Sax Legend Big Joe Burrell of Unknown Blues Band Dies

Big Joe Burrell, the gregarious saxophone player who towered over Burlington’s music scene for three decades, died Wednesday morning from complications following abdominal surgery. He was 80.

Burrell learned from Count Basie and B.B. King and passed his knowledge on to a new generation of musicians including Trey Anastasio of Phish. His sweet sax drifted into the ears of untold thousands across the world, across the country and across Vermont after the Michigan native arrived in Burlington in 1976. His reach went as far as blues festivals in Europe and as close to home as Halvorson’s Upstreet Cafe on Church Street, where he played every Thursday.

He was an imposing physical presence, but with his cherubic face, large spectacles and larger smile, he was a friendly presence, too, quick to support any charity event in town.

Burrell was big in name, big in size and big in reputation. If the Burlington music scene had a patriarch, a Jedi jazz master, it was Big Joe Burrell.

“He fell in love with Burlington a few years ago, and Burlington fell in love with him, and we were really blessed to have him in our community,” said Chuck Eller of Charlotte, who played for years with Burrell in the Unknown Blues Band.

Burrell entered Fletcher Allen Health Care last month for abdominal surgery and developed respiratory problems. He died about 2:30 a.m. Wednesday, a week shy of his 81st birthday. Burrell, who will be cremated, didn’t want a funeral; Eller said he is organizing a musical tribute likely to take place in May on a Thursday night – “the Big Joe day of the week.”


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