Tom Goldsmith, the man behind the Denver Jazz on Film Festival, has assembled an impressive lineup of flicks for his brainchild's fourth edition. The event's roster features several movies making their U.S. debuts, including In the Key of Eh, about ECM recording artist Paul Bley; a pair of projects by French director Robert Mugnerot -- Exile Interior, which focuses on bop pioneer Bud Powell, and Jazz Collection, which spotlights underrated saxophonist Gerry Mulligan; and an untitled French look at guitarist Django Reinhardt, whose profile received a boost recently thanks to the Woody Allen film Sweet and Lowdown, which stars Sean Penn as a strummer not quite as good as the great Django. And that's not to mention a rediscovered 1962 Frank Sinatra concert film, a full-length Louis Prima biography called The Wildest, and plenty more.
Yet what's arguably the festival's most anticipated offering -- 1991's Music in Your Soul -- is also one of its most modest. The picture, made under the auspices of the Denver Public Library, is just 28 minutes long, and its choppy pacing and narrative weaknesses strongly suggest that it won't be proclaimed a masterpiece. But for many locals, these faults will be easy to overlook with the presence of archival photos from the Denver jazz scene circa the early 1900s and the opportunity to learn more about the Colorado careers of jazz fiddler George Morrison Sr., trumpeter Leonard Chadwick and, especially, pianist Charlotte Cowens. At one point in the proceedings, Cowens concedes that she was fired by club owners a number of times over the years for being too "sassy," which seems unfair given the plainspoken wisdom she dishes out each time she opens her mouth. The film is named after one of her phrases; she also describes music as "a gift that God gave us. God didn't give us people of color many gifts, but he gave us that."
The Big Guy Upstairs also rewarded Cowens with longevity. Morrison was dead before Music in Your Soul was made (two of his children detail his story on-camera), and Chadwick passed away after its completion, but Cowens is still as vibrant as ever and seemingly untouched by the years. Try prying her age out of her and you'll receive a humorous rebuff: "I'm somewhere between one and one hundred, and anywhere you want to stop is okay with me," maybe, or "I'm as old as my tongue and a little older than my teeth." But she remains musically active, performing at the occasional wedding, luncheon or cocktail party and maintaining a steady gig at the Zions Senior Center, at 5151 E. 33rd Avenue. Every Wednesday from 11 a.m. to noon, she puts a small combo through its paces for the pleasure of folks at the center who, unlike her, need a little help to make it through the day. "I've been doing it nineteen years this March," she says, adding, "I've played with some great musicians there -- and outlived four of them."
A Denver native, Cowens began clanging on a toy piano at age three, and by the time she was six, she'd graduated to an upright. She took lessons for a while from a neighbor -- "and after that, it was just imagination," she says. The best piece of advice she received during these formative years came from piano giant Art Tatum, whom she got to meet backstage after a Denver appearance. "He told me, 'Don't play too loud. Just play softly, and people will listen.' And that was a true statement. When I would play, I would just start out playing something softly, and if I could hear someone whistling along at the back of the room, I knew they were paying attention."
Cowens's parents often opened up their home to traveling performers -- "Our people could entertain, but they couldn't stay at the white hotels," Cowens points out -- and she continued this tradition after she married and was a professional musician herself. Among those who enjoyed her hospitality were pianist Erroll Garner and the original Ink Spots. But rather than travel in search of audiences, she chose to stick close to home. She occasionally ventured to Nebraska or Wyoming, but most often, she could be found coaxing magic from the keyboards at Denver venues such as Fat Fingers, the Embassy, the Pink Lady, Fox on the Hill and the Yucca Club, not to mention Fitzsimons Army Hospital, where she volunteered around the time of World War II. "A lot of the veterans were so angry," she recalls. "But I'd play some soft music, like 'Snowfall' -- I haven't played that for years -- and it would relax them so much. I could get them out of feeling angry for an hour or so."
In the decades since then, Cowens has performed whenever and wherever she could, serving as a mentor to countless Denver jazz musicians along the way. She isn't knocked out by a lot of contemporary music ("You can keep that rap," she says. "I don't call that music. I call that a nuisance"), but that hardly matters considering the vastness of her repertoire. "The first sheet music my father ever gave me was a song called 'Sleep,' and I still know how to play it," she says. "I could play it right now, just from memory."