NewsMar 25, 05:31 PM
The Denver Musician
The cultural rebirth of a community
By Pete Vriesenga
Billy Strayhorn’s classic Take the ‘A’ Train takes us back to Harlem, NY during the ’40’s at the peak of a cultural and musical renaissance. To this day Harlem’s colorful history recalls the sophisticated lifestyle of the black elite who created a social, entertainment economy that was home for musical icons such as Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker and Billie Holiday.
Denver’s ‘Five Points’ community was often referred to as the “Harlem of the West” because of its rich musical history that showcased many of the same world-renown performers as well as Colorado’s finest jazz artists. Much of this history would have been forgotten if not for a long list of great musicians and civic leaders who were determined to preserve it. Former DMA board member Gloria Holliday was a household name at the Voters Club and Rainbow Ballroom, and was a featured vocalist with many of the great jazz artists who frequented these nightclubs in the late 1950’s and 60’s. As a member of Denver’s Regional Transportation District (RTD) from 1994 to 2002, Gloria was unyielding in her fight to preserve and revive this cultural heritage.
Like Harlem, Denver’s Five Points community fell on hard times in the 1970’s while suffering a damaging reputation as a dangerous neighborhood. Area businesses were barely hanging on, so ideas for a proposed light rail running up Welton Street faced skepticism. Business owners recognized the possibility of a long term boost from light rail, but the harsh reality of extended construction and street closures would likely finish them off first.
RTD opened the first rail line in 1994 from South Broadway to Five Points, and as expected, the public largely saw this as a train to nowhere. Five Points was now in desperate need of an image makeover, but that was simply impossible for a community that was completely spent of cash and resources. Gloria Holliday, now elected as RTD’s board representative of Northeast Denver, aggressively lobbied for public funds so area businesses could collectively market and promote their community. But her efforts were nearly derailed by City policies that prohibit use of public funds as a direct expenditure to individuals or businesses.
Denver attorneys’ Irving Andrews and Gary Jackson were hired to work with Gloria on the matter. Per their advisement, RTD named all of the Five Points merchants as “consultants,” which then enabled $110,000 in RTD funding to flow to the merchants for collective, community promotion. With assistance from RTD marketing specialist Pat Pugh, Selena Dunham (Asst. to Rep. Diana DeGette) and area merchants, RTD launched the “Five Points of Distinction” campaign to rebuild the image of the community based on its cultural heritage. Gloria gave focus and recognition for the unique jazz heritage of the community. Ultimately, Mayor Wellington Webb agreed to a city match of Gloria’s original funding request. The Five Points of Distinction campaign was now armed with $220,000 and a proud story of black culture, ethnic diversity & jazz history.
Five Points is now making history once again, thanks to the collective will of civic leaders such as former RTD General Manager Cal Marsella, Mayor Wellington Webb and Gloria Holliday. Jazz artists, including Gloria Holliday, Sam Bivens and the Denver Jazz Orchestra, once again grace these historic venues that once showcased the likes of Lionel Hampton and Duke Ellington.
So, be sure you don’t miss the ‘D’ train – the quickest way to Five Points for a night on the town and a great evening of jazz.
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