House of Blues

Durward Minor is losing his chops a little bit every day. For this he can blame both arthritis and inertia: It's been nearly four months since he held either of the instruments he mastered long ago -- the acoustic bass and the tuba -- and his hands are starting to stiffen. A player who's shared stages with some of the jazz world's leading lights, he needs regular practice to keep his flow and live up to the very musical name that most of his friends and fans know him by: D. Minor. One of Denver's most storied and accomplished accompanists, the 64-year-old has devoted his adult life to being a musician.

But in September, Minor became something else: an inmate at the Adams County jail. In January, he was arrested on a felony charge for driving under the influence of alcohol (his fourth such offense) with a suspended license. The felony was dropped, but Adams County judge Emil Rinaldi sentenced Minor to one year in jail -- the maximum penalty for alcohol-related driving offenses in Colorado.

There is no band room in the Adams County jail, no special practice time allotted to prisoners of a musical persuasion. But Minor had reason to hope that his playing wouldn't be silenced during the long months that lay ahead: Rinaldi had told him he'd be eligible for a work-release program that cuts sentences in half by crediting two days of jail time for each full day spent at work.

For Minor, that meant he could try to hold on to his three steady weekly gigs: El Chapultepec on Wednesday nights (as part of Freddy Rodriguez Jr.'s Jazz Connection combo), Shakespeare's pool hall on Sundays and Mel's Bar & Grill in Cherry Creek on Thursday through Saturday nights. His fingers would stay limber, his ear would stay sharp, and he wouldn't have to let his bandmates down. Perhaps more important, he could hang on to his career.

But Minor's application for work-release was denied by the sheriff's office, which said the eighteen hours he'd spend weekly on club stages fell short of the 32-hour minimum required for participation in the program. Minor's case also was complicated by the fact that he'd failed to provide the proper paperwork establishing himself as self-employed. As a result, he'd have to claim three separate employers, a logistical nightmare for the small staff overseeing work-release inmates.

"D. just wasn't the type to file all the papers and go through all of that kind of stuff to document himself as self-employed," says Candy Gordon, Minor's fiancée. "A lot of musicians just don't operate that way."

Following the denial of Minor's application, she and several of the couple's friends argued to Adams County officials that the peculiarities of his profession required an open-mindedness about more than just paperwork. The nature of a musician's life is different, they said, from that of the average inmate, who is more likely to hold a job easily quantified on a time sheet. True, Minor wouldn't be spending eight hours a day behind a desk or in a warehouse, but keeping up with his career as a player -- a player who needed time to practice, write music and rehearse with a band -- required more than 32 hours a week.

"They said they would let him in if he could play gigs so many hours a week, but that's only one part of being a musician," says Pete Vriesenga, president of the Denver Musicians Association. "It's all the things you have to do when you're not playing. It's practicing and writing and making arrangements for gigs and just staying on top of things. You have to do so much other work just to be able to play those gigs. Now, he can't practice, can't maintain a business. He's going to lose all of his gigs."

Minor's supporters also suggested that an individual's talent and achievements ought to count for something in the eyes of the justice system. This is a man, after all, who has performed for foreign dignitaries abroad and for social and political leaders at home. Not a hack or a wannabe, but a man who once hung with Charles Mingus and knows his way around the Governor's Mansion. Over the years, he's been paired with well-known jazz players such as Eddie Harris and Arnett Cobb, Nancy Wilson and Della Reese, Cedar Walton and David "Fathead" Newman. Locally, his friends are the people facing out from the bandstands and symphony risers.

But to Susan Argo, court-services supervisor for Adams County and overseer of its work-release program, even an accomplished musician must play by the work-release rules. The program's purpose is solely to allow inmates to keep up with their financial responsibilities, not pursue a dream job. "I've always told applicants that if you want to be in work release, you'd better not be picky," she says. "They're just supposed to be looking for a job, not a career, and they take what they can. We've got people working at Grease Monkey, Big-O Tires. McDonald's has a lot of our people. Mr. Minor was given ample opportunity to make it work. It was sort of like, he's either got to be a musician or he's got to be something else. And he wasn't willing to be something else."

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Laura Bond
Contact: Laura Bond