Remarkable music graced the crowd at the three-and-a-half-hour Colorado Music Hall of Fame Jazz Masters & Beyond induction concert at the Paramount Theatre on Tuesday night, but stories by honorees like Earth Wind & Fire’s Philip Bailey and Grammy-winning singer Dianne Reeves gave the show its poignancy.
About half way through the night, Reeves introduced her song “Nine,” saying it was about growing up as a nine-year-old in Denver.
“We played out in the street all day long, in the middle of the street,” Reeves said. “And every stop sign had a string hanging from it so you could put a tetherball on it. Hopscotch...we did everything. We played with our imaginations from sunup to sundown. The neighbors looked after all the children. I decided to dedicate this to the age of nine, because it’s the last time you’re only one number. “
Reeves added that if you’re very fortunate, you get to be her uncle’s age. Reeves’s uncle is 97-year-old classical and jazz bassist Charles Burrell, who was the first African-American to be under contract with a major symphony; Burrell was also inducted into the Hall of Fame on Tuesday. Burrell’s cousin Purnell Steen, who opened the concert with his band, Le Jazz Machine, said he was eight years old when he saw Burrell’s 1949 debut concert with the Denver Symphony Orchestra.
“I was sitting there with my mother,” Steen recalled. “My mother said Charles was going to be playing, and everybody showed up, and there was no Charles, and I started crying. She said, ‘Wait a minute. He’s coming.’ And the last person to cross the stage before the maestro Saul Caston took the baton was Charles Edward Burrell Sr. I can still hear, 68 years later, people saying, ‘Oh, my God. He’s negro.’”
Just before Reeves presented Burrell’s award to him, she said, “As a young person, I couldn’t have asked to be planted in a more fertile soil. My uncle put me in touch with jazz greats.” He gave her the records of the best jazz singers, including one by Sarah Vaughan and Clifford Brown, which Reeves loved. She remembered rehearsing with a 150-person citywide choir when she was at George Washington High School, and throwing a bit of Vaughan-inspired vocals into a solo she sang in J.S. Bach’s "Magnificat."
During an outro of a sublime rendering of Errol Garner’s standard “Misty,” Reeves recalled how Bailey invited her out to Los Angeles to join a band he was starting. So she, Winston Ford, Julius Carey and Carl Carwell drove three cars to California,
“My mother made a bag of fried chicken and pound cake for each car,” she said. “I’ll never forget that. So all the way down I-70, there are chicken wings, legs and bones.”
As for Bailey going from Denver to Los Angeles a few years after he graduated from East High School, which was also honored on Tuesday, he said he had to thank Perry Jones, who had seen Bailey perform with his band at the 23rd Street East nightclub (where Jazz Masters & Beyond emcee and former mayor Wellington Webb met his wife). Perry told Bailey, “You guys are going to make somebody a whole lot of money.”
Jones would eventually land a gig in Los Angeles with Warner Bros. Records, where he met Earth Wind & Fire founder Maurice White and then introduced him to Bailey. And when Earth Wind & Fire needed a keyboardist and saxophonist, Bailey called on fellow East High alums Larry Dunn and Andrew Woolfolk, who were also inducted on Tuesday. “We just bought them a ticket,” Bailey said. “We didn’t even audition them.”
At the Paramount, Bailey and Dunn and Denver-based band Hot Lunch warmed up the crowd early in their set of Earth Wind & Fire material, with Bailey noting, during “Kalimba Story,” how he had to ask the mother of a thirteen-year-old Dunn if it was okay for her son to play in his band. Although Dunn added that his mother, Rose, said no at first, Bailey eventually convinced her there wasn’t going to be any craziness.
“We were playing at clubs at an early age,” Bailey said. “We put a cigarette in his mouth to make him look older.”
By the time the group kicked into “Let’s Groove,” some of the crowd stood up and began to dance, with the energy in the Paramount escalating throughout “September” and “Shining Star.”
Trumpeter Ron Miles and guitarist Bill Frisell, both East High alumni, were also inducted Tuesday. They didn’t say much when accepting their awards, but said plenty musically during their spirited four-song set with drummer Brian Blade. There was a majestic purity and ease in the way the three interact musically, the result of performing and recording many times together.
And when they closed their set with an absolutely gorgeous take on Burt Bacharach’s “What the World Needs Now Is Love,” it resonated with something Dunn would say near the end of the show: “There’s so much ugliness going on today. Let’s show some love. Denver was always known for love.”
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