black history month 2023 goodwill of colorado blog

Jazz in Five Points: A Brief Local History

Five Points was one of the first neighborhoods to develop in Denver. The name refers to the five-way junction at Washington Street, 27th Street, 26th Avenue, and Welton Street where street cars would stop. There were too many streets to list so the junction’s stop was nicknamed “Five Points.” Despite hostilities and crowded living conditions in an aging neighborhood, Five Points flourished as a vibrant Black community. A mix of development, growth, and new means of transportation throughout Denver neighborhoods, along with segregation, heavily influenced this area.

From the 30s to the 60s, Five Points became a cultural and entertainment hub for jazz music. With the rise of touring musicians throughout the country, venues and hotels started opening up. The most notable venue, the Rossonian Hotel, hosted famous acts which included Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, and Nat King Cole. Five Points was the only jazz scene between St. Louis and the west coast. The neighborhood quickly became known as the “Harlem of the West.”

Support for the arts was strong in Five Points. The uplifting community would give local legends, such as George Morrison and Charles “Charlie” Burrell, a chance to thrive.

George Morrison started playing the violin and guitar at age eight. In 1911, he married and settled in Denver, studying under acclaimed violinist David Abramowitz and later at the Chicago Conservatory. Morrison enjoyed an accomplished musical career with his group, Morrison’s Singing Jazz Orchestra. They toured locally and nationally as well as recorded an album in New York for Columbia Records. In addition to playing, Morrison mentored other Denverite musicians who became successful entertainers themselves.

Charlie Burrell is often called the “Jackie Robinson” of classical music. A bass player by trade, Burrell arrived in Denver in 1949 and broke barriers by being the first African American in the Colorado Symphony. During this time, he was also a regular at jazz clubs playing alongside every notable jazz musician that came through. A decade later, he became the first Black performer to play in the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra and the San Francisco Opera.

Other locals made names for themselves in the area too. Jazz pianist Charlotte Mosley Cowens was known for her distinctive style as she had learned to play the piano by ear. Louise Duncan, a self-taught jazz pianist, was known to many as “Colorado’s First Lady of Jazz.” She often played with Charlie Burrell.

Fast forward to the jazz scene in Denver today, and you will still find a few niche spots where the community is as vibrant as it was decades ago. Venues like Dazzle, the Nocturne Jazz and Supper Club are just a few new places to note. You can also celebrate the history and music of the neighborhood through the Five Points Jazz Festival each year.

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