Inside one of Denver’s clandestine gems, some of the country’s greatest jazz musicians have long plied their craft. People like Kenny Garrett and Curtis Fuller have graced the modest stage at Dazzle Restaurant & Lounge and performed one of America’s most celebrated art forms. In honor of the club’s 15-year anniversary, we caught up with the man behind the scenes, Dazzle owner Donald Rossa, to talk about the club’s evolution, his love of restaurants, and one of his favorite Dazzle performances.
NAME: Donald Rossa
OCCUPATION: Jazz club owner
FACTOID: In 2004, DownBeat magazine named Dazzle “one of the world’s 100 great jazz clubs.”
How did you originally get involved with Dazzle?
A restaurant guy in town put me in contact with Karen Storck and Miles Snyder, who started Dazzle in 1998. Miles had bought the restaurant for Karen because she loved to cook and entertain. It was the ultimate gift from a husband to a wife. I lived six blocks away, so I knew the area really well. Working with them was an opportunity to get into owning a restaurant.
So they were in the market to sell?
Miles and I were going to work together for my first year in 2002. And if I thought I could pull it off, we had a set price, and I would buy Dazzle. It was kind of perfect. If it didn’t work, I just walked away. Things were going well though, so I said, “OK, I’ll take it, but I want you to invest.” He gave me a two-year note, and he wanted one other thing: a permanent chair.
What interested you about restaurants?
I was one of six kids—the second oldest. Our parents both worked as beauticians; they had their own salon. Of the six kids, I was the chief bottle-washer and cook at home; I made all the meals. It was just ingrained in me. My ambition was to get into this business—to own something someday.
What was the music like at first?
We started with Friday and Saturday. We had great local people. The first act I brought in was Bob Montgomery. He’s one of the Denver icons. Once you met one musician, you met another. By the end of my first year, we were named the best jazz club in the city.
What was your vision for Dazzle?
My vision was a place that was inclusive. It had to be about my neighborhood. It had to be about all the people who were here. Inclusivity is very important to me.
How do you accomplish that?
The first way is through music. Whether that’s Grammy-nominated Donny McCaslin playing jazz-fusion or the local high school big band, creating a balance of how people want to express themselves in their music and what people want to immerse themselves in is crucial. The second way is through food. The chef
has a fun time creating the menu and the nightly specials. We have sessions where we envision how the style of food can match what is being performed.
Do any particular acts stick out from over the years?
Legendary jazz vocalist Anita O’Day. I never realized the importance of who this woman was until after she left. She came to Denver when she was in her 80s. They wheeled her in through the back. The place was packed. She was one of the first big stars we had. They propped her up at the piano, she threw back a shot, and then just started singing.