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Alex Lemski's mind is a little like the jazz music he promoted as founder and president of Creative Music Works: It's associative, non-linear, complicated and, right now, swimming with activity. But after eleven years of hard work on behalf of progressive music in Denver, Lemski is leaving town for good in a matter of days, bound for more well-worn musical haunts on the East Coast -- cities like New York and Atlantic City, where a stronger local awareness and appreciation of jazz could mean that when he gets back into the business of promotion, he won't have to beg and plead to pull in more than thirty or forty faithful.
It's not an easy move, of course: Lemski arrived in Colorado 23 years ago with a belief -- or at least a hope -- that the Queen City of the Plains could become a concert destination, a place regarded as a can't-miss stopping point rather than a tone-deaf cowtown. But for the most part, he says, Denver let him down.
"The experiment failed," Lemski says, resignation clear in his voice. "Musicians and music people go where they are wanted. It got to a point where it became obvious that no matter what I did, we weren't going to meet the minimum expectation of drawing a hundred people per show. I always thought one hundred was a conservative estimate for the kinds of musicians we were bringing in. But, in Denver, which is really a sports town more than anything, I was apparently mistaken.
"The joke is that Denver is Omaha with mountains. When Denver wanted to celebrate Lufthansa's non-stop flights to Germany, they brought an old stagecoach out on the runway. The type of people who are moving here are more interested in this old-timey romance -- the West -- than embracing this modern music."
Admittedly, the music that Lemski brought through Creative Music Works was often an unruly type to throw your arms around. The company has presented everything from avant-garde chamber music to free-form experimental jazz and electronica to angular world music and good old-fashioned noise. The primary requirement for most of CMW's offerings seems to be a preoccupation with alternativism: An experimental penchant, a willingness to break rules, a proud relegation to the fringes. As a result, since 1989 CMW has steered some artists to the Denver area who would not have stopped here otherwise -- nationally noted players such as pianist Marilyn Crispell, the String Trio of New York and clarinetist John Carter. For its efforts, CMW has received grants from the city, the state and the National Endowment for the Arts, been invited into local schools and won seven Westword Best of Denver awards for being a beacon of modernity on Denver's melodic sea.
The Creative Music Works Orchestra, formed in 1991 by Westword Music Showcase nominee Fred Hess and now led by Lynn Baker of the Lamont School of Music, serves as CMW's most accessible vehicle, a full-sized big band that reinterprets the work of familiar jazz greats such as Miles Davis and Count Basie. But no matter what any CMW concert offered in a given month, supporters could count on one constant: Lemski. As CMW's only paid staff member, he was omnipresent, responsible for booking, promotion, production, financing and every other aspect of CMW's operation.
"We've been joking that we will now have six people doing the work that one did before," says Jennifer Hampton, CMW's current head of administration. "But the truth is, Alex put a superhuman effort into CMW. It really does require a group of people to pull off the same amount in his absence."
Still, after Lemski departs at the end of the month -- first stop Morristown, New Jersey, where he'll "retire from music" for a short while -- CMW will bravely sally forth without him. The organization is currently in the process of revamping its board of directors and naming a new president. But one thing will remain unchanged: CMW will continue bringing weird, unwieldy and wonderful artists to town on the assumption that if you consistently deliver top-notch music to a town in dire need of it, you will eventually draw an audience.
"I think the wise thing for the new leadership to realize is that it's never going to be about commercial promotion -- ticket sales, crowds," Lemski says. "You're up against so much. The media won't cover it, the people don't know about it. You've got the same core group of volunteers at every show and not that many new faces. You have to think of it in terms of what it does for the musicians. It's a success in that it gives them a place to play. And that's where the satisfaction has to come in."
Lemski has made quite a few musician friends over the years -- players who will no doubt miss him dearly. And a few -- pianists Marc Sabatella and Art Lande and spoken-word artist Lou Malandra -- will wish him a tuneful farewell on Sunday, July 29, at the First Universalist Church (4101 East Hampden); the trio's performance, which begins at 3:30 p.m., will be followed by an improvisational jam that's open to any musician who's ever performed with CMW.
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