Five Points Jazz Fest Turns 20
Thousands of fans celebrate a day of fun, food, and music
Live jazz music in Denver’s Five Points district began in the 1930s when icons like Duke Ellington packed the Casino Ballroom. Around the same time, local jazz players sat in with traveling musicians for Sunday night jam sessions in a basement club often called “The Hole.” In 1958, after experiencing the vibrant neighborhood, with its restaurants, voting rights headquarters, and jazz clubs, legendary Beat poet Jack Kerouac labeled the area “Harlem of the West.”
Arturo Gómez, Music Director at KUVO-FM and one of the Five Points Jazz Festival organizers, hasn’t missed a Festival since the event’s humble beginnings in 2003. “It was held in the parking lot of the Blair Caldwell African American Library. A truck pulled into the parking lot with a platform that became the stage for the Denver Jazz Orchestra. About 400 people showed up to watch them perform on a drizzly day.”
Twenty years later, the Five Points Jazz Festival honored and celebrated the neighborhood’s rich culture with 40 bands and 200 musicians spread out over ten stages. “It was a big logistical challenge to put this together, but we had a great team,” said Sonia Rae the primary organizer for the event. “There was much behind-the-scenes work like ensuring emergency medical staff was on-site, coordinating with 100 vendors, and having enough water for everyone to stay hydrated.”
Food trucks, local crafts, artists, and community organizations had booths that lined Welton Street.
The Festival started at noon with a New Orleans-style parade featuring the Gorilla Fanfare Brass Band and two grand marshals leading the procession along Welton Street between 29th and 25th streets to the Denver Arts and Venues stage.
Over the eight-hour event, attendees witnessed explosive performances from the Colorado Mambo Orchestra, Same Cloth, Joe Smith & the Spicy Pickles, The Rajdulari Experience, the Delta Sonics, Stafford Hunter & Latin Jazz Explorations, and the MaryLynn Gillaspie Quintet.
Colorado music veteran Gillaspie was a founding member of the Grammy-nominated vocal jazz group Rare Silk, which started in Boulder. This was her second performance at the Festival, and in 2017 she played with the four-part harmony jazz vocal group The Quirktett.
Gillaspie’s set featured a stellar lineup of musicians: Eric Gunnison, Gabriel Mervine, Bill McCrossen, and Andrea Schmid. They have worked together in different configurations, and their Five Points set was an eclectic mix of swing, funk, and bossa. “I like to let the music breathe and feature the instrumentalists as much as possible within a vocal setting,” explained Gillaspie before the show.
“Denver is an amazing jazz oasis with many incredible musicians in this town. The Festival allows the community to come out and hear great music while moving around from venue to venue,” added the musician.
The Colorado Mambo Orchestra, a 13-piece band that plays Latin jazz and Cuban music, closed the festival at 6:30 p.m. The danceable ensemble was put together by pianist and arranger Raul Murciano, who moved here from Miami just before COVID, and was the founding pianist of the Miami Sound Machine.
A colorful mural on the side of a building in Five Points reads, “Our Stories, Our Legacy, Our Lives Matter,” which sums up the greater importance of the event.
Musician Parnell Steen, who played at the first festival, echoes that statement.
“Denver is completely off the international information grid regarding the arts. We’re struggling to preserve the African American footprint of history, especially the history of Five Points. Originally this was the business district of the African-American neighborhood and only three blocks wide. People have gerrymandered the boundaries all the way out to MLK and Colorado Boulevard. So, this is why this event is important to this community and the jazz community because many people don’t know its history.”
What does the Festival’s future look like? Well, Arturo Gómez would like to see a major sponsor step in. “A major sponsor would bring a national act or a big name like five-time Grammy winner Dianne Reeves or other well-known stars like tenor saxophonist Javon Jackson, who started out in Denver.”
To learn more about Five Points’ rich jazz history, visit the Blair-Caldwell African American Research Library collection in the Five Points neighborhood.
Check out more details here: https://www.artsandvenuesdenver.com/events-programs/five-points-jazz-festival
Photos and text by Steven Roby.
Steven Roby hosts the Backstage Jazz show on the TAVN Jazz radio network.