After 23 years of volunteering for City Park Jazz, Joe Lewis, the longtime coordinator of band selection for the summer Sunday shows, is stepping down after this season. Here, the 53-year-old talks about City Park, bringing people together, and the importance of Denver jazz.
I've been a fan of jazz my whole life; I grew up in Philadelphia, a city with a great jazz scene. In college at La Salle University, I was playing jazz on the radio station. Jazz just connected with me.
City Park is a hidden gem. It's underused compared to parks like Cheesman and Washington, even though it's huge. It's an escape and oasis: You're close to a densely populated area, but you can feel so far away from the hustle. The jazz has been instrumental in getting the park recognized and adding to its legitimacy.
The vast majority of our audience lives within a few miles of the park, but they might not have taken advantage of the park before or interacted with the people in the surrounding neighborhoods. There are barriers blocking the interaction—Colfax can be a dividing line, as well as York and 17th—but the park is a great setting for everyone to come together.
When we started the concert series, people wanted to change the perception of City Park. In the 1980s, the park had a negative reputation as a gang hangout, and the idea was that negative perception would be offset by a family event, like jazz concerts.
Since the gang fight in 2007, we have increased our security—we've hired more off-duty policemen. Fortunately, there haven't been any repeat incidents. We're not going out of our way to exclude anyone from the concerts; we trust the police have a handle on it.
Denver is still perceived by many people on both coasts as a cow town—they just assume that if we have any music it's country western. But Denver has such a great jazz community.
We're flooded by musicians wanting to play at City Park Jazz. I have close to 100 bands on my list that have approached us or already played with us. The depth and talent is remarkable. We could go 10 years and not repeat a band!
In the beginning, I think bands saw it as a favor to us to play at our venue, but now it's a feather in their cap to play at City Park Jazz. Our wide audience is unmatched.
Nine or 10 years ago, the Allen Frederickson Jazz Ensemble was playing one of our shows. During their second song, the skies just opened up raining. Everyone was drenched and swarmed into the pavilion in the park. One by one, the musicians set up and started playing. It was really intimate, and even though the crowd was soaked they loved it.
I love getting up on stage at the beginning of the show and looking out and seeing people from all walks of life gathering and enjoying themselves. People who might not convene under any other setting are out there relating to one another.
I'm getting a little older now, and I'm ready to pass the torch on to some of the younger blood in the group. I'll still be volunteering, but not as involved. I'm looking forward to being out in the audience and just enjoying the show.