All That Jazz

Denver’s historical Five Points neighborhood, once known as the Harlem of the West, is full of heritage and a renewed sense of purpose.

The kids in the cramped back room tapped their toes and snapped their fingers as the music flowed in, smooth as the liquor their parents drank in the lounge. The lucky ones who snuck in were so close to the stage they saw the tiny spheres of sweat glisten off Bill “Mr. Bojangles” Robinson or Nat King Cole. “We weren’t so much concerned about how much it cost to get in. All we were concerned with was how we could sneak in,” says George Morrison Jr. with a heavy laugh. “You had to at least try,” he says. “It was jazz at the Rossonian!”

Harlem, Philadelphia and Chicago are famous for their jazz cultures, but so too was Denver’s own Five Points, a staple of western jazz culture. During the roaring ’20s, the Great Depression and World War II, the neighborhood earned its title as the Harlem of the West, a must-stop for any jazz musician.

Historic joints, such as the Casino, Benny Hooper’s Ex-Serviceman’s Club and Lil’s After-Hours ran along Welton Street and jumped with the sounds of Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie, Lionel Hampton, Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker and more.

The Points was the bee’s knees and the cat’s meow, a place to settle in and sip some (at times) legal hooch and listen as a canary on stage sang to the hypnotic beat of a skin tickler. The musical mash “” the sweet brutality of hopes and dreams, both achieved and dashed, and the freedom to let loose with heart and soul “” everything got played in the Points.

George Morrison Jr., 88, is the son of acclaimed jazz musician George Morrison. His dad was known for jazz but was a classically trained musician who performed for the Queen of England. But even that wasn’t enough to break the Denver Symphony’s racist hiring practices, which prohibited him from being able to play because of the color of his skin. “That was a challenge to my dad because you weren’t going to hold George Morrison down,” his son says.

Instead, Morrison Sr. created his own orchestra, the renowned George Morrison Orchestra with players such as Jimmy Lunceford, Andy Kirk and vocalist Hattie McDaniel. McDaniel later went on to become the first African American to win an Oscar for her role as Mammy in the movie Gone With the Wind.

The band’s foot-tapping, dance-demanding jazz helped the group win a recording contract with Columbia Records “” the first to go to a black band. While with the company, Morrison Sr. recommended another jazz band that included Paul Whiteman, a white Denver bandleader, whose career became legend.

Those days spurred many stories. “I remember, during Prohibition, my dad making some home brew in the basement. He was making some when Bill Robinson came by to stay at our house. There was this loud noise, a “˜boom’ and “˜pow,’ and Bill Robinson said, “˜Get down; they’re shooting at us! Somebody’s shooting, get down!’ But it turned out the small bottles of the home brew had exploded in the basement. My dad said, “˜Aww, that’s just the brew downstairs,’ says a giggling Morrison Jr.

Morrison Sr. gave up touring in the mid-1920s and remained in Denver, where he opened the Casino jazz club, worked as a bandleader and taught music at Whittier Elementary, Cole Junior High and Manual High schools. While many musical greats were called to the Mile High City to perform, they weren’t allowed to stay in hotels downtown because of their skin color. Instead, city residents, like Morrison Sr., welcomed them into their homes. Others stayed at the Rossonian hotel and jazz club.

The Unity of Music

Once considered the premier club between St. Louis and San Francisco, the Rossonian provided high-class entertainment during the jazz era. It sits silent now, anchored in the Five Points of today. The wedge of a building is at the intersection of 27th Street, Welton Street, 26th Avenue and Washington Street, which forms the historic points that define and name the neighborhood.

“Man, it had a small stage. If the band had a piano, they had to build a little platform for it,” says Charlie Burrell, 88. A master jazz bassist, Burrell made a sensational career as a classical musician with the Denver Symphony Orchestra, which hired him as its first black performer in 1949. He made $35 dollars a week and supplemented his income “” and repertoire “” with local performances at the Rossonian and other jazz halls. “For a $1 cover and 50-cent drinks, it was some good music. It’s even where the white folks came down to get their fix,” says Burrell.

Quentin Harrington owned the building and watched it become one of the most integrated places in the city. “I had white people standing out on Welton Street to get in the place. I could look around that room some nights and couldn’t see a black face in there,” he wrote in the book Growing Up Black in Denver, published in 1988, the year of his death.

The Rossonian, a National Historic Landmark, welcomed live music, from the scat of Ella Fitzgerald to Charlie Parker’s sax. When the lounge closed, the musicians headed down the block to keep the party going. “It was the after-hours joints like Lil’s and Benny Hooper’s that were really good,” says Burrell. “We’d play from two in the morning till dawn and sometimes later if it really got going.”

According to Burrell, people like Cedar Walton cut his chops with several great groups at Lil’s. “I remember playing with Charlie Parker. This was during the time he was punching Judy [using heroin]. He got up there, sat on the stool and went to sleep. We never stopped playing. It was loud, and he just sat up there asleep,” he says.

So Black and Blue

In the 1920s and ’30s, open segregation and racism ran feverishly throughout America with the Ku Klux Klan at the helm. Blacks in the Points rarely ventured any further than California Street to the north, 22nd Street to the south and High Street on the east. Anywhere else was dangerous, and Five Points became a haven born of necessity as a black bastion against hatred.

The neighborhood had a department store, the Roxy movie theater, restaurants, a fire station, a dentist’s office and even its own post office. It was a city within a city. Look closely, and you can still see it.

Many of the buildings still stand today. The US Bank at 27th Avenue and Welton was once Five Points’ Atlas Drug Store. “We had everything we ever needed right there in the neighborhood,” says Morrison Jr.

If anything, the hatred and necessary fortressing of Five Points strengthened the community. The neighborhood’s black businesses prospered as the African American population grew from 6,000 to more than 7,500 between 1920 and 1940.

“There was the YMCA, and that kept a lot of us off the streets and out of trouble,” says Morrison Jr. The Phyllis Wheatly Colored YWCA became an official national branch in 1920 and operated as a residence hall, employment bureau and youth camp. The Glenarm branch of the YMCA focused on social and cultural life in the community, and it was considered by most the town hall, which hosted multiple meetings on the rise of the Ku Klux Klan.

The Points was often the target of the Klan, which had a foothold in Colorado and was highly active until the 1950s, at one time boasting 50,000 members “” one of the highest memberships in the country. They were everywhere, including the government. During the 1924 elections, the Klan gained control by electing an open Klan member, Clarence Morley, as governor. The KKK became one of the largest organized political forces in the state with help from people such as Benjamin Stapleton, mayor of Denver from 1923 to 1931 and again from 1935 to 1947. After the Klan helped push him into office, he named Klan member William Candlish as police chief.

“I never saw the Klan, but we knew they were around,” Morrison Jr. says, recalling stories of when the family home was being built. “Three different times they burned crosses to stop the construction,” he says. The Morrison family property on Gilpin still stands today.

But a few buildings weren’t so lucky. They’ve been toppled by the wrecking ball, making way for gentrification, which has literally changed the face of the community.

Five Points’ rich history would have been forgotten if not for a long list of local musicians and developers and civic efforts such as the Blair-Caldwell African American Research Library, located in Five Points, which houses a growing collection of research materials related to African Americans in the west.

Determined not to let the Rossonian fade away, the latest modern-day Lazarus, the Denver-based, minority-owned Civil Technologies is at the forefront of Five Points’ revitalization. “Jazz is an American original art form with great cultural history,” says Civil Technologies developer and Denver native Carl Bourgeois. “It’s important that these places are protected and preserved for their past and future. I’m trying to honor that.”

“I had a fantastic childhood in Five Points. I wouldn’t trade it for anything else in the world,” says Morrison Jr. “It’s sorta sad to see Five Points decline, and I miss the way it used to look, but it’s coming back. So watch out for the rebirth of the Points.”

Charlie Burrell and George Morrison Jr. jam and recall the Denver jazz scene.

(published Denver Magazine, 2009)

Published in: on 02/14/2011 at 08:43  Leave a Comment  

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