All the Reasons Live @ Jack's Couldn't Survive the Shutdown

Live @ Jack's, which opened in 1998 as Jazz @ Jack's, recently closed.
Live @ Jack's, which opened in 1998 as Jazz @ Jack's, recently closed. Eric Gruneisen
Some Denver businesses were allowed to reopen on May 9, after the city's stay-at-home order expired, but Live @ Jack’s owner and general manager Sandra Holman-Watts announced that her venue in the Denver Pavilions would stay closed, after more than two decades of live music.

Unlike other venues and businesses that have applied for government loans to help with bills and paychecks, Holman-Watts didn’t want to take on another loan...she needed a bailout.

“We were the first to close,” she says of all music venues. “And we're going to be the last to open. We're going to be under ridiculous restraints. We've been mandated to close down for two to three months. That’s zero income, because we aren't restaurants or retail and have no other outlet to make money. “

What lies ahead for many venues is uncertain; even the date when they can reopen is unknown. La Cour and 3 Kings Tavern have also announced closures, and dozens of independent venues have organized as part of the National Independent Venue Association, asking for government support through the ongoing shutdown.

Holman-Watts says social-distancing requirements would be particularly tough for Live @ Jack’s, which hosted gatherings and thrived off of being packed, so bands could feed off the energy of the customers. It was a spot where people would buy strangers drinks and make new friends.

“And then to ask us to reopen at 25 percent capacity...we don't even really know the rules on that," she says. "So we're going to be making less money, and we're going to be going further in debt if we take these loans. It just turned into a big, huge snowball of shit, and I can't support it. In my opinion, it’s basically impossible for a live-music venue to reopen.”

Holman-Watts says she just did what she had to do and that it didn’t make sense to take out loan after loan without knowing when the venue would reopen or at what capacity.

She says she also didn’t want to put her staff, musicians or customers in jeopardy, which was a big part of her decision to close the downtown spot. Another reason was that a lot of the club's business is convention-driven. With customers coming in from around the world, she wanted local bands to be on a national stage. Holman-Watts would also rent out the venue to conventioneers for private events. She says she’s talked to a spokesperson for the Colorado Convention Center, who says there won’t be any conventions until next year.

"It’s basically impossible for a live music venue to reopen.” — Sandra Holman-Watts, owner of Live & Jack's.

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While attracting conventioneers was part of the club's strategy for moving to the Denver Pavilions in 2006, the venue’s roots date back to 1998, when Dr. Joel Karlin and members of the local contemporary jazz group Dotsero opened Jazz @ Jack’s at 1553 Platte Street, upstairs from what was then Paris on the Platte coffeehouse.

Holman-Watts says that Karlin originally wanted the club to be an intimate, Chicago-style black-box jazz room. After Karlin passed away in 2003, Holman-Watts took over and opened it six days a week, expanding the types of acts that played, adding soul, funk, R&B and tribute acts as well as comedy nights.

“I just took it in a direction that I felt it needed to go financially to support it, and it needed to grow,” she says.

To reflect that direction, Holman-Watts changed the venue’s name to Live @ Jack’s several years ago, when she became the sole owner after the members of Dotsero, one of the few jazz acts to still regularly perform there, wanted to re-strategize their business and make another album.

Since she made the decision to close, the owners of Dazzle, Herb’s and El Chapultepec have reached out to her, “expressing their love and kindness through this traumatic time," Holman-Watts says.

"Even though we are all kind of competitors, we all care about each other in the community.”
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Jon Solomon writes about music and nightlife for Westword, where he's been the Clubs Editor since 2006.
Contact: Jon Solomon