- 2006 Jon Kelley
- The Alan Joseph Trio (above), with special guest George Whitesell on the trumpet, plays Cedars Jazz Club last Saturday night.
It's Friday afternoon, almost 5:30, and at the north end of the Antlers Hilton hotel lobby, a handful of people have gathered by the bar. They're mostly business travelers, still dressed in their workday attire, upspeaking each other and laughing a little too emphatically at one another's quips.
Standard holiday fare plays softly over the PA system as Pete Cardozo, electric bass in tow, walks in a few steps behind the bellboy carrying his amplifier. Not long thereafter, Dave Barry follows, carrying the components of his drum set. Lastly, Eddie Jones, the only of the three yet to fully gray, enters.
His instrument the lobby's piano, not more than 30 feet from the bar needs little preparation. But Jones rotates the piano on its wheels, maybe a few inches counterclockwise, almost out of courtesy to his bandmates as they unpack. Not surprisingly, the bar patrons, immersed in their own world, pay the near-silent musicians no mind.
"Gotta put my sign up," Jones sighs as he strolls through to the back of the lobby, toward a hallway reserved for employees. A few minutes later, a placard reading "The Eddie Jones Trio" is set near the hotel entrance. An oversized brandy snifter, already holding a dollar bill, sits atop the piano.
Jones stretches his aging fingers over the ivory. He won't admit his age he says he's 13, and with a straight face but the practiced hesitation before each word he utters paints a picture of a man who has seen and heard his life's fair share.
Satisfied with a quick warm-up, he stands and moves to one of the lobby's many leather seats and glances about. His set won't officially begin for another 20 or 25 minutes.
"We're just playing for the people coming through to the restaurant," he says, nodding toward the Antlers Grille entrance at the west end of the room.
He doesn't mind, he says. That's the nature of today's jazz game. He mentions the two-year contract he just signed to play the Antlers each Friday evening, and sometimes on Saturdays.
It's a paying gig. And those, he says, aren't that easy to come by anymore.
He starts talking about the old days, when the jazz venues in town were plentiful. When jazz was still hip. When local jazz musicians didn't have to fight one another for gigs.
When things were easier. When things were better.
"At one time," he says with an air of nostalgia, "there were jazz clubs all over Colorado Springs."
He mentions a few of the venues he remembers, his favorites. The Landing, a jazz club he used to play on Eighth Street he can't remember when it closed. Chops, Chips and Bits was a great place, too, he says. And then there was The Cotton Club, which used to stand not far from where he now sits, at the intersection of Colorado and Sahwatch avenues.
- 2006 Jon Kelley
- Brenda Miles hams it up with the crowd at the FAC Moderns jazz bistro.
Once more, he scans the Antlers lobby.
"No," Jones says, shaking his head, "it doesn't compare."
'I Got a Woman'
Ten years before it was known as The Cotton Club, Fannie Mae and Ed Duncan's restaurant at 25 W. Colorado Ave. was named, simply enough, Duncan's Bar & Grill.
The town was still segregated, and the Duncans hoped to establish a business where the black community could legally and comfortably congregate. They bought the building for $25,000.
"The night it opened, you couldn't get in the place," Fannie Mae, who died just over a year ago, remembered in a 1991 documentary about her contributions to the local community.
In the 1950s, to accommodate the restaurant's large crowds, the Duncans purchased the adjacent printing shop and renovated the upstairs. Once this level was prepared for business, the whole site was called The Cotton Club. Named after the famous venue in New York City's Harlem community, Colorado Springs' own Cotton Club became a downtown mainstay, drawing national acts at a time when black musicians were forbidden from playing The Broadmoor or the Antlers.
Today, the list of the club's performers reads like a playbill from a Chicago or San Francisco establishment of that same era: Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Fats Domino, Muddy Waters, Billie Holiday, B.B. King, T-Bone Walker, Lionel Hampton, Little Richard.
A G.I. stationed at Camp Carson (as the Army post was then called) named Flip Wilson used to test out his acts, including his famous Geraldine alter ego, on the club's stage. Years later, the story goes, the world-famous comedian, who hosted his own variety show on NBC, would tell anyone who cared to ask that Fannie Mae Duncan had given him his start in the business.
It wasn't long before white students at Colorado College and white cadets from the Army post were following their black friends to the downtown hotspot. Nervous to enter, given the cultural climate of the time, they would loiter outside the club, peeking in. This led Fannie Mae to famously erect a sign in her window: "Everybody Welcome."
The club, with which Fannie Mae and her hospitality had become synonymous, grew into such a draw that the white bar and restaurant owners in town went to the chief of police, I.B. "Dad" Bruce, to complain about her crowd. They demanded that The Cotton Club stop serving whites. When Bruce called Fannie Mae to his office to impose the injunction, Fannie Mae laughed.
"I just checked their IDs to see if they was 21, not to see what color they was," she recalled in a 1979 profile in the New York Times. "I said [to Dad Bruce], "You stand all the [lawsuits] I get for turnin' white people away, and I'll run it black.'"
The phone was ringing when Fannie Mae returned to her bar after the meeting. It was Dad Bruce. He had called to apologize, and told her to keep up the good work.
The Cotton Club continued to thrive. And, along with it, so did the jazz scene.
- Photo by Lew Tilley. Courtesy of Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum
- The Cotton Club, which stood on Colorado Avenue until 1975. An urban renewal project brought the building down.
'Old Man Blues'
As Jones plays the Antlers on this Friday night, the Miles Street Jazz Band will play at the Fine Arts Center's Modern Jazz Bistro. Across town, there will be three other performances: the Alan Joseph Trio at Cedars Jazz Club, the Brad Eastin Trio at Mollica's Restaurant and Deli, and Mistura Bela at Mary Lou's.
"In the last four years, there have been more and more jazz groups showing up," says Brenda Miles, the vocalist for the Miles Street Jazz Band. "We're all fighting for the same venues. The big problem is that there aren't enough venues."
The "little" problem is that there's some doubt as to whether enough fans are around to support the number of performers.
At the FAC Modern, Miles moves about in the center of the bistro performance area. It's not a stage, but it's close; only the track lighting above the performers is on, creating a romantic atmosphere. It's inarguably a beautiful space, but it feels out of place, tucked into a corner of an art gallery. And it's hardly crowded almost half of the tables in the bar are empty. An employee standing near the bar says it's par for the course. Later, he acknowledges that Miles' band is one of the venue's larger draws.
Near the Fillmore exit on Interstate 25, Alan Joseph is enjoying a somewhat larger crowd at Cedars. But this venue, too, seems confused, housed within a culinary arts school on an obscure service road. While those attentively listening seem to be enjoying themselves, the larger groups in attendance hardly pay attention as Joseph, eyes shut and writhing in his chair, implores his guitar to sing for the listeners.
Maybe jazz just isn't as sexy as it once was. The audiences at the performances around town certainly aren't young.
"It's the blue-haired crowd," says Shug Miles, guitarist for the Miles Street Jazz Band.
And that's not just specific to the local scene, either.
"People think it all sounds the same," admits local pianist Brad Bietry. "That's why it's not that popular. The general public thinks of it as background music."
And maybe it is. It's a genre that's become so ingrained within our society nowadays, it's heard more often on the speakers in mall department stores than in dark, smoky clubs that it's difficult for the sound not to come off as at least a little pedantic.
Meanwhile, shades of the genre pepper today's pop music. Kanye West's hip-hop beats are laden with jazz samples; Christina Aguilera's latest album, Back to Basics, was billed as a jazz throwback and, for the most part, it is; Norah Jones and, more recently, Corinne Bailey Rae have distinguished themselves by incorporating jazz elements into their sound; and, certainly, Michael Bubl has stepped into the Harry Connick Jr. male crooner mold.
When jazz reaches the masses now, it's usually through another musical genre.
"If you want to be a jazz musician, you have to be very broad," Bietry admits. "I don't think there's enough of a scene anywhere to just play jazz for a living."
- Photo by Lew Tilley. Courtesy of Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum
- Fannie Mae Duncan welcomed any and all patrons to The Cotton Club.
'Without Your Love'
For the past four years, Bietry has performed with the Air Force Academy Band's jazz ensemble, The Falconiers. It's coming up on the end of his service commitment. The smile on his face admits what Bietry won't openly say: It's been a great experience just this past month, he and the Air Force band played New York City's Carnegie Hall but he's glad he's getting out.
"While in the Air Force, I came to the conclusion that my purpose in life was to be a jazz musician and to teach jazz," he says.
Convinced that a lacking education process is responsible for the dearth of young listeners, Bietry and Steve Draper, a jazz musician recently relocated from Houston, have opened the Broadmoor Academy of Music specifically to spread their love of jazz to a younger set. The academy, which is housed on the Colorado Springs School campus in The Broadmoor neighborhood, started in September with about 20 students. It now counts more than 50.
"If we teach kids what jazz is," Bietry says, his eyebrows raised in excitement, "they'll spread the knowledge to each other."
Last Sunday, his school held just its second performance, a holiday jazz concert, featuring 12 of its most talented young performers. One long-haired, 15-year-old percussionist and pianist named Travis Henry actually had two concerts scheduled for that day. When he performed with The Swing Factory later on, he was the youngest member in the group.
"The youngest performer, besides me, is 35," Henry says with a shrug. He doesn't seem to mind, really. Actually, he seems to think it's pretty cool.
'Bird Gets the Worm'
Despite Bietry and Draper's push for education, most of the musicians in town acknowledge that talent-wise, the Springs is where it needs to be.
"The talent level here could very easily play in New York," Bietry says without hesitation. "And it's going to keep growing."
Much of that credit, most of the musicians agree, goes to the local presence of the Falconiers. In fact, most of the musicians who perform around town are, like Bietry soon will be, retirees from the Air Force Academy Band.
Since the late '50s, the Falconiers have traveled the country performing jazz as one of the premier organizations in the nation.
"One of the great problems with being a musician is that you wonder where your next paycheck is coming from," says Master Sgt. Chris Gaona, the musical director and group leader for the Falconiers. "There's not a lot of ways for a musician to make a living. The military bands are a great way to do it."
Most of those who audition for a military band are accomplished performers simply looking for a steady living, Gaona says. It's an enlisted force for which the hopefuls are flown out to audition. There's no real danger of deployment, although it's possible for a military band to be shipped overseas to help boost camp morale. And the benefits are plentiful; after completing a basic training regimen, a band member is awarded an accelerated rank. "You're bumped up to the middle at the start," Gaona says.
- 2006 Jon Kelley
- Guitarist Jim Christian and bassist Jon Ward of the Brad Eastin Trio play to the dinner crowd at Mollicas Restaurant and Deli last Friday.
Unlike Bietry, most of the members of the Air Force Academy Band remain enlisted for a full 20 years of service, comfortably earning their due before moving on. Gaona credits the high talent level in Colorado Springs to the fact that, by the time a musician in his outfit is finished, he or she often has settled down and started a family in the area and isn't as likely to move elsewhere.
"It's a large pool of musicians," Gaona says. "It's huge for the size of the city."
Brad Eastin, a local musician and a former member of the Falconiers, estimates that Air Force Academy retirees make up about 75 percent of the professional jazz musicians in town. It can make for a very interconnected fraternity and, given the scarcity of local venues, a sometimes-awkward one.
"We're all friendly, and we say hello to one another when we see each other," Shug Miles says before trailing off into silence. He's not sure what to say next.
Sitting beside him, Brenda Miles stares off into the distance.
"It's very competitive," she softly utters before changing the subject.
For out-of-towners trying to break into the scene, it can be especially trying.
Wayne Hoey, a former member of the Army's military band who moved here four years ago from Augusta, Ga., says that it's just part of being a professional musician. When he first came to town, he says, he had to "find the scene," and be extroverted enough to immerse himself in it.
The faces and names were different, Hoey says, but the interactions among musicians were similar here to what he had experienced elsewhere. The one difference was the talent level.
"This is definitely the cream of the crop of musicians," he says. When Hoey moved here, he had to prove that he could play alongside them, which is only as difficult as finding those willing to allow a newcomer to join them.
"The guys that you want to work with, they'll say yes," he says.
Today, Hoey sees himself as something of a coordinator within the local jazz community. When a group needs someone to fill in for an absent performer, they'll search their own phone banks, or they'll call him. Whipping out his PDA, he scrolls through his contacts. They're listed by name, address, phone number and, lastly, by what instruments they can play.
It usually doesn't take too many calls to line someone up.
"If someone calls you for a gig," Eastin says, "you're going to take it."
- 2006 Jon Kelley
- J.R. Erb of the Brad Bietry Jazz Group plucks the strings of his upright bass in a Saturday performance at the Antlers Hilton.
Friday's FAC Modern performance is one of two that Brenda Miles has lined up for the month. Under better circumstances like in the summer, when local venue owners are more willing to book live music her band will perform that often each week.
To keep playing, many local jazz musicians agree to dinner gigs at local restaurants. Eastin is one of them, and while he appreciates the upside, he's become aware of two dangers.
First, he's seen some musicians attain "a level of self-actualization based on the number of gigs they have." That mentality, he says, can be the kiss of death.
"If you're playing every night, you're building consistency, but you lose spontaneity."
Moving to his next point, he sighs.
"What I'm about to say could get me killed," he says, leaning in and lowering his tone. "I don't think the type of jazz that's playing here in town is the cutting edge any more."
He has a point; very few of the musicians around town are likely to break the mood of a room by busting out an early Miles Davis or John Coltrane imitation. Eastin admits that he, for one, has toned down his sound. To find yourself asked to return for future performances, he says, you need to pander to the eating crowds.
A third issue: By all accounts, these appearances can be an unreliable source of income. Whereas bands are booked in advance to earn anywhere between $50 and $100 per musician each night, the payouts from the restaurants can sometimes come up short, Brenda Miles says. Of the employees paid on a given night, it's usually the musicians who get their cut last.
If a new venue were to magically arise, at least the local musicians all seem to agree on how it should look. Even as the classic jazz sound struggles to survive, the stereotypical romantic image of a band playing behind a crooning vocalist in a hidden speakeasy down a dark alley still prevails.
"It should be like 15C," says Shug Miles, noting the trendy downtown bar in an alleyway off Bijou Street.
At least one local musician hopes he can help make this dream come true. Since arriving in town about a year and a half ago, Steve Draper has been passively looking for available property downtown. His hands are tied for the time being as he and Bietry establish the Broadmoor Academy of Music, but it's something he keeps in mind for the future.
"If the opportunity arises and everything works out, we would do it," Draper says. "It would definitely be possible. It could be very successful if it was done correctly."
- 2006 Jon Kelley
- Travis Henry, 15, is just one of a few dozen students at the Broadmoor Academy of Music whos interested in a career in jazz.
He even hints that he may have some willing investors back in Houston.
"Why can't jazz musicians come here and think, "Oh, this is a great spot!'" he asks. "It could happen. It just needs to be promoted."
Bietry is equally optimistic about the possibilities.
"I think we can create a jazz mecca," he says, smiling.
What's surprising is how few of the current jazz musicians in town realize that their dream for the future of jazz was once a reality here. Of the musicians interviewed for this piece, few were aware of The Cotton Club. And only Jones was aware of the roster it once boasted.
"Oh, they're all too young to remember," Jones says, still sitting and relaxing before starting his set in the Antlers Hilton lobby.
Even he missed out though, on the heyday of the local jazz scene. By the time Jones moved to Colorado Springs in 1959, after a stint in the service, he says many of the big-name jazz performers had stopped appearing at The Cotton Club. By that time, he says, most of the incoming acts were R&B performers, exotic dancers and comedians.
Still, Jones credits Fannie Mae Duncan; by hosting Sunday night jam sessions until the day her club closed in 1975, she kept the scene alive. Afterward, Jones says, there was another crop of clubs that helped maintain the city's sound during the '80s.
As for the recent downswing troubling his younger counterparts in the scene, Jones waves his hand in the air, dismissing their pleas for more places to play.
"It goes in circles," Jones says. "A few years ago, every jazz musician in town was playing. And three years from now, the clubs will want more jazz again."
Jones checks his watch. It's just a few minutes to six, when he's contractually obligated to begin his set. A handful of listeners have grabbed the seats nearest to his piano, already waiting for him to play.
"We used to sneak into clubs to watch Eddie play," one of the attendees reminisces. "Eddie's a legend."
"A legend in my own mind, maybe."
He stands up from his seat and nods appreciatively in his fans' direction.
"I don't know what the secret is," Jones says, as he walks toward his piano bench. "But the jazz fever is still here."