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