BOULDER — This one’s by special request, the bassist says.
A select group of the Hotel Boulderado’s intimate “Jazz on the Mezzanine” audience laughs at the statement, as if privy to some secret society of inside jokes.
It takes a little time — not much — to recognize the song the Diamond Weyl Jazz Showcase is playing as the jazz classic “When Sonny Gets Blue.” The song receives its own unique, improvisational treatment from the musicians — bassist Mark Diamond, pianist Andy Weyl, saxophone player Peter Sommer and drummer Chris Lee — all of whom stand at makeshift center stage on the wooden second floor of the hotel.
Daylight fades through the window overlooking Spruce Street just behind them.
Russ Schissler is alone at a table for two. He enjoys listening to jazz and watching it performed live. Years back, he played trumpet for jazz devotees right here, where, until 10 years ago, the Hotel Boulderado hosted weekly live music performances — including one or two nights of jazz — on the mezzanine.
“We shook hands and met on the mezzanine in June 1982,” Schissler says, referring to Diamond and Weyl, both of whom are consumed with music they began playing together more than 20 years earlier in this very spot.
Today, Schissler works with computers, occasionally doing sound engineering work for fellow musicians. He catches as many jazz gigs as he can. And there are plenty.
But as jazz venues go, well, that’s another story.
Music hanging on the periphery
“Jazz is not a popular music,” says Wendy Fopeano, a metro-area jazz vocalist. “There’s lots of people who don’t understand what it is. They just don’t like it that much.”
Across Colorado, musicians have come to face the facts: Jazz, as American as apple pie and baseball, is not embraced by the masses.
“It’s sort of the question of the ages, really,” Diamond says. “Places like the Boulder Theater ... they bring in a national-name artist, and the place will fill up with 1,100 people who call themselves jazz fans.”
Getting the same crowd to fill into local jazz clubs — small restaurants and bars across the Front Range, such as El Chapultepec and Dazzle in Denver and Trilogy Wine Bar & Lounge in Boulder — is a challenge, he says.
An identity crisis, in part, might explain this phenomenon, some area jazz musicians say.
“I think (some radio stations) misrepresent what true jazz is,” says Fopeano, who recalls one local DJ introducing rockers Steely Dan as a jazz group.
The media, for the most part, have been reluctant to give jazz music the same exposure that they have afforded rock and, in Boulder, jam bands, says Art Lande, an internationally respected jazz pianist and drummer who lives in Boulder.
“It’s all a question of sustaining,” Lande says. “What we’ve noticed here in this town is something will start up in this town, and first it’s five nights a week. Then it’s three. Then it’s one. Then it’s the pool hall.”
And in an area with so many faithful jazz musicians — “It’s like looking at a menu with 5,000
choices; they’re all good,” Diamond says — those playing solely to put food on the table might end up disappointed.
“It ends up being the people who present the music need to end up loving the music, too,” Lande says.
The golden age
Twenty years ago, you could walk into the Hotel Boulderado during happy hour and hear a variety of live musicians playing.
Only Dale Langer seems to recall there being one musical genre represented at the hotel.
“I think it was just a jazz showcase,” says Langer, a manager with the hotel’s catering company, Concept Restaurants Inc., from 1982 to 1985. “That was really the place to play at Boulder — for jazz particularly.”
But even then, jazz had a stigma, one that left club owners wary of hiring jazz acts in fear of losing money, Langer says.
“I think at the time it was really the quality of the music that had a lot to do with (jazz being picked up at the hotel),” Langer says. “We felt that we could do just about anything up there.”
There were more venues in Boulder at the time, says Mary Ann Mahoney, who also worked at the hotel. You could head down to the West End Tavern or the Blue Note. On occasion, a jazz great would come in and improvise, Mahoney says.
Boulder, in particular, had been on the jazz map for years. It was renowned for its annual summer jazz series at the Naropa Institute (now Naropa University), where, starting in the 1970s, jazz musicians from across the world converged.
“That was kind of a golden age around here,” says Lande, who attended the summer series for several years before moving to Boulder in 1987.
Lande, who in the 1970s toured Europe with the jazz band Rubisa Patrol, played a weekly gig with the band Russian Dragon at Boulder’s West End Tavern for 15 years. The shows ended in 2002.
“It became a ground for people to write their own music and try things,” Lande recalls.
By the 1990s, though, interest waned. Clubs closed. Jazz still sparked interest, but when the performers took the stage, they looked out at the same familiar faces.
“Some of the music scene was starting to kind of die down a little bit,” Langer says. “The (hotel) had felt (the music series) was starting to run its course a little bit.”
Bringing jazz to the forefront and battling ambivalence
Just as underground interest has fueled the local jazz scene, it was demand that brought The Diamond Weyl Jazz Showcase back to the Hotel Boulderado on Oct. 5, according to Chris Brown, the hotel’s catering director.
“There were a number of people who pulled me aside and said, ‘Thanks for bringing it back,’” he says.
Brown was at the hotel during the tenure of its original live-music series, which ran into the early hours of the morning. This time around, hotel management has taken its audience into consideration when scheduling the 5:30-to-9:30 Wednesday evening shows, he says.
“To be honest, the typical jazz crowd is a little older, and the older folks, they’re not gonna stay out ’til one, two o’clock in the morning,” Brown says.
Maybe not. But at Boulder’s Outlook Hotel, Sunday evening jazz jams prove that the music’s appeal is multi-generational.
“(Kids) ask, ‘What happens after we finish school? How do you function?’” Lande says. “(I say) ‘Play well while you get the chance, and be a nice person on the planet and teach the people who are coming up what they want to learn.’”
Lande, who teaches at Naropa University, says the Outlook Hotel’s jams are real-life extensions of what is offered in schools across the state. Those classrooms include university settings as well as the Colorado Conservatory for the Jazz Arts, a nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting, preserving and promoting jazz. The CCJA’s “Youth in Jazz” program has been credited with shaping new generations of jazz enthusiasts.
Fopeano, who says there were no jazz schools when she was growing up, has witnessed the effect music education has had on youth while attending jazz shows such as Dazzle’s.
“They’re just completely digging it, and they’re very knowledgeable,” she says. “They can tell when something’s good.
“There’s a ton of interest in the younger generation. I don’t think (jazz) will ever die off.”
Valerie Singleton can be reached at 303-684-5319 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you go
What: “Jazz on the Mezzanine”
When: 5:30 to 9:30 p.m. every Wednesday
Where: Hotel Boulderado, 2115 13th St., Boulder
More info: 303-440-2880; www.boulderado.com
Jazz resources: www.jazzarts.org, www.rockymountainjazz.com, www.boulderjazz.org, www.kuvo.org