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If you've been to an avant-garde jazz show in Denver during the past decade, you've probably seen Alex Lemski, the president and driving force behind Denver's Creative Music Works, which celebrates its tenth anniversary this year. Tall, gangly and intense, with a scraggly beard and a pate partially covered by thinning hair, he has the look of an Old Testament prophet in the midst of an impassioned jeremiad. Some people are discomfited by his obsessive dedication to freeform sounds, and their reactions are understandable: Lemski's single-mindedness and purity of purpose can be a bit unsettling at times. But there's no question that the very characteristics that make him something of an eccentric have kept him going when the average individual would have raised the white flag. And any Colorado fan of music that strives to bust through boundaries owes him a debt of gratitude.
Born in New York City, Lemski listened to the classical music and opera that his parents played around the house but found himself more diverted by the rock and roll that flourished during his Fifties-era adolescence. "But at an early age, I turned from Top 40 toward the less popular, perhaps more creative kinds of music," he says. This process accelerated after he joined the Air Force in 1961, when he was seventeen. He was stationed in England, and since he didn't bring any of his records with him, he was put in the position of listening to the discs of fellow GIs. "Some of them were fans of classic jazz and bossa nova--and those were the ones that really got my attention. Later I bought a few copies of Downbeat and began taking chances on some records: Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Art Blakey, Horace Silver, Wayne Shorter, Lee Morgan and John Coltrane, whose music had an immense emotional impact on me that I didn't really begin to understand until years later."
Lemski returned to New York City after leaving the armed services in 1965, but he subsequently found himself drawn toward the American West. He spent time in South Dakota and Utah before moving to Denver in the late Seventies. At first he despaired of finding anyone in the city with tastes in jazz similar to his own. But a couple of years later he met saxophonist Fred Hess, among the most talented and forward-looking artists in the region, and discovered a handful of other players interested in exploring the outer reaches of jazz. Lemski actively began trying to bring these musicians to the public's attention in 1987: "Fred and I went down to Gallery Bwana [formerly on the 1800 block of Blake] and asked the curator, Chris Culhane, if we could put on some shows. And he said, 'Yeah, man, let's get it on.' So we booked Fred and some others there on Sunday nights, charged a couple of bucks and heard some great music."
Word of mouth about these dates began circulating among jazz artists outside Colorado: Before long, Lemski was promoting shows by visiting performers like Philadelphia's Jack Wright (now a local resident) and Austin's Tina Marsh. In the years since then, Creative Music Works has introduced area listeners to the joyous, challenging sounds of David S. Ware, Joseph Jarman, Andrew Cyrille, Anthony Braxton, John Carter and many other virtuosos who likely wouldn't have bothered to stop in Denver were it not for Lemski's persistence and devotion.
Of course, bigger concerts required a bigger investment--and therein lay the rub. Lemski incorporated Creative Music Works in 1989, obtaining for the organization tax-exempt status, and has spent nearly as much of his time since then trying to establish funding as he has in staging programs. He's received grants and the like from a variety of operations, including the Scientific and Cultural Facilities District, the Western States Arts Federation (WESTAF), the National Endowment for the Arts, the Denver Foundation and the John G. Duncan Charitable Trust, and there is a small but growing number of CMW members who pay dues to support his work. Thanks to these monies, Lemski has been able to branch out beyond concerts to sponsor jazz classes and seminars at various public schools throughout the area. But keeping the financial flow going is a continuing struggle. "Jazz is very strange to a lot of foundations," says Lemski, who works as a youth counselor when not wearing his Creative Music Works hat. "Some years we get something from them, other years we don't. But we're still knocking on doors."
And his mission keeps going forward. On Sunday, January 19, Creative Music Works presents Lynn Baker with WOYKS, a combo that also features drummer Marc Dalio and saxophonist Sam Coffman, at the Houston Fine Arts Center, 7111 Montview Blvd. Future performances include an early February date by Mike Vargas and Greg LaLiberte, and March appearances by the Creative Music Works Orchestra (directed by Ron Miles) and Mark Sabatella and the Spanish Inquisition. (Call 477-3081 for more information.) No doubt Lemski will be at each of these events, soaking in the music that means so much to him. "I can't express myself in the ways that they can, but I'm not jealous," he says. "I'm just proud to be associated with people who speak such an incredible language and are willing to go out on a limb. In mainstream music, there's not enough risk-taking--and that's supposed to be part of the American character, isn't it?"