As a Jazz lover and a Coloradan, I’ve always wondered about the history of Jazz music in Colorado and particularly in Denver. And so I thought that this was a great opportunity to focus my ethnographic fieldwork project on one of the most famous neighborhoods in Denver, known as the Jazz Mecca of the West, Five Points. To understand the history of Jazz in Five Points one must understand the history of black people in Five Points because that’s how it all started.
It begun just like almost everywhere in the U.S, in the early 1920’s and throughout the 1950’s and 1960’s as a result of what is commonly known as white flight. The migration of white people from the urban city neighborhoods to the suburban areas due to large influx of black people into those neighborhoods during the Civil Rights Movements until Segregation finally ended in 1965. Black people started to move to Five Points because of Jim Crow laws that prohibited them to live in the same neighborhoods as white people. The neighborhood quickly thrived, like a small city within Denver; with their own schools, restaurants and nightclubs, churches and post office. But above all it became a bastion of musician of all sorts but especially Jazz.
During segregation, Five Points was like a city within a city. It was the only place Blacks were allowed to move. Famous singer like Nat King Cole would perform in Denver but could not stay at any downtown hotels. Although they were no “Whites Only” signs but it was understood that black people would not be served. Despite the rough times of the era with racism and segregation, Five Points became the center of black business and entertainment in the American West. It quickly attracted some of the giants of Jazz music, from Louis Armstrong, Nat King Cole, Duke Ellington to Ella Fitzgerald and Miles Davis. All, performed countless times there with local musicians. On weekends, Welton street was the place to be. It was like the Jazz epicenter of the Rockies, if not the West. It was the place of reference to go, anywhere between Saint Louis and California. It was like what Harlem was to New York, what the French Quarter was to New Orleans. In fact, Five Points was known as the Harlem of the West.
Native famous bands like the Joe Keel’s Trio, who played for seven U.S. Presidents, saw lights in Five Points. The neighborhood also attracted musicians like Charlie Burrell who was the first black musician to perform at a symphony Orchestra. He is often referred to as the Jackie Robinson of classical music. Hattie McDaniel, the first black woman to win an Academy awards for her role in Gone with the Wind. Classically trained violinist, George Morrison who was considered the Godfather of Jazz in Colorado, performed in front of the King and Queen of England. Morrison owned two night clubs in Five Points, The Casino on Points and The Rock Rest. The people of Five Points were happy and made it what it was back then, a reference in Jazz Music and black success in the West.
Five Points is clearly no longer what it was then. With modernization, a more open and accepting society, and rampant gentrification pushing out lifelong residents. I started to wonder what has become of the Denver Jazz scene. Has the Jazz Mecca of the West completely disappeared? Where did all the musicians go? I decided to visit a few Jazz clubs downtown Denver in hopes of finding a local Jazz musician that would give me his perspective on how things were then and how they are now. After seeing him perform a couple of times with his band Le Jazz Machine, I met with Purnell Steen, a Denver native related to Charlie Burrell who made it his mission to preserve the sounds of Five Points. Steen in his seventies, often performs at Dazzle Jazz and is a frequent headliner at the annual Five Points Jazz festival.
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