Born in Middletown, Ohio, Burrell grew fond of jazz at a young age after meeting Herb Jeffries. Burrell studied music at the University of Hawaiibefore transferring to Berklee College of Music in Boston in 1961. He worked in Boston and then settled on the Lower East Side in New York City in 1965 after graduating with a degree in musical composition. He started the Untraditional Jazz Improvisational Team with saxophonist Byard Lancaster, Sirone, and Bobby Kapp.
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