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Jazzercise

Jam session: Steve Utash leads the Wishing Well band through the high notes.
Brett Amole

Donald Rossa thought the six adults crowded around a small table at Dazzle Restaurant and Lounge looked a little out of place. Unlike most of the patrons in his chic Lincoln Street club, they weren't drinking, and they weren't talking too much. Mostly, they were staring intently at the jazz quartet performing on the stage.

"It looked like they were on a field trip," Rossa says. "They'd come in a few times before, and they always had a reservation. I recognized something about them right away. Nobody was misbehaving, but they were kind of shuffling their feet and chain-smoking or whatever. Some of the staff members were a little taken aback, but I went right up and introduced myself."

Who he met was a table full of aspiring musicians, burgeoning jazz fans and members of the Wishing Well Clubhouse, an adult day center operated by Mental Health Corporation of Denver, a private health-care agency contracted by the State of Colorado to provide services throughout metro Denver. Outfitted with computer labs and a library stuffed with donated books, the club is primarily designed to help clients in the MHCD system build job skills and further their education. But it's also a social hub -- not fancy like Dazzle, but buzzing with activities from yoga classes to impromptu lectures on world history.

The group members who visit Rossa's club are bound by their various mental illnesses, everything from schizophrenia and bipolar disorder to manic depression and attention deficit disorder -- but also by an appreciation for music. Rossa -- whose mother was diagnosed with manic depression and bipolar disorder twenty years ago -- treats them like VIPs when they show up each month.

"We give them food, the bandmembers will come over and talk to them, and they love it," he says. "I just wanted to help them socialize and show them that they're part of our community and they're welcome in my club. We all live and breathe the same air, and we're all here for music."

Earlier this year, Wishing Well vocational counselor Scott Utash began the monthly outings to Dazzle -- for dinner, coffee and Cokes, and jazz -- as a way to supplement the music program he'd founded. Right now it's just a loose Friday-afternoon jam session in the Clubhouse, a run-down but friendly red-brick space near Denver Health, but Utash has bigger plans: He envisions expanding to encompass regular live performances, a weekly cabaret-style showcase and maybe even appearances in bars, clubs and music venues around the city.

"The Friday jam session literally started with me teaching a couple of notes using only my harmonica," Utash says. "In the last couple of months, it's moved from a couple of people sitting around to a full-fledged rehearsal, with a core of musicians who are committed to showing up and playing every week."

The jams take place right around the corner from the cafeteria, where Wishing Well members prepare meals for each other and for staff; around another corner is the Munch Brunch, a member-run store that sells everything from chewy candy mix to hazelnut coffee for 25 cents. Magic Marker paintings, God's Eye yarn sculptures and photos of Martin Luther King Jr. line the walls and the hallways. Curious clients and caseworkers stroll by, sit in, listen for a little while. Usually, Billy and Sally lead on guitar and piano, respectively, while Lisa and Kris handle the higher female vocal parts. Ricky plays spoons and Utash blows harmonica. Charlie, a forty-something charmer with a fringe of brown hair crowning an otherwise shiny head, is one of the more confident singers.

"I like singing with the group because it's very sociable," he says. "Most of us had never spoken to each other before we started doing this. You meet a whole variety of people. It cuts through the loneliness, and it can get rid of some of the depression."

The group is eclectic, and so is its catalogue. They play everything from "On Top of Old Smoky" to "The House of the Rising Sun," which they sometimes fashion with their own words. ("There is a club in old Denver/They call the Wishing Well/And it's been the savior of many young men/But just don't raise any hell.") A lifelong fan of classic-rock radio, Billy has recently introduced the group to the Stones' "Wild Horses" and Bob Seeger's "Still the Same."

"I'm a folk junkie, so I like to play the old stuff," says Kris, a tall, salty-haired woman in her sixties who as a young woman sang in church choirs and played piano and alto sax. "We all kind of go around and take turns picking songs."

"There's one song we do that I hate, but I sing it anyway," says Charlie, adding that he finds the offending song, "Kumbaya," more tolerable now.

Like many members of the group, Charlie has some formal musical training: He sang in choirs as a youth and took singing lessons years ago while enrolled at the University of Colorado at Boulder. For Sally, the Wishing Well jam marks her return to music after a 35-year break.

"I forgot how much I enjoy playing," she says. "I have some instruments at home that I've been thinking about trying to learn. It kind of gives you some motivation, just some feeling of wanting to learn something instead of just sitting around being depressed. You actually take an interest in something."

"Some of them had some lessons and some training in their young lives," Utash says. "Mental illness often strikes a person when they are young adults, when their lives are just getting started, and it derails things for many, many years. Now we're seeing people coming back to something that was important to them before."

The history of music and art is rife with examples of the link between creativity and madness; in the past twenty years, the psychiatric community has come to regard music therapy as a legitimate treatment for everything from the blues to full-blown psychosis. The Wishing Well jams do have their therapeutic elements, but for Utash, the real goal is simply to bring people together to play.

"I know the power of music," he says. "It's healing, but that's almost too medical a term for what we're doing. It's more spiritual -- the idea that, through one's own determination, they can play a role in something larger than themselves. There's a lot of pride in that."

"The group helps when you feel frustrated or angry," Billy says. "It's better than banging your head against the wall. It can give you a feeling of confidence, like you can do other things once you realize you can do music. It makes me feel better about myself."

The jam band's debut at the Wishing Well's June picnic was, by all accounts, a success: "No one threw anything at us," Charlie says. "No tin cans or tomatoes or anything, so I guess we weren't all that bad." It was a good rehearsal for the group's next big gig: a special Wishing Well Christmas concert at Dazzle on December 25. (Rossa is also sponsoring a series of "Women in Music" concerts to benefit the Wishing Well, Thursday, September 4, through Friday, September 12. )

Billy can't wait to get before a proper audience.

"I was just at the Cricket on the Hill open-mike with my girlfriend, and they had some guy get up there with a boombox and a guitar," he says. "He played a couple of headbanging notes on his guitar. I turned to my girlfriend and said, 'Me and the people at the Wishing Well could do better than that.'"

"Yeah, we're looking for a recording contract, a big airplane and a world tour. And maybe a movie deal," Charlie says, smiling.

"But if that doesn't work out, I just want to come here and sing every Friday," he adds, smiling. "It's very cheerful, and it's very nice."


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