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Op-Ed: Denver Needs to Do Better for Its Jazz Musicians

El Chapultepec has closed after 87 years.
El Chapultepec has closed after 87 years.
Jon Solomon
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At a press conference announcing its closing, El Chapultapec’s co-proprietor, Anna Diaz, said, “Denver’s outgrown us.”

I’d argue that Denver, or at least White Denver, was never mature enough for El Chapultepec. Certainly not for jazz music.

I’ve always been a bit conflicted about El Chapultepec, honestly. On the one hand, it’s been vital for Denver’s jazz scene, without question. In fact, I say we name the block of Market Street between 19th and 20th Krantz Avenue, after the family who turned the joint into the jazz icon that it is.

On the other hand, sitting or waiting to get into El Chapultepec, I always wondered, “Is this the best we can do for jazz musicians in this city?”

Like many Colorado musician natives, I have a lot of important memories of the place. I remember as kids we’d drive from Boulder to sit outside the open door next to the bandstand on Market Street, listening to the music we were trying to learn, wondering if our car would still be there when we returned to it. There was nothing but empty warehouses in the area then. It set a tone for those of us interested in the art: Don’t count on much fanfare, or income, if you go down this road.

I took a year off after high school before going to a music college, and Denver jazz legend Joe Bonner happened to live in my apartment building. I remember Joe as a pretty unpredictable cat who wouldn’t talk much about music with me. He knew I needed to hear the music played, though, so he got me into El Chapultepec a few times to hear him. Thanks to Joe, a door opened for me at El Chapultepec, one that influenced a big part of my life.

In my twenties I once watched Jerry Krantz, the then-owner/proprietor who had to have been just five feet tall and at least 65 years old, vault over the bar like an Olympic gymnast to pull a jerk twice his size off a woman, drag the bully outside, and make it clear he wasn’t ever welcome back. Jerry took care of business.

And I’ve been lucky to know and even play a bit with a few of the musicians who gigged at El Chapultepec on the regular, and they might not have been given a cut anywhere else in Denver if not for the place.

So thank you to the Krantz family: The Pec is a Denver institution indeed.

Still, while vital, El Chapultepec was to me a reminder of the lack of appreciation we had as a city for jazz music. I’ll just say it, regardless how unpopular this is: If it weren’t for the musicians who played there, El Chapultepec was not a good place to listen to music. Bad acoustics, often loud and uninterested crowds, and a layout more like a restaurant than a music club that had half the seats with their backs to the bandstand.

I get that jazz history is replete with dive bars and noisy joints. Some of the most important live jazz recordings have clinking glasses and conversations of barflies in the mix. It’s part of the tradition. But in areas more culturally astute, they exist with other options. And for a long time El Chapultepec, a dive bar in not the best part of town that was never intended to be a music venue, was literally the only option in Denver for hearing jazz.

Dazzle is silenced...for now.
Dazzle is silenced...for now.
Danielle Lirette

Jazz had long left the Casino Cabaret and the Rossonian and the Roxy in Five Points, Jazz at Jack’s was more in the instrumental-pop crease, Dazzle didn’t host jazz music until 2002, and Nocturne wouldn’t show up until 2015. This wasn’t without consequence. From my experience, it’s this lack of opportunity for jazz musicians that drove many of them out of Denver, and with them the sense of exploration and risk-taking that jazz is all about.

Jazz musicians need others who’ll push them, others to explore with. If there’s essentially only one place in town to play, your options for pursuing this life are extremely limited.

Hearing the music at El Chapultepec reminded me of this every time I was in there. Even when Denver’s top-shelf musicians were cutting, I’d listen to them and pine for more of them and in better venues. I’d imagine what their playing and contribution to the art would be with a more vibrant scene to support them, helping them pursue the heights of creativity that the art form allows.

This is probably more of a Me problem, I’ll admit. But I just couldn’t shake it when I went to El Chapultepec. To be clear, the jazz musicians who stay in Denver are without a doubt very special, and every bit as talented as those in other cities. They just choose a Colorado lifestyle over a city grind. I guess I just wanted them to have more options. And not have to play their axe a foot away from a smelly bathroom.

The Rossonian was a legendary club in the "Harlem of the West."EXPAND
The Rossonian was a legendary club in the "Harlem of the West."
Ken Hamblin III

All of that aside, the most striking way El Chapultepec reminded me of how little Denver appreciated jazz music was its proximity to Five Points. I’d often sit in El Chapultepec and think of Five Points, just a few blocks away, a harbinger of what could have been if white people in Denver truly supported Black music.

Nationally, Five Points was known as the "Harlem of the West,” in part because it was such an epicenter for Black music. White Colorado could have helped keep a very important cultural community alive. We didn’t realize what we had, and we blew it. That could have been ours, a proud Denver signature. Imagine walking through a thriving music scene down Welton Street, soaking in local and national jazz acts. Vibrant, musically diverse artists exploring and pushing the art form. Instead, we decided Denver’s jazz scene should be headquartered in a single LoDo dive bar where we had to elbow our way past drunk bros to get in.

This isn’t El Chapultepec’s fault, of course. Nor the fault of the musicians. I’m sad to see it close; like I said, it’s conflicting. In any case, as the pandemic rages and Denver’s arts and culture scene is forced into a transformation, I hope we’ll find new ways to support Denver jazz musicians and the heritage of Five Points in 2021.

Here’s one way, if you’re able: elsistemacolorado.org.

Aaron Templer is a once-aspiring jazz musician who's now a hobbyist percussionist with four-time Best of Denver hip-hop artist SF1 and the live-music director of the SCFD-funded Mudra Dance Studio. By day he is the founder and CXO of the marketing agency Three Over Four.

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