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Jazz Guitar in the Mile-High City

Joe Barth

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JGT guest contributor Joe Barth takes a look at the musicians, clubs, festivals and universities around the Mile-High City, Denver, Colorado. 

Denver, the Mile-High City, is the gateway to the majestic Rocky Mountains and the ski slopes of Aspen. Red Rocks Park is the site of regal rock formations but also what many consider the best amphitheater in the world.  Denver’s Union Station, 16th Street Mall, and Brewery tours keep every visitor busy. In addition, Denver has a vibrant nightlife and music scene filled with great jazz.

The gold and the silver-rich Rockies as well as the growth of the railroads made Denver one of the fastest-growing cities in the United States in the late 1800s.  This passionate growth brought an enrichment of the pop culture of the era. By the 1920s the Five Points and Whittier neighborhoods, located northeast of downtown were a recreation center for black servicemen and a haven of jazz and swing music.  In the 1940s and ’50s, Rice’s Tap Room and Oven became the place to hear great jazz.  Leroy Jones, a well-known figure in the Five Points neighborhood was a promoter of various bands and entertainers such as Nat King Cole, James Brown, Count Basie, Fat Domino, Lou Rawls, and many other famous black entertainers. All the great jazz artists in the 40s, 50s, and 60s played the clubs in the Five Points area giving it the title of the “Harlem of the West.”  

Former Rossonian Hotel in Five Points – Denver

Charlie Burrell became house bassist for the legendary Rossonian Hotel in Five Points and played with everybody from Billie Holiday to Duke Ellington.  Today, the Five Points scene has lessened, as music scenes in other cities have, but the leading jazz festival of Denver still embraces the title “The Five Point Jazz Festival.”


The Denver area has had a number of tremendous jazz guitarists make it their home, one of the greatest is Johnny Smith.  Born in Alabama on June 25, 1922, his family moved to Portland, Maine and after his service in the Air Force Band, he relocated to New York City where he was a staff musician for NBC.  Johnny said he achieved his three goals in his life: he wanted to play with the best musicians and wanted to be one of the best musicians and he wanted to be an accomplished pilot.  Johnny loved flying his airplane as much as he enjoyed playing the guitar.  The music he performed in New York varied from playing with Charlie “Bird” Parker at Birdland to playing the dissonant classical music of Arnold Schoenberg with the New York Philharmonic.  He did a number of tasteful albums for Roost Records.  In 1952 he recorded “Moonlight in Vermont” with saxophonist Stan Getz which Downbeat magazine called one of the best jazz records of 1952. This performance features his “closed-position chord voicings” that sent scores of aspiring guitarists to their practice rooms to figure out how he fingered those voicings.  Barney Kessel said of Johnny “An extraordinary virtuoso. As far as I’m concerned, no one in the world plays the guitar better than he.  They might play it differently, but nobody plays better.”  Wes Montgomery said about Johnny “Man, I can never be that perfect. No one plays like Johnny Smith.”

John D’Angelico and Jimmy D”Aquisto would have Johnny over to the shop to show him a guitar when it was newly finished. D’Angelico would hold the guitar in the air, tap on it and listen.  Then he would leave-taking the guitar and if he was happy with the instrument he would soon return with a bottle of wine to celebrate.  When Johnny’s D’Angelico guitar was destroyed in a fire and needing another guitar quickly he borrowed John Collins’ D’Angelico guitar and immediately fell in love with it.  When Collins found out that when asked for his guitar back Johnny refused to give it up.  The two men were such good friends who didn’t want any hostilities to come between them.  Johnny Smith simply paid D’Angelico to make a new guitar for John Collins and continued to play John Collins’ D’Angelico guitar.  Johnny Smith recorded his classic Moonlight in Vermont album playing the D’Angelico he had got from John Collins. 

Johnny was always interested in guitar design and construction and wanted to develop his own model.  His first attempt was with Guild Guitars (now the Artist Award) in the early 1950s, then later had a long working relationship with Gibson Guitars.  The Gibson Johnny Smith model (now the Citation/LeGrand) has become the standard of the archtop guitar.  Later in life, Johnny moved his endorsement to the Heritage Guitar company to manufacture his model guitar.  In the early ’00s, Johnny worked with Bob Benedetto and signed a limited run of the Guild Benedetto-Signature Johnny Smith Award guitars.

In 1954 Smith wrote “Walk Don’t Run” for a recording session.  In 1956 guitarist Chet Atkins covered the song, and the surf-rock group The Ventures, hearing Chet’s cover, covered it themselves in 1960, and the song reached number 2 on the Billboard Top 100.  In 1964 The Ventures made a minor adjustment to the song and made it a hit a second time.  Johnny at his home and visit the “greatest little bar in the West”.  He converted one bedroom of his modest home into a bar complete with a full stock.  Hanging on the wall was his gold record for “Walk Don’t Run”, right next to his hunting rifle and fishing trophy.  


Dale Bruning was born in Pennsylvania, studied at Temple University in Philadelphia during which time he also studied with Dennis Sandole, with whom John Coltrane studied.  Dale was the music director for a popular radio program in Philadelphia and then moved to the Denver area in 1964.  Dale was the “first call guitarist” in the Denver area for years.  He taught at the University of Northern Colorado and the University of Colorado, during this time his most famous student in the 1960s was Bill Frisell, who then was playing clarinet and saxophone in his high school band.  As Bruning expresses in WESTWORD “It was obvious that the guitar was starting to take precedence [with Bill] over the saxophone.” It was my responsibility to introduce him to that music. It was easy to talk to Bill when it came to things like phrasing because he had learned a lot about that with the clarinet and the saxophone.” So along with passing on harmonic, textural, and conceptual ideas to Frisell, Bruning drew his student’s attention to jazz legends and history. Dale Bruning is now retired in the Denver area.

Bill Frisell was born in Baltimore, Maryland but his family moved to Denver when he was young.  He graduated from Denver East High School then from the University of Northern Colorado.  Later he attended Berklee College where he studied with John Damian and later was living back in the New York area and studied with Jim Hall.  During this time in the Denver area, he would occasionally study with Johnny Smith.  In addition to living in New York, Bill lived for a long period in the Seattle area.  He currently lives in Brooklyn, New York.

Bill Frisell

Mike Abbott has been playing in the Denver area for over twenty-five years.  He has performed with drummer Jeff Hamilton, bassist John Clayton, trumpeter Randy Brecker and many other world-class musicians.  He is a professor of guitar at the University of Denver and serves as a musical director at Platte Park Church.  His organ trio called 2B3 Trio is releasing an album of Jimi Hendrix covers soon. His book The Guitar and Amp Sourcebookwas published in 2011.

Steve Kovalcheck is a professor of guitar at the University of Northern Colorado and a very active player in the Denver area including work with the Colorado Symphony.  Boulder’s Bill Kopper plays all kinds of jazz but loves to also play Brazilian Samba and Choro music.  Dave Corbus is another busy guitarist who has played with a “Who’s Who” of jazz, such as Dr. Lonnie Smith, Plas Johnson, Red Holloway, Bobby Watson, Joey DeFrancesco, and many others. Khabu Doug Young recently moved from New York to the Boulder area and has worked with Art Lande as well as Paul McCandless of the jazz group Oregon fame.

Henriksen Amplifiers are built in the Denver area.  The company started when Bud Henriksen, an amateur player, could not find an amp he liked so he built his own.  Dale Bruning really liked the prototype and so Bud built ten more and sent them to ten world-class jazz guitarists to try.  Jim Hall, a friend of Dale Bruning, really liked it giving Bud the confidence to go into the amplifier business.  Bud died a few years ago but his son, Peter, is now president of the company that continues his father’s vision and commitment to quality.

Henriksen Amplifiers

Sadly, El Chapultepec, the oldest jazz club in Denver closed in December 2020.  Called “The Pec” it made the corner of 20th and Market the place where one could always hear great jazz and its influence on the Denver jazz and bar scene was immense.  In its late 20th-century heyday, music icons such as Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Count Basie, Wynton Marsalis, and Ella Fitzgerald stopped in to listen and perform, as well as visiting rock stars like Paul McCartney and Mick Jagger. Even President Bill Clinton played his tenor sax on stage there.

Restaurants [email protected]’s and the Nocturne continue to be places where one can hear great jazz when in Denver.  Some of the major jazz artists occasionally play the Red Rocks Amphitheater just outside of Denver.

Peter Henriksen’s Rocky Mountain Archtop Festival

There are some great jazz guitar festivals around the Denver area.  Peter Henriksen of Henriksen Amps puts together a great festival in Arvada, Colorado with vendors, clinics, workshops and great performances all dedicated to the archtop guitar.   Arvada also hosts Frank Vignola’s “Mile High Jazz Guitar Camp” each September. 

There are a number of outstanding jazz guitar programs in the Denver area.  Mike Abbott oversees the jazz guitar program at the University of Denver.  The University of Northern Colorado has a fine program headed up by Steve Kovalcheck.  A few miles away, David Corbus has a terrific program at the University of Colorado in Boulder.  Matt Fuller teaches jazz guitar at Denver Metro State University.

Jazz Guitar Today

 

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