Summit Jazz Weekend Friday, September 22 - Sunday, September. 24 Four Points Sheraton Hotel Better than: Crashing a smooth jazz party.
Walking into the ballroom at the Four Points Sheraton on the first night of this year’s Summit Jazz Foundation festival, I felt a bit like an interloper at some sort of well-kept secret rite open only to the initiated. The three-day gathering of traditional jazz bands and fans, which has been an annual occurrence in Denver for more than twenty years, draws a loyal cadre of attendants. Waiting in line to receive my badge for Friday night, my fellow concertgoers shook hands, shared brief embraces and reminisced quickly on past years. More than any other music festival I’ve attended recently, this crowd seemed to boast a historical connection to the music on display – which made sense, considering that the average audience member had at least thirty years on me.
And while most of the music had a good sixty or seventy years on me in terms of provenance, the performers infused the music with an immediacy and energy that defied its years. To be honest, my main focus in attending the show was seeing the Jim Cullum Jazz Band. Led by Jim Cullum, the son of a noted clarinetist, the San Antonio-based ensemble, which has a weekly syndicated radio show broadcast locally on KUVO, has made the trek to the Summit Jazz Festival from Texas every year since 1983. The band’s devotion to the details and subtleties of pre-World War 2 jazz music is evident in their weekly performances, which boast a consistency and attention to detail that would make even the most snobbish music historian grin.
The live performances did not disappoint. In rendition of tunes by Duke Ellington, Clarence Williams and Harry Williams, the Jim Cullum Jazz Band infused tunes more than sixty years old with a toe-tapping speed and affecting emotion. The act's cover of the standard “Crazy Capers” on Friday night, marked by high-speed drum solos and dense melodic riffs, recalled the back-room juke joints and smoky New Orleans clubs of the 1930s.
While I was on board to see Cullum’s ensemble, the rest of the players provided memorable moments as well. The Summit All Stars benefited from the well-honed solos of Israeli clarinetist and saxophonist Anat Cohen, while performances by the Arapahoe High School Dry Creek Dixie Dawgs highlighted the younger players of one America’s first original musical idioms. The high school players stood out in part, due to the average age of the audience.
Despite the mature age of most of the crowd, the energy level was consistently high. As the procession of jazz bands took to the stage, performing works by the storied giants of the genre, there was no lack of participation or panache from the crowd. The audience hooted for well-performed solos, they hawed during speedy tempos and they took to the dance floor for the entire weekend. As I shared brief exchanges with fellow audience members – some of whom had traveled from across the country to attend the annual show – the level of musical enthusiasm rivaled or equaled that on display at Monolith or Mile High.
Indeed, it soon became clear that these were the music nerds of yesteryear. While the Summit Festival will most likely remain a cloistered event, a small-scale celebration for a select audience, it shares at least one aspect with its larger-scale, more mainstream music festivals: It’s a celebration for the die-hard fans of the genre, an inclusive gathering of hard-core music lovers.
It’s also what will draw me back next year.
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Personal Bias: The Jim Cullum Band’s cover of Duke Ellington’s “Misty Morning” evoked moments from my own odyssey through the jazz genre, and thus stood out as a highlight of the weekend. Random Detail: The Summit All-Star’s reed player, Anat Cohen, stole the spotlight with her frenzied, frenetic solos. By the way: Having a festival in a hotel ballroom has its advantages – there were plenty of tables and chairs to rest weary legs after three days of music. It’s an amenity that was prominently absent at Mile High.