Denver’s beloved Dazzle Jazz club celebrates 25th anniversary in 2022
The pandemic has beaten so many artists and clubs into the ground that it’s tempting to think of it as the sort of highly pressurized environment that produces diamond-hard resolve.
That only happens if there’s enough support on all sides.
“In a weird way, it’s been good. It’s taught us to do what we do best, and push all that other stuff to the side,” said Donald Rossa, 62, the longtime owner of Dazzle, Denver’s flagship jazz club that’s celebrating its 25th anniversary in 2022.
Rossa is gracious in his assessment of the past couple of years, which have been as rough for Dazzle as for any other independent music venue. A lack of revenue, potentially crushing refund requests, furloughed employees and more could have swiftly driven the club into the ground early on.
But as one of the region’s most important jazz players, Dazzle has felt the community love since COVID-19 froze the music industry in its tracks in early 2020, with tens of thousands of dollars in donations and grants, in addition to volunteer work.
Not that it was easy, or automatic. The club has faced months-long stage blackouts, even as it continued to pay musicians for virtual concerts (a rarity over the last two years). It raised $40,000 for employees through GoFundMe, Westword reported, despite a near-total lack of cashflow during the shutdowns. And the club has provided for Denver musicians of all genres with its free-food program, which stocked an honest-to-God pantry with canned and dry goods, and fresh vegetables.
“We all started talking when the shows first stopped,” Rossa said of his peers in the Front Range jazz scene. “And it enraged us that they were cutting off a lifeline to these musicians. It was a bunch of bull(crap), so what were we going to do to fight for them?”
The pantry eventually was retired in favor of paying his musicians more, Rossa said. But that spirit continues to go both ways: Dazzle is now raising money for a different nonprofit each month by adding the option to donate through its ticketing system. (In January, the club is supporting the James Dewitt Yancey Foundation.)
“I was in awe of the whole place, and the scene,” said general manager and co-owner Matt Ruff, who joined Dazzle immediately after moving here from El Paso, Texas, in 2003. That was back when the club was a railroad car-shaped bar with an adjacent, upscale dinner stage, located at 930 Lincoln St.
“I had a really great (job) interview with Donald, and he invited me back that evening to see Future Jazz Project and Andrew Hudson’s Latin jazz band,” Ruff said. “I thought I was interviewing for a bartender or server position, but I came in as GM that first holiday season.”
Like Ruff, others found their way to Rossa thanks to the club’s reputation for booking freshly minted local acts as much as Grammy-winning touring artists. That includes the upcoming Christian McBride and Inside Straight shows (scheduled for May 10-12), hip trios such as The Bad Plus (a perennial Denver and Dazzle favorite), and boundary-pushing locals such as Los Mochochetes.
As a result, Dazzle has been consistently named the city’s best jazz club in critics’ and reader polls, and proven its mettle in roundups such as Downbeat’s “100 Best Jazz Clubs in the World.”
“The only thing I’ve said is, ‘We’ve got to make money to stay open for this next year,’ ” Rossa said. “And if we do that, we got another year. But the beauty of this business is that we’re all ages, and that jazz can be defined in a lot of ways.”
Denver’s jazz scene is compact but strong, and Rossa and his team are arguably the core of it. With the help of the nationally acclaimed KUVO Jazz station (89.3 FM) and other names such as the Live @ Jack’s production company (formerly Jazz @ Jack’s venue), Nocturne, The Mercury Cafe, Soiled Dove, Muse Performance Space, and the late, great El Chapultepec in Lower Downtown — among many other boosters — Dazzle has become a safe stop for top talent.
That’s also thanks to a long line of savvy bookers, Rossa said, thanking too many of them to list here, and the bar’s co-founders, Karen Storck and Miles Snyder (from whom Rossa bought Dazzle in 2003). Now located in a lofty, 9,000-square-foot space in the Baur’s building at 1512 Curtis St., Dazzle has continued to evolve — particularly after it decamped there from Lincoln Street in 2017, following potential renovation issues that would have pulled it under at Lincoln Streeet.
That’s when seasoned jazz singer Jan Cleveland joined the team.
“People like myself and Austin Andres came on board (as co-owners) with the hope that we could give Donald some energy to keep going,” said Cleveland, who’s also an attorney who has overseen Dazzle’s legal affairs since 2017.
“Jan and I were talking about opening a jazz club on our own, and then talking to Donald about maybe purchasing Dazzle at some point,” said Andres, who pitches in with talent buying and booking. “But Donald was really invested and invited us to partner with him.”
With Cleveland, Ruff and Andres’ support, Dazzle’s 25th anniversary shows kicked off Jan. 8 and 9, but the club will be celebrating all year, Rossa said. Jazz is a resilient, unique American art form that has navigated patches like this before. Whether we’re in a cultural tunnel or on the doorstep of the new Roaring ’20s, Rossa said he’s still working on behalf of his customers and musicians.
And they’re working for him. Only 10% of ticketholders for Dazzle’s canceled or postponed shows asked for refunds over the last couple of years, he said. Still, he decided to “give back all of that money,” adding: “We’re doing OK, and I think things like that are all about relationship-building with future and forever customers.
“But we don’t advertise ourselves, we advertise the artists,” he said. “We’re the ones who feed off their energy.”
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