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Sweet Sounds

A talented crop of local musicians—and a little bit of activism—keeps Denver’s legendary jazz scene alive and swinging.

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The unmistakable sounds of jazz pierce the sweltering late-summer air. In one smoky club, saxophonists Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young trade riffs with trumpeter Buck Clayton in between breathy verses sung by Helen Humes, while the great Count Basie holds court in the lounge. Across the street, Duke Ellington revs up his legendary orchestra. Down the block, Nat King Cole and Dinah Washington croon their silky melodies while Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie tune up backstage.

This isn’t Greenwich Village, or New Orleans’ Storyville, or Kansas City’s 18th and Vine district. It’s Denver, circa 1952, when local jazz clubs boomed: the Rossonian Hotel, the Casino Cabaret, Benny Hooper’s. Those venues and others played host to many of the genre’s biggest names as Denver established itself as a bebop oasis between the Mississippi River and the West Coast.

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The Five Points neighborhood in particular became both epicenter and training ground for jazz musicians after World War II. This emerging genre lured musicians and fans of all races, including the white hipsters—then known as “Beats”—who landed in Denver hungry for this frenetic and entrancing new sound. “At lilac evening I walked with every muscle aching among the lights of 27th and Welton in the Denver colored section, wishing I were a Negro, feeling that the best the white world had offered was not enough ecstasy for me, not enough life, joy, kicks, darkness, music, not enough night,” wrote Jack Kerouac in On the Road.

Back then, jazz royalty like Louis Armstrong and Lionel Hampton stayed and played at the Rossonian Hotel at 2650 Welton Street because white hotels would not accommodate them. After their gigs for white audiences at venues such as the Rainbow Ballroom at Fifth and Lincoln ended, the party continued at the Rossonian, late into the night.

Although the hotel still stands, today its ground-floor windows are papered over, awaiting a slow-moving redevelopment plan. The Rossonian has reportedly been slated for renovation for at least a year, but officials at Civil Technologies, which is leading the proposed project, declined to comment on its timetable. Even so, efforts are under way to ensure that Denver’s jazz scene doesn’t fade. In fact, thanks to a combination of education, devoted broadcasters, and ongoing restoration plans, the current Denver jazz climate is, in the parlance of the genre, pretty jumping. “When I got here, my friends said, ‘Colorado? You moved to Colorado?!’ ” says award-winning jazz singer René Marie. “But there is a very strong, healthy jazz scene here.”

On Saturday, May 19, the Five Points Jazz Festival will celebrate its ninth anniversary on the Welton Street corridor between 26th and 29th streets. From a single concert in one small venue in 2004, the festival has relied upon the support of local businesses, entertainers, and civic leaders to help swell the attendance to more than 10,000 last year. The event has become so successful that Niecie Washington, events coordinator for Arts & Venues Denver, which manages the festival, says the plan is to expand it to two days as early as next year.

Credit for nurturing Denver jazz through a long fallow period goes to a handful of devotees, most notably public radio station jazz89 KUVO-FM. The station features an eclectic mix of jazz, blues, Latin music, gospel, and R&B, and after 26 years on the air, it has been recognized by JazzWeek, an online chronicler of the genre, as one of the top five jazz radio stations in the country. It also offers opportunities to the region’s highly regarded high school and college jazz programs. (The University of Northern Colorado’s Jazz Studies program, for one, has received more than 100 Student Music Awards from DownBeat magazine, the Rolling Stone of jazz.) KUVO frequently airs live concerts from these school ensembles at the station’s performance studio.

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Meanwhile, at least a few noteworthy jazz artists call Denver home. Four-time Grammy winner Dianne Reeves lives in Park Hill, near her family. Longtime Denver resident Ron Miles plays and records here, and he also teaches at Metropolitan State College, which offers him a flexible schedule for touring and out-of-town projects. “Teaching at the school is great,” he told me in 2001. “I can go play whenever I need to; the school has never denied me the chance to go out on the road.”
Many of Denver’s jazz professionals landed here via serendipity; once they realized the advantages of life in the Mile High City, they never left. Bassist Mark Diamond arrived after hitchhiking across the country. Saxophonist Laura Newman was heading to California when she ran out of money. Hazel Miller was also driving west when her rental truck broke down here. And René Marie had a friend with a property in town that just wouldn’t rent.

They cite the same factors that draw most transplants to the Front Range: the reasonable cost of living, the friendly and supportive atmosphere, and the region’s beauty. The result of these happy accidents is that a substantial core of talented, dedicated jazz players are making Denver an active promoter of perhaps the greatest American art form. “There are world-class jazz musicians here,” says Newman, who owns Herb’s at 2057 Larimer Street and has lived here since the late 1970s. “The level of playing is extremely high.”

You can hear the pros at Dazzle, Donald Rossa’s restaurant and lounge at 930 Lincoln Street, which maintains its nightly performance calendar because of the city’s strong local lineup. “I have never seen anything like this—everyone is so open and friendly,” says guitarist Kevin Lee. “That’s the number one comment visiting artists make: How great and appreciative the crowds are, and how supportive the club’s staff is.”

Dr. Fred Hess, saxophonist and director of music composition at Metro State, has been playing for 55 years, 30 of them in Colorado. His new big-band album, Into the Open, gathered 18 of the town’s top talents. “We always thought we’d have to go to New York and L.A. to record this, but there are enough guys in this town with the chops to make a great recording,” Hess says.

Denver even has its own three-generation mini-dynasty of jazz musicians in the Romaine family: Paul, the co-founder and artistic director of the Colorado Conservatory for the Jazz Arts, is the son of saxophonist James Romaine and the father of jazz vocalist Erienne Romaine, who has released two albums. “All the pieces are here [for a jazz revival],” Paul says. “There is no lack of creativity and artistry and resources.”

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Indeed, on an unseasonably warm Tuesday night in February, Dazzle is packed with musicians and jazz lovers, all there for an informal, late-night jam session. Patrons crowd the banquettes, the tables, and the bar. The stage sits at an oblique angle at the end of the long, dark room, decked out in black and russet. Onstage, musicians shift about, confer, take their places in the spotlight, and make room for others. Regulars greet each other with high-fives and warm embraces, catching up on the latest news, before the combo finally swings into “Someday My Prince Will Come.” Alluring waitresses dispense dry martinis, shaking them up tableside to the rhythm of the beat as, once again, music spills out into the night air.

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