Sweet Sounds

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

May 2012

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.

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.”