DENVER — Arturo Gómez fondly remembers a cold, rainy spring day outside the Blair-Caldwell African American Research Library in 2003.
“I had just gotten to Denver from Miami about a month before,” said Gómez, the music director at KUVO Jazz. He recalled standing outside the library listening to the Denver Municipal Band play music from the back of a flat-bed truck. Inside, the Ellyn Rucker Trio performed.
That was the first-ever Five Points Jazz Festival. “The next year, I got involved on the organizing committee and I’ve been there ever since,” Gómez said.
Flash forward two decades, and the Five Points Jazz Festival has become one of the iconic annual music events in Colorado. This year the festival is celebrating its 20th birthday. (It’s technically the 21st year, but Gómez explained how the organizers are not counting 2020’s pandemic-induced virtual celebration as a “festival.”)
The festival has seen staggering growth since its modest origins.
“And this year’s going to be, you know, the biggest, the best,” Gómez declared. “We’re proud that every year we have seen it grow.”
The festival, which takes place Saturday, June 10, will include 41 performers across nine stages. If you can’t make the event in person, KUVO, which is the primary media sponsor for the festival, will be broadcasting live from the Welton Street Plaza. (KUVO and Rocky Mountain PBS are both part of Rocky Mountain Public Media.)
A full list of performers is available here. Denver Arts and Venues hosts the festival and they have additional resources on the schedule, vendors and festival map here.
“It has been very satisfying to see [the festival] grow from one to two to three stages to finally, over 40 performances on nine stages,” Gómez said.
He will be leading the parade, which starts at 29th and Welton Street at noon. Weather permitting, the parade’s grand marshals, Erica Brown and Purnell Steen, will be riding in a convertible.
Gómez said he is excited to hear the Colorado Mambo Orchestra — a 13-piece band — celebrate the music of Tito Puente on the main stage. “That’s one of my favorites,” Gómez said, adding that he’s also looking forward to hearing music from saxophonist Anisha Rush as well as the Annie Booth Big Band.
“Jazz is a great big sea,” Langston Hughes once said. “It washes up all kinds of fish and shells and spume and waves with a steady old beat or off-beat.” Those beats date back more than a century in Five Points.
In the 1920s, a housing boom saw many white residents move to other neighborhoods in Denver. By the 1930s, three-quarters of Denver’s Black residents lived in Five Points, which was named for the five-way intersection of Welton Street, Washington Street, 27th Street and East 26th Avenue. The neighborhood became a hub for Black businesses and culture. A major part of that culture was jazz.
Denver was the only major city between St. Louis and Los Angeles with a robust jazz scene, which earned Five Points the nickname the “Harlem of the West.” Jazz heavyweights like Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and Nat King Cole all performed in Five Points. The most famous venue was the lounge at the Rossonian Hotel.
Families eventually moved from Five Points in droves. Between 1950 and 1970, the neighborhood lost half its population. Even the Rossonian shut down. The hotel, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, has been empty since 1998.
Through events like the Five Points Jazz Festival, Denverites are able to connect with the past while celebrating the present and future of Five Points through music.
Pictures: 1) Arturo Gómez leads the parade at the Five Points Jazz Festival. 2) Musicians at the Rossonian. Courtesy of the Black American West Museum. 3) The Rossonian. Courtesy of the Denver Public Library (AUR-681).
Kyle Cooke is the digital media manager at Rocky Mountain PBS. You can reach him at email@example.com.
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