In June 2001, Alex Lemski — then-president, visionary and chief benefactor of Creative Music Works — sent Westword a rather scathing letter in response to a review of Ken Burns's ten-part Jazz documentary. "If listeners are just as scarce (scared?) as the industry and media are in covering jazz," he groused, "then we might as well turn live performances into jazz raves with DJs playing acid and smooth!"
I imagine Lemski was being facetious with that whole DJ/rave remark — but his flippant comment now seems prescient. Because on Friday, August 3, the organization Lemski founded is presenting one of the year's most intriguing and compelling bills, an improv-based collaborative performance mating notable jazz players with (gulp!) a DJ at the Oriental Theater. Paul Riola, now program director and treasurer of Creative Music Works, will lead the proceedings on tenor and soprano sax and electronics with his ever-revolving Bottesini Project, this time out featuring DJ Olive on the turntables, Jeff Parker from Tortoise on guitar, Scott Amendola on drums, Ron Miles on cornet, Glenn Taylor on pedal-steel guitar and Doug Anderson on bass.
"The thing that we're sort of moving toward at this point is not to turn our backs on the tradition of Creative Music Works, from a sort of avant-garde jazz, acoustic sensibility," Riola explains. "But at the same time, we're also trying to incorporate a lot of the things our generation has to offer. Because Alex and those guys, you know, they come from a different generation of people who revere a set of music. And I think that our generation, specifically, has been so steeped in so many different traditions — I mean, we're into electronic music and hip-hop and avant-rock and forms of pop — that our palette is a lot broader."
On the surface, such a sentiment might sound antithetical to Lemski's puristic outlook. But when Riola and Andrew Starr, CMW's president, talk about the organization's current vision, it's clear that they embody the same type of maverick spirit and ideals that drove Lemski for so long. For them, it's all about pushing the boundaries of music through experimentation and innovation, which is exactly why CMW came into existence. When the nonprofit was launched in 1989 by the Boulder Creative Music Ensemble, the idea was to create an environment in which free-thinking artists could thrive, exposing their music to the masses by promoting shows, then offering workshops and lectures where both musicians and the masses could engage.
Lemski executed this vision for more than a decade, presenting such vital artists as David S. Ware, Joseph Jarman and Andrew Cyrille, before finally giving up the ghost in July 2001 and moving to New York. In a parting interview with Laura Bond, he sounded a little defeated as he reflected on the future of the organization he'd created.
"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 said. "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."
If only Lemski knew then how profound CMW's influence has been. While the crowds may have been thinner than he'd hoped, the folks who were there became true believers. And after Lemski moved on, those folks carried on his legacy. During her time at CMW, Jennifer Hampton, Lemski's immediate successor, worked with boardmembers Lynn Baker, Karle Seydel, Scott McCumber and Lee Chambers to continue bringing innovative musicians to town, artists such as French-Vietnamese phenom Nguyên Lê.
After a two-year run, Hampton and the board decided to step down, making way for the current leadership team of Starr, Riola and Matthew Garrington — each devotees whose lives were enriched by concerts sponsored by the organization.
Riola was introduced to CMW by Fontaine Burnett, a bass-player friend who urged him to come see him perform with Ron Miles. As it happened, Miles's band was opening for Joseph Jarman and Andrew Cyrille at Cleo Parker Robinson's dance studio, in a show sponsored by CWM. "I had never heard anything like that in my life," declares Riola. "That was the first exposure I had to avant-garde music, and from that point on, I started really, really getting into the more experimental side of things."
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Starr remembers having a similar experience when Garrington invited him to a CMW show at the Mercury Cafe circa 2001. He ended up pitching in, selling shirts to help raise money for the group.
"I saw Hamster Theatre play, and it completely changed my entire world," Starr recounts. "I just had no idea why I didn't know this existed. I said, 'If this is here, there's gotta be a ton more buried under the surface — not only in Denver, but around the world.' From that very first show, I got a sense from Creative Music Works that I've never sensed anywhere else. I began to go to the shows not because I wanted to see this band or that band. You know, I went because I had faith that it was going to be great. I could go without any knowledge of who was playing, what style of music it might be, but I knew if Creative Music Works was part of it, if Alex cared about it enough to make it happen, then it was worth my time."
In 2003, Starr joined Garrington (then president, now vice president — the two have since switched roles) at CMW's helm, and the pair later enlisted Riola. Today the trio is working to expand CMW's reach in the community by continuing to bring groundbreaking artists to Denver who wouldn't come here otherwise. But the organization is equally invested in the local scene, sponsoring programs such as the Lab at Belmar series, which gives homegrown artists a venue where they can explore their art without limitations. During these three-month stints, local musicians serve as curators and have complete creative control to execute their unique vision in whatever way they see fit. Beyond that, CMW is trying to create entry points so that casual music fans can develop an appreciation of Denver's burgeoning jazz and improv scene. Riola believes that the unique and unexpected pairings he's been putting together with Bottesini will cause even more people to get excited about what Creative Music Works is doing.
"I think that's why it's so important that we pay a lot of attention and administer to our generation — to bring them into the fray," he concludes. "Our aesthetic is so broad, and we all know people who really, really dig music of all sorts of different types. I think that CMW largely extends mostly in a field of awareness of an older set of people, and it's time for our generation to be like, 'What are these people doing? This is really fucking cool. How can I help?'"