Bridge to the Future

A generation of Denver jazz stars has one thing in common: Neil Bridge.

Mayor Wellington E. Webb's Music Festival at Red Rocks features a couple of big names in the jazz field -- veteran vocalist Al Jarreau and fast-fingered guitarist Stanley Jordan -- as well as soul/gospel singer Yolanda Adams. But those who've closely followed Denver's jazz scene over the years may be most excited to discover that the bill also sports a pair of the city's most talented alums: tenor saxophonist Javon Jackson and alto-sax whiz Brad Leali.

Since leaving Colorado, Jackson and Leali have made admirable careers for themselves. Jackson spent several years in Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers, going solo after Blakey's death; he's released several albums under his own name during the last decade or so, on labels such as Criss Cross and Blue Note. Leali, meanwhile, led the Harry Connick Big Band and was part of the Count Basie Orchestra before striking out on his own; his best-known CD is Priority Soul!, which the Orchard imprint issued in 2000. Both men are also sought-after sidemen: Jackson recently assisted Cedar Walton, Donald Byrd, Freddie Hubbard and Richard Davis; Leali regularly collaborates with Cyrus Chestnut and Shaft composer Isaac Hayes.

Even so, neither Jackson nor Leali has forgotten that many of their formative musical experiences took place in Denver -- among them membership in the Denver Public Schools Career Education Center jazz combo. They're hardly unique in this respect. Of the notable jazz figures who've emerged from Denver in the past quarter-century, an astonishing number played in the CEC combos of the '70s and '80s, including Nelson Rangell, Ron Miles, Paul Taylor and Dotsero members Michael Friedman and Steve Watts. As a result, these players and more -- even acclaimed actor Don Cheadle and mayoral spokesman/jazz lover Andrew Hudson -- came under the influence of Neil Bridge, the musician and educator who oversaw the combos during their glory years.

Neil Bridge has the keys to local jazz stardom.
Mark A. Manger
Neil Bridge has the keys to local jazz stardom.

Details

With Al Jarreau, Yolanda Adams, Stanley Jordan, Javon Jackson, Brad Leali, the Straight Ahead Jazz Allstars
3:30 p.m. Sunday, June 23
$30, 303-830-TIXS
Red Rocks Amphitheatre, Morrison

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Appropriately, Bridge couldn't be more proud of his onetime charges, closely tracking the achievements of those he assisted in their youth -- like Grammy-winning warbler Dianne Reeves, who sang a Bridge-arranged version of the jazz chestnut "How High the Moon" during a long-ago concert at George Washington High School. But he's also modest about his own contributions, and is careful not to take credit for the success of former students. "I was just a guide," he says. "I presented the material to them, gave them some idea of how to develop it, listened to a lot of music, and that was about it."

Hardly, says Leali, who numbers Bridge among his most influential instructors. "He was like a sergeant in the military. He was a bad dude," Leali asserts, laughing. "But I think everybody who went through the program is that much better off. And now that we're older, we realize how much of a benefit it was for us. He's not a soft cat; he was hard on us, let us know what was up, told us the way it was. But he loved us, too, and we learned a lot."

Jackson agrees. "He definitely helped a lot of guys, and he was an inspiration for myself and a lot of other artists. It's nice to have the chance to say something about a guy while he's still here."

Bridge, 72, has no intention of leaving just yet. He retired from full-time teaching in 1987, but he continues to play piano in his band, the Neil Bridge 7+, and other configurations, on a more-than-regular basis. His upcoming schedule is typically busy: In addition to performing at 6 p.m. every Sunday at Shakespeare's, 2375 15th Street, he's slated to appear at a free concert on Thursday, June 27, at Park Lane Pavilion in Keystone, and is participating in a July 26-27 fundraiser at Karen Lee Dance International, 840 North Speer Boulevard, a studio owned by his wife, Karen Lee Bridge. "My calendar's really starting to fill up," Bridge says. "And that's the way I like it."

A Pennsylvania native, Bridge didn't cut his teeth on jazz. "My mother started me on piano lessons when I was eight years old," he notes, "and I did Chopin and Beethoven, because my mother wanted me to play Carnegie Hall. But my heart wasn't in it, since you couldn't make up your own music. You had to play exactly what was written, and that was hard for me.

"Then, when I was in tenth or eleventh grade, I heard Woody Herman and Duke Ellington and Count Basie and Charlie Parker," Bridge continues. "And that was it. I had to say, 'Sorry, Mom. I love Chopin, but this is what I want to play.'"

After graduating from high school, Bridge joined the Air Force and played in the service's band while stationed in Roswell, New Mexico. Once his four-year stint was over, he attended Boston's New England Conservatory of Music under the auspices of the G.I. Bill before moving to the Denver area, where he earned a master's degree in music education at the University of Colorado. He subsequently held a string of teaching jobs that supplemented the income he made on musical pursuits. As a pianist with the Denver Symphony, he played alongside personalities as disparate as Henry Mancini and Rich Little. On top of that, he backed up a seemingly endless list of touring performers: Mel Tormé, Anita O'Day, Dakota Stanton, Clark Terry, Sonny Stitt, the Mills Brothers, Red Norvo, Nancy Wilson and many more. "It's hard for me to remember all of them," Bridge says.

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