Turkish Delight

Bandleader Sam Bivens brings six decades of jazz history to Turk's Supper Club.

Bivens eventually returned to school in Tennessee and joined more bands; one combo, the Jazz Giants, was the first racially mixed band allowed to perform at the University of Tennessee. Next came a call from the Army -- Uncle Sam, apparently, needed buglers as badly as he needed muscle in the Korean war, and Bivens was drafted into the Band Training Unit at a base in South Carolina. The trumpet served him well there: He was eventually appointed the Post Bugler for the generals and high-ranking officers on base. During this time, the monster known as his trumpet might also have saved his life.

"We were told that we would have to audition for the Army," he says. "Those who flunked the audition were sent to a rifle team and shipped on over to Korea. Those who passed it would be restationed to a little base way out in the desert of California. I didn't want to be in the war, but I learned all that war stuff, stayed in shape. But my mind was always on music, and I figured, 'Why go if you can stay?' Six of us auditioned, and six of us passed. We went on out to California, and I was back making music in a minute."

After the Army, Bivens kept moving. He went to New York City, a place he's since left and returned to "more times than I count." Over the years, he worked on The Jackie Wilson Show and as an arranger for the Bill Cratz Copying Service, a company that provided sheet music for ABC, NBC and CBS. ("A couple of wrong notes -- you're fired," Bivens recalls hearing his employer say.) He performed in a combo with Charlie Parker's pal, saxophonist Sonny Stitt (Bivens appears on the combo's recording Four Jacks and a King, which was released by Muse and "snapped up in two weeks"), and with Billy Taylor and Jazz Mobile. In 1981, Bivens moved to Minnesota to be near his family, then to Denver, where his daughter lives and runs a small business. In 1987 he formed the Denver Jazz Orchestra, both to satisfy his own need to play and to create a job for himself.

Play it again, and again, and again, Sam: Denver Jazz Orchestra bandleader  Sam Bivens.
James Bludworth
Play it again, and again, and again, Sam: Denver Jazz Orchestra bandleader Sam Bivens.

"When I first came to Denver, I found it a little bit hard to find work," he says. "Players here were a little bit cliquish. They were afraid of excellence. So I decided to get the Denver Jazz Orchestra together, and I went looking for the very best players I could find. I went from nightclub to nightclub to nightclub searching for the best, and I've found them. Just like water finds its own level, I wanted world-class."

Late last year, Bivens and the DJO began demonstrating their old-world prowess at Turk's Supper Club, an antique Denver establishment tucked in an unlikely neighborhood at 43rd Avenue and Fox Street. It's an area populated by Mexican taqueras and warehouses, some abandoned, some still in use. Railroad tracks intersect main roads; one line simply ends without warning in the middle of a street. Turk's is, by all appearances, a friendly, low-key watering hole, an after-work refuge for folks who live or work in the gray, industrial district. Six nights a week, the club's menu and decor is matched by its musical fare: Images of lovely Latinas and tricked-out cars flank the wood-paneled walls, while mariachi combos play for the largely Hispanic crowd dining on cheap taco plates and drinking Bud from bottles. Three months ago, Freddy Rodriguez, the celebrated local player who's held a chair in the Denver Jazz Orchestra since its inception, suggested that owner Willie Ray let the DJO use the space for weekly rehearsals. Turk's was soon reborn as a jazz club -- on Monday nights, at least.

According to Ray, who purchased the club in 1997, the transformation is befitting Turk's vibrant history. The restaurant, he says, has been open for more than eighty years and holds one of the oldest liquor licenses in the city. Al Capone used to hang out there, he swears, and at one point, Turk's was a music venue to rival any going today, including El Chapultepec, the celebrated jazz venue owned by Ray's friend, Jerry Krantz. ("I love him, but he doesn't know shit about music," Ray says jokingly of Krantz.) Turk's most notable moment in the spotlight might have come in 1973, when the place showed up in scenes of Scarecrow, a film starring Gene Hackman and Al Pacino.

These days, those who wander into the establishment on a Monday night expecting jukebox fare or a roving Spanish-style guitar player are in for an almost surreal surprise. On the floor, pool tables are cleared and jammed into corners to make room for Bivens and his very large band -- on most Mondays, it includes four alto saxes, five trumpets, drums, a keyboard, a stand-up bass, four trombones and at least one vocalist, slightly crammed together in a semi-circle underneath the club's dim hanging lamp. Most of the players set their massive stacks of music -- the orchestra has a repertoire of more than 162 songs -- on old-fashioned metal bandstands painted white and emblazoned with the letters DJO. At Bivens's cue, they go riffling through the sheets, trying to find the next piece before he counts down to the start of a standard, or something he's arranged, or possibly a piece written by one of his students -- he's taught more than 300 -- who's gone on to become an arranger herself.

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