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Christine Robertson at Caffè Sole in south Boulder. Her email list, Christine’s Jazz Picks, a calendar of Boulder performances and jazz event news, goes to more than a thousand jazz fans. (photo by Jack Sasson)

Just as there’s a range of ideas about what “jazz” means, Boulder County has developed a range of ideas about what constitutes a jazz venue.

By Charmaine Ortega Getz  

From elegant hotels to quirky bars, fine-dining establishments to coffeehouses, some variety of live jazz is playing somewhere in and around Boulder almost any day of the week: instrumental and vocal, standards, original compositions, swing, Latin, Afro-Cuban, fusions and more. And for the truly serious, be-quiet-I’m-listening crowd, there’s Jazz at the Dairy, a dedicated concert space for stellar professionals. Or CU Boulder’s concert halls, where the latest crop of jazz-studies students are the stars.

Thompson Jazz Studies University of Colorado Boulder (Photo courtesy CU College of Music)
Thompson Jazz Studies University of Colorado Boulder (Photo courtesy CU College of Music)

Boulder County has jazz in its blood going further back than most might realize. True, the University of Colorado has a ballroom named for Glenn Miller (1904-1944) and a repository of artifacts related to the legendary non-graduate and swing musician, who pawned his college trombone for a one-way ticket to Los Angeles and stardom. But Boulder native George Morrison (1891-1974), an African-American violinist and bandleader, made recordings for Columbia Records with his Singing Jazz Orchestra, and played a command performance in 1920 for Britain’s King George V and Queen Mary.

Continuing the Legacy

Today, the Boulder area continues to produce and attract outstanding jazz musicians. When Boulder restaurateur Suter DuBose looked to expand his passion for food, wine, community and music at Caffè Sole about five years ago, he was astonished by the local roster.

Multi-instrumentalist John Gunther (photo by Ronald Day)
Multi-instrumentalist John Gunther (photo by Ronald Day)

“I was unaware that there were so many gifted musicians,” he says. “All these quality people go out and hone their talent in places like New York and Chicago and Europe, and finally they come to Colorado, where they decide to settle in and around Boulder. It’s really remarkable.”

Among those “quality people” is trumpeter Brad Goode, a soloist and bandleader who has toured the world and led his own combo in Chicago, where the Chicago Tribune called him a “major catalyst in the revitalization of the Chicago jazz scene.” He’s now an associate professor of jazz studies at CU Boulder. 

Then there’s pianist-drummer-composer-educator Art Lande, who took his band to Europe and into recordings by ECM Records. He came to Boulder in 1987 and taught at Naropa University. From 1990 to 2005, he had his own jazz club in the basement of Boulder’s West End Tavern, before the tavern’s owner died and the place changed hands.

Lande, who teaches master classes at CU Boulder, now says, “As a musician, I have no interest in being background music, with all the crowd noise, the drinking. I’ve given my whole life to do this music. That kind of experience is just inconsistent with a serious presentation. You’re either presenting something real, or you’re just playing around.”

The Different Faces of Jazz

Robert Johnson at The Dairy (photo courtesy dairy.org)
Robert Johnson at The Dairy (photo courtesy dairy.org)

Dedicated jazz clubs are rare in Colorado. Even downtown Boulder’s legendary, now-defunct Blue Note, with its heyday in the 1970s, mixed it up with rock, contemporary country, “new wave” and other genres. Which is why Lande is enthusiastic about venues such The Dairy Center for the Arts, where he has been featured in a new series of music events called Jazz at the Dairy.

Music director James Bailey came to The Dairy in early 2015 to breathe new life into its musical presentations. “I like unusual concerts, not glorified jam sessions,” says Bailey. “Jazz is an extremely involved, sophisticated form that requires people to pay close attention, and a lot of people aren’t willing to do that. But for those who are, and those who are willing to learn to appreciate it, I think we can provide a different way of listening that can be successful if we do it right.”

The concept of concert-hall jazz makes DuBose laugh. “I’m not going to go hear jazz sitting all quiet and proper like a parochial schoolboy! That listening-room approach is wonderful for certain kinds of music, but if you’ve got a restaurant, you need a livelier economic model to sell product, which is your food and drinks, not a cover charge for the music.”

Without outright saying as much, both DuBose and Bailey admit that the line between the different jazz-listening experiences has to blur at times. DuBose says he’s still fine-tuning the most diplomatic way to let Caffè Sole patrons know when it’s time to dampen down the noise. “I put a little stand-up instruction card on each table to remind people to respect the musicians.” Over at The Dairy, “we’ll be introducing a full bar to the lobby, allowing people to take drinks to their seats,” says Bailey. It will open Feb. 6, when The Dairy’s renovation is complete.

What Will You Catch?

When casting your net to see what’s playing in Boulder County, the best catches of the week may be found on calendars maintained by dedicated jazz fans such as Christine Robertson and Kevin McInness.

Robertson grew up in Colorado and after some years away returned to settle in Boulder in 2007. Fresh from the San Francisco jazz-club scene, she learned to appreciate the music while dancing to swing and tango. “I was very impressed by the quality of musicians here, but the venues weren’t ideal,” she says. “I missed the energy where people are really listening to the musicians. That’s the energy the musicians take and then go in different directions. It evokes the best [from them].”

To foster that connection, Robertson realized, the jazz community needed more information. In the summer of 2013, she started Christine’s Jazz Picks, an email list of jazz fans and musicians, with a calendar of Boulder performances and jazz event news. The list has swelled to more than 1,000 names, she says. She also sponsored house concerts, passing the hat for donations that didn’t always reimburse expenses but led to a new idea for “party jams,” events where musicians could play informally and fans could bring potluck items and a few bucks to rent the recital room at the Boulder Piano Gallery on Walnut Street.

St. Julien Gingerbread Tea with jazz accompaniment (photo courtesy St. Julien)
St. Julien Gingerbread Tea with jazz accompaniment (photo courtesy St. Julien)

What’s Happening in Jazz
Christine’s Jazz Picks: www.jazzinboulder.com
Jazz at the Dairy: https://tickets.thedairy.org
Jazz Ensemble Performances, CU College of Music: www.colorado. edu/music/ensembles/jazz
Jazz Northern Colorado: www.jazznoco.com

While Robertson prefers to keep her focus on Boulder’s jazz scene, she gladly refers anyone looking farther afield to fellow fan McInness. He balances his paying gig as a RE/MAX realtor with his labor of love: Jazz Northern Colorado, a website that covers venues from Boulder to Fort Collins and Greeley.

“It started four years ago when the real-estate market was depressed, and I had more time on my hands,” McInness confesses. “I saw this online calendar in New Mexico called Jazz Santa Fe and knew we had to have something like this in northern Colorado.” His personal favorite venues are CU Boulder’s concert halls, where students and professors perform at a level he calls “fantastic, every bit as good if not better than what you find in the club scene.”

Of course, in Boulder County, the jazz “club scene” might not be what you think.


Charmaine Ortega Getz is a freelance journalist and author of Weird Colorado: Your Travel Guide to Colorado’s Local Legends and Best Kept Secrets. Her blog, WeirdColorado.net, is periodically updated with Colorado’s most unusual history.