House of Blues
Durward Minor is losing his chops a little bit every day. For this he can blame both arthritis and inertia: It's been nearly four months since he held either of the instruments he mastered long ago -- the acoustic bass and the tuba -- and his hands are starting to stiffen. A player who's shared stages with some of the jazz world's leading lights, he needs regular practice to keep his flow and live up to the very musical name that most of his friends and fans know him by: D. Minor. One of Denver's most storied and accomplished accompanists, the 64-year-old has devoted his adult life to being a musician.
But in September, Minor became something else: an inmate at the Adams County jail. In January, he was arrested on a felony charge for driving under the influence of alcohol (his fourth such offense) with a suspended license. The felony was dropped, but Adams County judge Emil Rinaldi sentenced Minor to one year in jail -- the maximum penalty for alcohol-related driving offenses in Colorado.
There is no band room in the Adams County jail, no special practice time allotted to prisoners of a musical persuasion. But Minor had reason to hope that his playing wouldn't be silenced during the long months that lay ahead: Rinaldi had told him he'd be eligible for a work-release program that cuts sentences in half by crediting two days of jail time for each full day spent at work.
For Minor, that meant he could try to hold on to his three steady weekly gigs: El Chapultepec on Wednesday nights (as part of Freddy Rodriguez Jr.'s Jazz Connection combo), Shakespeare's pool hall on Sundays and Mel's Bar & Grill in Cherry Creek on Thursday through Saturday nights. His fingers would stay limber, his ear would stay sharp, and he wouldn't have to let his bandmates down. Perhaps more important, he could hang on to his career.
But Minor's application for work-release was denied by the sheriff's office, which said the eighteen hours he'd spend weekly on club stages fell short of the 32-hour minimum required for participation in the program. Minor's case also was complicated by the fact that he'd failed to provide the proper paperwork establishing himself as self-employed. As a result, he'd have to claim three separate employers, a logistical nightmare for the small staff overseeing work-release inmates.
"D. just wasn't the type to file all the papers and go through all of that kind of stuff to document himself as self-employed," says Candy Gordon, Minor's fiancée. "A lot of musicians just don't operate that way."
Following the denial of Minor's application, she and several of the couple's friends argued to Adams County officials that the peculiarities of his profession required an open-mindedness about more than just paperwork. The nature of a musician's life is different, they said, from that of the average inmate, who is more likely to hold a job easily quantified on a time sheet. True, Minor wouldn't be spending eight hours a day behind a desk or in a warehouse, but keeping up with his career as a player -- a player who needed time to practice, write music and rehearse with a band -- required more than 32 hours a week.
"They said they would let him in if he could play gigs so many hours a week, but that's only one part of being a musician," says Pete Vriesenga, president of the Denver Musicians Association. "It's all the things you have to do when you're not playing. It's practicing and writing and making arrangements for gigs and just staying on top of things. You have to do so much other work just to be able to play those gigs. Now, he can't practice, can't maintain a business. He's going to lose all of his gigs."
Minor's supporters also suggested that an individual's talent and achievements ought to count for something in the eyes of the justice system. This is a man, after all, who has performed for foreign dignitaries abroad and for social and political leaders at home. Not a hack or a wannabe, but a man who once hung with Charles Mingus and knows his way around the Governor's Mansion. Over the years, he's been paired with well-known jazz players such as Eddie Harris and Arnett Cobb, Nancy Wilson and Della Reese, Cedar Walton and David "Fathead" Newman. Locally, his friends are the people facing out from the bandstands and symphony risers.
But to Susan Argo, court-services supervisor for Adams County and overseer of its work-release program, even an accomplished musician must play by the work-release rules. The program's purpose is solely to allow inmates to keep up with their financial responsibilities, not pursue a dream job. "I've always told applicants that if you want to be in work release, you'd better not be picky," she says. "They're just supposed to be looking for a job, not a career, and they take what they can. We've got people working at Grease Monkey, Big-O Tires. McDonald's has a lot of our people. Mr. Minor was given ample opportunity to make it work. It was sort of like, he's either got to be a musician or he's got to be something else. And he wasn't willing to be something else."
On this point, Argo and Minor's supporters agree.
"I called out to the sheriff's one day to check on his application," Gordon says. "The clerk told me, 'Well, he can't play music for a living. That's not a job!' And I said, 'Dear, this man played classical music for Khrushchev in Russia. It is more of a real job than you will ever know.'"
In late September, Vriesenga wrote a letter to Argo's staff, offering to supervise Minor and provide him with office and practice space sixteen hours a week, bringing him above the 32-hour weekly quota. But that, too, was denied, because Minor wouldn't be paid for the office work. In other words, if an inmate isn't paid for time spent, it doesn't count. Instead, Argo suggested Minor seek alternate employment -- or find a way to rack up more hours at one of the clubs where he played by, say, working as a busboy or dishwasher. When that proposal didn't fly -- and Minor made it clear he wasn't interested in a non-musical job -- the case closed on his application.
"If he went into this office with the Denver Musicians Association, the problem was that he wouldn't be accountable for that time. There'd be no income, and there's nothing that he'd really be doing," Argo says. "If he's practicing and writing, that's not really employment. If we had a computer programmer here, we wouldn't allow him out on work release so that he could practice programming. We had an athlete who wanted out so that he could do his workouts and all the training, but we wouldn't let him do that. It's the same thing.
"If the public thought that inmates could just buy their way out of jail by working a few hours every day on work release, that wouldn't be a very positive perception," Argo adds. "This is a man who could have gone to prison for driving a car while he was drunk. I know as a citizen, I wouldn't be very happy if I thought a person like that could just come and go as they pleased."
No one close to Minor would deny that he's got a problem with alcohol. He's had an on-again, off-again love affair with booze for the better part of forty years. His legal record is a sad testament to his addiction, with arrests sporadically marring blocks of cleanly lived time.
"I've been drinking for so long...I just got caught up in it," Minor told Judge Renaldi during his sentencing hearing in July. "I don't know who I am half the time and have loss of memory...I am an example of what alcohol can do to you."
At the time of his arrest in January, Minor's blood-alcohol content was .26, more than twice the legal limit. In the sentencing hearing, prosecutor Michael Heinz showed some empathy for the uniqueness of Minor's situation -- that of an alcohol-prone musician constantly surrounded by liquor -- but he also stressed Minor's history of placing the public at risk. "I do believe that we need to protect the rest of the motorists and citizens who are out on the highways and streets from people like Mr. Minor who choose to drive with this high an alcohol content and who choose to do it repeatedly," Heinz said.
Following his arrest, Minor quit boozing, period. He passed random breath tests and attended counseling sessions at the Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center, where he did so well that his supervisor would describe his "exemplary participation and contribution to the substance abuse process," in a letter to the Adams County Department of Corrections, adding that Minor had "clearly demonstrated his intent to establish and maintain a substance-free lifestyle."
Argo says Minor's history with alcohol did not influence her department's decision to reject his application for work release. (The DMA's Vriesenga almost wishes it had: "In fairness, I could understand if they didn't want to put him back in a nightclub environment," he says. "But that wasn't it. It felt more arbitrary than that.") And, most likely, his application would have received similar treatment outside of Adams County. Though individual jurisdictions set their own requirements and procedures for work-release programs under a loosely scripted state law, many of the policies mirror Adams County's when dealing with non-traditionally employed inmates. Because his formal employment added up to fewer than 32 hours, Minor's appeals probably would have been denied in Denver, Jefferson, Douglas and Arapahoe counties.
In Vriesenga's eyes, those policies amount to discrimination against musicians -- and other artists and individuals who toil in freelance or performance-driven professions.
"It has been endlessly frustrating trying to make them understand that musicians do follow different rules and that that should be okay," he says. "I did everything I could think of to illustrate that for them, but every attempt I would make, they would just flatly deny. It was almost like they didn't want to understand."
On Monday, December 16, Vriesenga and Gordon will lead some of the DMA's 1,000 members in a demonstration outside the Adams County jail in Brighton. Among those most likely to join the protest -- at least in spirit -- is former state legislator and civil-liberties champion Jerry Kopel. Himself an amateur jazz pianist, Kopel used to hire Minor to perform at parties he threw for the Colorado Legislature in the '80s; in recent years, the pair recorded two CDs together. Kopel says his friend is stuck in a needlessly inflexible system that doesn't understand unconventional ways of making ends meet.
"By a musician's standard, D. is working a lot," Kopel says. "Three gigs is a full-time job. You've got to figure that he's paid per gig, so if you divide by the hours he spent preparing for a gig and practicing, it can be distributed across many more hours than what's actually spent on a stage. If you hire an architect, do you pay for the early drafting? Maybe you do, but most likely you pay for a whole job. Would an artist only be considered to be working if he was paid for a final, finished portrait, at the end? It just isn't fair."
In late October, attorney Ben Klein filed a motion asking the Adams County court for a hearing about Minor's rejected work-release application -- and the fact that he's been denied off-premises visits with his substance-abuse counselor and doctors at the VA medical center. That motion was denied. Some supporters are hoping that the January installation of new Adams County sheriff Douglas Darr will create opportunities to revisit his case. In the meantime, Minor's found little behind bars to exercise his skills or occupy his mind. He can't make music. But he can listen to it.
"This place is a mad house, a bunch of kid's [sic] that have none to live for," Minor wrote to a friend in October. "If I did not have these headphones and radio set it would [be] even harder, listening to jazz and classical music, it help me to get through each day...
"P.S. I hate this place."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Westword's biggest stories.
- NFL's Marijuana Ban the "Correct Policy," Says Commissioner Roger Goodell
- Reader: I Own a Subaru Outback and I Admit I Can Be an Ass on the Road
- Denver's Ten Best Restaurants for a Great Date Night