expectations. His success as a musician has been marked by numerous pinnacles, from performing at NATO headquarters for the Supreme Allied Commander Europe, to sharing his love of music through his band, Purnell Steen and Le Jazz Machine.
“I wrestled with God wanting to know why I was put on this earth and what my mission on this earth is, and somebody finally said it’s your gift of music. And the joy of music that you bring to people’s lives.”
Comcast NBCUniversal’s Voices of the Civil Rights Movement platform honors the legacy and impact of America’s civil rights champions. Watch Purnell Steen’s interview, and more than 18 hours of firsthand accounts and historical moments, online and on Xfinity On Demand