Denver’s Hidden Jazz History

By Spencer Case

What cities do you most associate with jazz? New Orleans, of course. Chicago and New York, certainly. If Denver isn’t your fourth (or fifth, or sixth) answer, it nonetheless boasts an impressive jazz history of its own. By the time 11-year-old singer-to-be Henry John Deutschendorf, Jr. adopted the moniker “John Denver,” the Colorado capital’s jazz boom was at its own Rocky Mountain high. In the 1940s, 50s and 1960s, the city’s “Five Points” neighborhood was known as the “Harlem of the West.” Although Denver maintains a vibrant lindy-hop scene, as well as a number of highly-reputed jazz clubs, few know that its streets are haunted by the ghosts of Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald, and other jazz legends. 

A barbershop on Larimer St in Denver now stands where the original Apollo once was.

A barbershop on Larimer St in Denver now stands where the original Apollo once was.

Denver, originally Denver City, was born in 1858 as a mining camp in the midst of the short-lived Pike’s Peak gold rush. Straining the eyes to detect yellow glimmers could leave one desirous for a little entertainment, and so the town’s first theater for musical performances, located on 1425 Larimer Street, opened on October 3, 1859, charging a dollar for admission. It was called the “Apollo Hall” theater. The better-known Apollo Theater in Harlem would not be built until 1914, and it would not be called the “Apollo Theater” for another 20 years. In retrospect, though, the coincidence seems auspicious. Denver’s first government, and business movers-and-shakers, would regularly congregate in the upstairs of the Apollo Hall, whose shows were said to suffer interruptions from drunkenness and “occasional gunfire” from the bar below. 1425 Larimer is now occupied by the Congdon building.  

Outside the Denver Turnverein House.

Six years later, as Civil War was just ending, German immigrants founded the Denver Turnverein, the oldest incorporated club in Colorado. The name references to the “American Turner” movement that promoted enlightened politics and physical exercise, especially gymnastics (a.k.a. “turning”). Since 1922, the club has been based out of its current location on 16th and Clarkson streets. Now that the gymnastic bars have been removed, its wooden floor (exactly 5,280 square feet) provides an ideal surface on which to swing out. Most dancers probably won’t notice the wooden circles in the dance floor where gymnastic bars had once been planted, but they probably would affirm the club’s motto, “A sound mind in a sound body.”

The ballroom inside the Denver Turnverein is still used for swing dancing.

During the latter part of the century, Denver grew rapidly in population and sophistication. A series of westward migrations transformed it from a dusty town of about 10,000 in 1870 to a thriving metropolis of over 213,000 in 1910. In 1881, a statewide vote confirmed Denver as the capital of the new state of Colorado. At about that time, the Stout Street Herdic Coach Line began to popularize the name “Five Points” for neighborhood surrounding the intersection between 26th Street, 27th Avenue, Washington Street and Welton Street. Originally an ethnically Irish and German neighborhood, Five Points soon became home to a community of African Americans who had found work on the railroad. Others, so-called “Exodusters” moved westward to escape the poverty and terroristic racial violence of the Reconstruction South, likening their migration to the Hebrew flight from Pharaonic Egypt.   

The historic 5 points district in Denver.

In 1920, more than nine out of ten of Denver’s 6,000 black residents lived in Five Points and the smaller adjacent neighborhood of Whittier, the namesake of American poet and abolitionist John Greenleaf Whittier. By this time, the jazz age was well underway. Two decades had elapsed since the 14-year-old who would be known as Jelly Roll Morton was expelled from the house of his great grandmother when she discovered that he had been playing “the devil’s music” at New Orleans brothel. The younger generation, however, did not associate the syncopated music with Lucifer. (Many would justifiably associated it with sex; the whiff of carnality seems not to have had the same repellent effect on them as it had upon Granny Roll Morton).

As the twenties began to roar, one native son of Denver, but not of Five Points, was making a name for himself as a jazz musician. In 1920, band leader Paul Whiteman recorded “Whispering,” the hit song that would launch his career as the “King of Jazz,” a title he gave himself (Whiteman’s well-trimmed, often flamboyantly-waxed mustache would be at home on the upper lips of today’s Denver hipsters). Was the royal title a bit much? Some have found Whiteman’s music tight-laced. Whiteman had, after all, trained as a violist to play older, less spontaneous forms of orchestral music. But even Whiteman’s harshest critics should acknowledge his role as popularizer and talent scout. Whiteman had the foresight to hire Bix Beiderbecke, Bing Crosby and Jack Teagarden early in their careers. It was also he who commissioned George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.” 

Notwithstanding the unflattering verdicts of some, 2016 has been kind to Whiteman, who died in 1967. The year has seen the re-release of the 1930, early color film, “The King of Jazz,” featuring Whiteman, his “Rhythm Boys” (Bing Crosby, Al Rinker, Harry Barris) and other well-regarded artists with whom Whiteman performed, Joe Venuti and Eddie Long. Whiteman is also a 2016 inductee into the Colorado Music Hall of Fame, alongside Glenn Miller, another Colorado artist whom he resembles in many ways. 

Outside the Rossonian.

Meanwhile, black artists who, under then-prevailing Jim Crow, couldn’t stay in other parts of Denver, found respite in Five Points, as well as appreciative audiences. At the center of Denver’s jazz scene was the Rossonian Hotel, a wedge-shaped, yellow brick building whose location at 2650 Welton Street (sitting on one of the “points” of the eponymous Five Points intersection) advertises its pride of place. Originally completed in 1912 and named The Baxter, the hotel changed its name and added a performance lounge in 1929. (The original name is still visible above the now-shuttered main entrance). A list of guests reads like a jazz hall of fame: Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Nat King Cole, George Shearing, and Dinah Washington among others. For a while, the cover charge was only a dollar. Kids, at least those with the good taste of George Morrison, Jr., would try to sneak in to catch a glimpse.

The Rossonian still stands at one of the corners of Five Points.

By 1950, though, the word about the venue had got out, very much in the bad way. The cover charge rose so that the Rossonian served a clientele of whites who did not (and presumably would not) live in Five Points. The situation then reeked of Harlem’s Cotton Club, which excluded black members, and whose very name put salt on racial wounds, even as the best black artists played there. When African Americans were finally allowed to stay elsewhere in Denver, the Rossonian lost its windfall of top artists and permanently declined. The building still stands, however, as do dreams of restoring it to its former glory. Currently, Civil Technology and Sage Hospitality Resources are in a partnership to develop the area. The ambitious plans include the construction of a new hotel behind the old building, which would include a jazz club. 

Like a keystone species in an ecosystem, the Rossonian created niches where other forms of life could flourish. The presence of great jazz musicians and their fans had a predictable effect on the local demand for alcohol – liquor shops and gambling halls sprang up like mushrooms after a gentle spring rain. Jazz-goers who had not had their fill (either of music or strong beverages) could flock to afterhours clubs. One of the most famous of these was the Ex-Serviceman’s Club (a.k.a. “The Hole”) at 2627 Welton Street, across the street from the Rossonian, which featured a Sunday night jam session. Jimmy Lunceford, a Denver bandleader whose version of “Taint what You Do” remains a shim-sham classic, was a regular. (As it happens, Lunceford’s music teacher was none other than Wilberforce Whiteman, father of Paul, and one of the founders of what is now the Colorado Philharmonic Orchestra). 

Inside what was once the Ex-Servicemen's Club.

Inside what was once the Ex-Servicemen's Club.

In a partly autobiographical political pamphlet called “Through my Eyes: The Denver Negro Community March 1934 - January 1968,” Shelley Rhym, a local drummer and bandleader, recollected that “The Ex-Servicemen’s Club, which Mr. Hooper owns, is the hottest jazz spot in the west. Musicians, black and white, gather there until the wee hours of the morning exchanging musical ideas.” Elsewhere he describes the atmosphere of Ex-Servicemen’s Club jam sessions:

You walked in and naturally the room was full of smoke. It never was plush – cement floor, no table cloths on the long tables – but it was a generally happy place. The people were very responsive to the music, always cheering the musicians on. When the joint was empty, the sound would echo off the cement, but when people were there, their bodies absorbed some of those echoes.

The “Mr. Hooper” that Rhym mentions, Ben or “Benny” F. Hooper, was a black businessman, World War 1 veteran, and philanthropist who invested much of his fortune into the Five Points community. Grateful locals affectionately called him the “mayor of Five Points.” During the Great Depression, Hooper provided soup for the poor; but, having been born in 1894, during Denver’s waning Wild West days, he was naturally tough as well as compassionate. Rhym said that he carried a small pistol with him in case anything “got out of hand” at one of his clubs. 

Shelley Rhym, copyright Denver Post (1968)

Shelley Rhym, copyright Denver Post (1968)

The inside of the former Ex-Servicemen's Club still pays homage to its jazz roots.

The inside of the former Ex-Servicemen's Club still pays homage to its jazz roots.

The Ex-Servicemen’s Club’s succinct bylaws and regulations, a copy of which hang near the door of Cervantes Masterpiece Ballroom, suggest that he didn’t want his clubs to be, or to be perceived as, dens of iniquity. The rules include: All members must have membership cards on person at all times. No one will be served or admitted to club while intoxicated. Guest cards are requested for your visiting friends. And most surprisingly: No swearing or profane language anywhere in the building (are we really to believe that reasonably lubricated (though never “intoxicated”) jazz musicians would honor this at the “wee hours of the morning”?) Absent are rules excluding women or members of any racial group (though there must have been an unstated rule against admitted minors). The name, “Ben F. Hooper Pres,” at the bottom of the list seems intended to add gravity, and probably had that effect. 

This tenderness-and-toughness approach seemed to pay off. On October 1, 1948, Hooper opened a second music venue, the 1000-person capacity Casino Cabaret Ballroom, which featured a hard wood floor and a 40-foot bar. The Casino Cabaret, conveniently located next door to the Ex-Servicemen’s Club, had been George Morrison’s Casino jazz club. Morrison’s little-known career is imminently digression-worthy. Morrison was the head of George Morrison and his Jazz Orchestra, one of Denver’s first jazz bands. When black artists were turned away from downtown Denver hotels, they sometimes stayed at his residence. In 1920, Morrison signed a contract with Columbia records. He was the first African American to land such a deal.

Unfortunately, only one song came of it, a rather tame fox-trot medley called “I know why” which was released as a B-side. Three other songs were recorded but apparently never released. Morrison’s relationship with Columbia records appears to have been a troubled one. He at one point did a “tone check” for RCA records, but Columbia swiftly reminded him that his deal with them was exclusive. Morrison graciously recommended Whiteman’s band to RCA; the rest as they say, is history. He must have been exasperated when Columbia failed to renew his contract, at which point his opportunity to land a deal with RCA had been blown.

Morrison nonetheless toured internationally, once performing for king and queen of England. The members of his regular touring entourage included the Jimmy Lunceford of shim-sham renown, and saxophonist and tubist Andy Kirk, another Denver native to have been tutored by Wilberforce Whiteman. Kirk would later go on to head Andy Kirk and his Twelve Clouds of Joy, whose hits included “Until the Real Thing Comes Along” (1936). Yet another under-appreciated Colorado artist who toured with Morrison was singer, comedian and actress Hattie McDaniel. She is best known for her role as “Mamie” in Gone with the Wind, which made her the first the first African American woman to win best supporting actress. In 2006, she was honored with a U.S. postal stamp which features her portrait and the words “Black Heritage.”

When he wasn’t touring, Morrison gave music lessons in Denver, often free of charge for those students who couldn’t afford it. He later settled down – somewhat – as a music teacher at several local schools, but was still getting good gigs after World War 2. Indeed, one of the reasons that he divested from the Casino was to free up more time to tour. And though he wasn’t known nationally as the “King of Jazz,” it was no exaggeration to say that Morrison ruled a small kingdom of his own. Locals even gave him an honorary title of his own: Morriston was Denver’s “Godfather of Jazz.” 

Spencer Case, the author of this article, hanging out at the bar in the Casino Cabaret.

As the now-unencumbered Godfather toured with his band, the newly-renovated Casino Cabaret Ballroom flourished under Hooper’s new management. This list of artists who performed at the Casino Cabaret Ballroom rivals the Rossonian’s: Memphis Slim, James Brown, Ray Charles, B.B. King, “Big Joe” Turner, Muddy Waters, Fats Domino, Brook Benton, Ike and Tina Turner and others. Some even compared the Casino Cabaret Ballroom to Harlem’s Cotton Club (minus the racism). The ballroom closed in 1965, but was resurrected as “The Casino Cabaret” in 1996 amid attempts to revitalize the city and has now become Cervantes Masterpiece Ballroom, which also occupies the place of the Ex-Servicemen’s Club. The sign for the Casino Cabaret is still present above the entrance. 

The marquee outside of the current Casino Cabaret.

Hooper’s Casino Cabaret Ballroom coexisted with the Rainbow Ballroom, which stood from 1933-1961 on 38 E 5th Avenue. With a capacity of 3,000, it was the largest dance hall in Colorado. A 1946 Billboard article referred to it as one of the best dance halls west of the Mississippi. Performances there featured Billy Eckstine, Tiny Hill, Benny Goodman, Woody Herman, Les Brown, Louis Armstrong’s Big Band (with Sid Catlett), Duke Ellington, Fletcher Henderson, Lionel Hampton and Dizzie Gillespie and His Orchestra. Leroy Smith, a friend of Hooper’s (as well as a popular D.J. and owner of yet another music venue, the Voter’s Club), was a concert-promoter for both the Rainbow Ballroom and the Casino Cabaret Ballroom. This suggests a symbiotic, rather than antagonistic, the relationship between the two ballrooms. 

In 1959, the year after Harlem’s legendary Savoy Ballroom was demolished to make room for a housing project, a race riot at the Rainbow Ballroom cut short a Fats Domino concert. Fights broke out when an unidentified white man kicked over a table where a mixed-race couple sat. According to Jet Magazine, 18 police cars, three patty wagons, and an ambulance were dispatched, but fighting continued in the streets when police tried to quell the violence. After an hour of melee, though, there were only minor injuries, no serious damage to the building and no arrests. Smith claimed that the reports were exaggerated and that no more than four fights had broken out; Jet Magazine reported 40. 

El Chapultepec is a Denver landmark. This family owned bar/restaurant still serves up jazz.

One venue outside of Five Points deserves mention: El Chapultepec (a.k.a. “The Pec”). This restaurant, located on the corner of Market Street and 20th Street, has served authentic Mexican food and beer since 1933. In the early days, its customers were almost exclusively Mexican migrant workers; some even paid with pesos. The musical performances then were mostly of Mariachi and other styles of Latin music. But when jazz aficionado Jerry Krantz took over the business from his father in law in 1958, set about to realize his vision of transforming the joint into a first-rate jazz club. But what big-name jazz musician would be the first to perform at this non-traditional venue?

Inside El Chapultepec.

Clarinet virtuoso Buddy Defranco would. After a concert, Krantz approached Defranco and asked if he would perform at his Mexican restaurant. Defranco agreed, and many other musicians were happy to follow suit. Over the years, Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie, Frank Sinatra and others played there. Jack Kerouac, who hung around Denver, and especially Five Points, during his On the Road years used to smoke pot with his friends in the parking lot, then listen in at the booth nearest the door without buying anything. There was no cover charge, and Krantz was tolerant of their loitering. Krantz died in 2012, but the establishment remains in the family, and it retains its dive bar look (and astonishingly low prices). Hot burritos and cool jazz are still the order of the day – except, of course, when the jazz is hot.

Jazz and swing continue to have a strong presence in Denver. The Mile High City’s many jazz clubs include Jazz at Jack’s at 500 16th Street #320, City Park Jazz at 1700 York Street, Dazzle Restaurant and Lounge at 930 Lincoln Street (named by Downbeat Magazine as “One of the Top 100 Jazz Clubs in the World”) and the newly-opened, but well-reviewed, Nocturne Jazz and Supper Club at 1330 27th Street. There is also great swing dancing to be had at the Mercury Café (a.k.a. the “Merc”), the Turnverein, and elsewhere. One of Denver’s radio stations, KUVO 89.3 fm, is dedicated to Jazz.  

What about Five Points, though? Has this center of culture and history been left behind? Not entirely. Five Points’ history is remembered annually at the Five Points Jazz Festival, a one-day extravaganza that takes place in May and attracts over 25,000 people. In an article for 5280 last year by Kasey Cordell leads with: “For decades, Five Points has been dubbed “in transition,” an “emerging area,” even “up-and-coming.” No more. This north Denver neighborhood has officially arrived.” She points to the thriving businesses like Rosenberg’s Bagels & Delicatessen, the interest of millennials who want to live nearer to downtown, and the aforementioned efforts to re-develop the Rossonian. All true. Still, the site of shuttered buildings and graffiti makes the triumphalism seem a tad premature.

There’s also anxiety about how even these apparently positive changes will affect the neighborhood. Many dislike the idea of gentrification, i.e. of seeing what happened to the Rossonian Hotel at its peak, when white patrons pushed out the locals, happen to the community as a whole. Would it profit Five Points to gain the world and lose its soul? This reasonable worry notwithstanding, Five Points seems long overdue for a change of fortune, and people with fortunes may be needed to bring it about. If this isn’t revitalization then it will have to do. Until the real thing comes along.

Further reading:

  1. Denver’s Five Points Neighborhood: 5 Things You Didn’t Know” (Huffington Post)
  2. “All that Jazz” by Elena Brown
  3. “George Morrison, Jr. Reflects on His Jazzy History” by Angelia McGowan, Denver Urban Spectrum.
  4. “With Developers Jazzed About Five Points, the Rossonian Hotel Could Soon be Hopping Again,” by Jamie Siebrase, Westward Magazine. 
  5. “Exploring Denver’s El Chapultepec” By Clint Lanier and Derek Humbree, Huffington Post.
  6. “Five Points: You Have Arrived” by Casey Cordell, 5280.
  7. Denver Library