In a changing neighborhood, Five Points Jazz Fest celebrates 15 years and Project Pabst Denver turns two — on the same day

The Five Points Jazz Festival, May 21, 2016. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)
The Five Points Jazz Festival, May 21, 2016. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)
The Five Points Jazz Festival, May 21, 2016. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

This weekend, for the second year in a row, Five Points Jazz Festival and Project Pabst will each take over a little chunk of Denver and throw their musical block parties just seven blocks apart.

With Five Points Jazz celebrating is 15th anniversary and Project Pabst only just moving in, the shared date makes a loud demonstration of the ways Denver — particularly Five Points and the piece of it we now call RiNo — is changing. Whether either festival likes it or not, they’re symbols of Old Denver and New Denver, and their proximity has raised the hackles of some longtime residents.

But here’s the thing: They’re coexisting just fine.

“No question about it,” Five Points Jazz Festival organizing committee member and KUVO Jazz music director Arturo Gómez said when asked if the festival has seen a growth spurt to match Denver’s. 

Last year, organizers estimated that 50,000 people packed the five-block, eight-stage, 35-act festival. This year, they’re expecting to do just as well, if not better, with nine stages and 41 acts.

Music inside Brother Jeff's cultural center on Welton Street during the Five Points Jazz Festival, May 21, 2016. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)
Music inside Brother Jeff’s cultural center on Welton Street during the Five Points Jazz Festival, May 21, 2016. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Meanwhile on Larimer and 27th, where Project Pabst will have erected a 30-foot unicorn, organizers will be expecting 6,000 people to fill one block. The festival sold out in its first year and PBR National Brand Ambassador Matt Slessler said Friday morning that it was about to sell out again.

“I think it has been an easy coexistence,” he said. “For whatever reason, we chose this weekend. I know with Red Rocks and things, Denver starts getting busy with festivals … The Denver people were like, ‘Trust us, this is actually a really good time for weather.’ There were a lot of reasons.”

The Portland-born festival’s move into the neighborhood worried Five Points Jazz organizers at first, said Brooke Dilling, Denver Arts & Venues’ special events coordinator and lead organizer of Five Points Jazz Fest. But if anything, the proximity and shared date probably helped.

This is my third year planning the festival, and the first year planning would have been 2014, and we were the only thing going on that weekend,” Dilling said. “Now there’s the Pabst fest down on Larimer and a couple other things going on, and I think that’s a testament to how much Denver is growing. I think it helps us because it drives more people to our festival.”

Five Points’ past, present and future is jazz.
The 715 Club, 715 E 26th Ave. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite) five points; welton street; green book; denver; colorado; denverite; kevinjbeaty;
The historic 715 Club, which recently reopened for the first time in decades. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Five Points Jazz Festival might not be as old as you thought it was, but its roots are still deep in Denver’s history.

Gómez got onboard in year one — 2003 — when he just so happened to move to Denver to work at KUVO. He’s watched and worked as the festival expanded without ever straying from its core values. The festival remains free and family friendly (and it saw a good attendance boost when it started serving alcohol a few years back) and, of course, it honors the neighborhood’s cultural heritage.

Five Points was once the only place between the Mississippi and L.A. where you’d find a thriving jazz scene, Gómez pointed out, not to mention clubs hosting the likes of Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie, Nat King Cole and Duke Ellington.

“It’s been a magnificent thing and it reflects the history of Five Points, because pre-immigration Five Points was known as the Harlem of the Rockies. All up and down Welton Street there were seven or eight blues clubs. This was the place to be,” Gómez said.

Oftentimes [musicians] would play at places for white audiences, at hotels and stuff where they weren’t allowed to stay, so bands would come into the Five Points and stay at the Rossonian and other places, and they’d come out and be jamming until 4 or 5 in the morning. So this is a continuing legacy.”

One way Five Points Jazz Fest extends that history is through the annual jam session at Brother Jeff’s Cultural Center. The festival gets submissions from around 200 Front Range musicians hoping to join in on the Five Points tradition.

“The festival is a way for you to become acquainted with the past,” Gómez said. “And more important than the past is the present, and bringing it into the future.”

The Rossonian, Five Points. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite) five points; welton street; denver; colorado; kevinjbeaty; denverite;
The Rossonian, Five Points. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)
New festival, new neighborhood:

Ask a native Denverite and they’ll probably tell you that Project Pabst is happening in Five Points, not RiNo. The neighborhood is a New Denver creation, and with that rebranding comes… well, in this case, more branding.

But Slessler says Project Pabst isn’t trying to change anything, it’s just trying to give Denver a good time.

“Denver’s been so good to our brand. We would be wrong if we came in here and didn’t celebrate the Denver culture,” he said. “We really want to be involved with local bands, with local artists. We try, when we come to do this in Denver, to use as much local as possible … We want to put money back into the city of Denver.”

PBR works with AEG to produce the festival, and Slesser says they “lean on them to make sure we’re doing all the right things locally.” There were no complaints from local businesses last year, he said, and they’re working to keep it that way this year.

The 40-act lineup will fill the Larimer Lounge, Meadowlark Kitchen and Bar, Cold Crush and Nocturne, in addition to two outdoor stages. Joining big-name headliners like Ice Cube, Phantogram and Danny Brown are a slew of local bands, solo artists and DJs — Colfax Speed Queen, Dirty Few, Dragondeer, Mu$a, Other Black and more.

Project Pabst this year will also feature artists creating murals on-site.

The festival lasts from noon to 1 a.m. and tickets — which you can find here along with a schedule — are $55.

The Five Points Jazz Festival, May 21, 2016. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)
The Five Points Jazz Festival, May 21, 2016. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)
Old festival, new attractions:

On top of the 41 artists you can see for free this year, Five Points Jazz Fest has improved its kids’ area, added a bike valet at Coffee at the Point, simplified its drink ticketing and brought back the opening parade.

They’ve also changed the scheduling this year so that rather than steadily shutting down stages until the final performance on the main stage around 7:30 p.m., stages will keeping bopping into the night. Indoor venues will have performances until 10:30 p.m.

“We said, ‘We have all these great bands that want to play the festival and we have all these people coming, there’s no reason we have to end these stages,'” Dilling said. “So, let’s keep them going and give the Denver bands an opportunity to play.”

And, yes, every artist on the Five Points Jazz Fest lineup is local, and they’re all keeping a tradition alive, whether it’s in jazz, soul, samba or funk.

We’re highlighting to people jazz is not dead,” Dilling said. “Jazz is awesome.”

Ashley Dean

Author: Ashley Dean

Ashley Dean covers culture and other odds and ends. She previously covered music and did some copy editing for the Denver Post, the Colorado Daily and the Daily Camera. She's from New York, likes her bourbon straight and has strong opinions about Kanye West. She can be reached at adean@denverite.com, 303-502-2804 or @AshleyDean.