DENVER — Donald Rossa, president of Dazzle Denver, is helping move supply carts in and out of the new DCPA location. It’s hard work on a hot day, but Dazzle is covered in cool shade and Rossa with a glow of pride.
Dazzle Denver moved to its current location from its former one in Baur’s earlier this month. By moving to 1080 14th Street, the venue owners hoped to save some money, optimize logistics and gain more foot traffic.
Making its debut in 1997, Dazzle Denver has been a staple of the Colorado music scene for nearly three decades. While hosting renown artists like Otis Taylor, Dianne Reeves and Samara Joy is something Dazzle is proud of, the real sense of purpose comes from a deeply-rooted sense of belonging the venue cultivates.
Walking into the venue, the fresh additions will be obvious: a high-tech stage light, intimate seating with nothing to block your view, and of course, a brand new, fully stocked bar.
Take a closer look, and you’ll find these fancy elements are simply accessories for the rich history of Denver that is woven into every detail.
Dazzling in a new Location
A convenient inconvenience
Rossa’s passion for community has fostered a sense of resilience. The venue has faced many challenges, all of which they endured thanks to the trust of those tied to it.
Take lockdown, for example. When the pandemic put the entire local music scene at risk, Rossa and general manager Matthew Ruff went into action. They shifted to livestream show, upheld their more-than-fair pay agreements with musicians, and offered the space for safe, socially-distanced events. Beyond the music, Rossa hosted a food bank for struggling artists.
Dazzle received help, too. Thanks to donations, grants and a pause on rent, the venue made it to the other side of the pandemic with stronger connections than ever.
When facing delays in the opening of the club’s new location, Rossa once again turned a challenge into an opportunity. The delay gave him time to curate meaningful art displays that showed, rather than told, the essence of Dazzle.
Dazzle Denver director of marketing Kelley Dawkins explains the meaning behind Dazzle's community-sponsored art commissions. Photo by Peter Vo, RMPBS.
“Art is what makes people's souls hum,” shared Dazzle’s director of marketing, Kelley Dawkins, before giving Rocky Mountain PBS a tour of the carefully curated pieces. “The arts come in so many different forms, and they’re how we as humans connect to each other.”
Dawkins’ thorough understanding of Rossa’s curation goes much deeper than simply doing her job, as she has been part of the journey since the venue’s start.
“My parents were coming here since it opened, that was about when I went to college, and they would bring me here when I was home,” she recalled. “Donald, the owner, has always supported me with some of my fundraising activities and adding discounts and free appetizers for people who would donate to things I did. When my dad passed away, we had his celebration of life here.”
Dazzle’s programming makes the intention to connect various generations clear. They book artists of various ages and host children’s matinees and school concerts. But the intergenerational connections displayed in the art could go unnoticed without a tour.
Mural by Matt O'Neil in men's bathroom. Photo by Peter Vo, RMPBS.
In the men’s bathroom, you’re greeted by a large, colorful mural by artist Matt O’Neil. The bright colors and seemingly random, yet surprisingly cohesive shapes symbolize the jazz band O’Neil played with in his youth.
Behind the bar is a digital collage created by O’Neil’s son, Tom O’Neil. He created the collage by “blowing up” an image of an instrument in order to showcase its intricacies.
“His philosophy is that half of the music that comes out of an instrument is the person playing it, and half of it is the mechanisms and the craftsmanship behind it. And you don't notice that it was made wrong until you're in the middle of it,” explained Dawkins, “And he saw the bar as having the same function in the venue.”
A digital collage by Tim O'Neil, son of Matt O'Neil. Photo by Peter Vo, RMPBS.
The art display in the women’s bathroom is accompanied by a plaque honoring a longtime patron of Dazzle, Beverly Clifton.
“In our old locations she would bring things in to make the ladies rooms nice and pleasant. And she has passed away,” Dawkins shared, “Her daughter still comes in, and we wanted to honor her a little bit.”
Even the soundproofing panels on the doors have a legacy to them, as they were hung by Dawkins’ children, ages 7 and 9.
A throughline between the various pieces of art at Dazzle is a celebration of the symbiotic relationship between jazz and culture, and its ability to unite people from different backgrounds.
“Jazz is important to society as a whole because its roots are in not only Black culture, but Black slavery and the songs that slaves used to sing,” explained Dawkins. “As we left slavery and moved into other times where there was still segregation, jazz was the music of the Black culture. People who weren't Black would sneak away from their homes and go to the clubs because it's such a lively and energetic music form.”
Dawkins says that although jazz has changed over time, the origins are still noticeable in today’s music. “It's gone from being kind of the thing you had to sneak around to do to being a form that's recognized worldwide. It has influences on music around the world and really represents a lot of what made America what it is today."
In the corner of Dazzle is the “El Chapultepec Piano Lounge," in honor of the iconic jazz joint that closed during the pandemic. The contributions of Hispanic and Latino culture is honored with tributes created by local artist Shay Guerrero.
“Her artwork is very much rooted in the Hispanic culture, and even these ones here, the gold foiling around them is reminiscent of the Catholic Virgin Mary's and the gold halo you usually see around them,” Dawkins said.
Included in these pieces are Jerry Krantz, the late owner of El Chapultepec; Freddy Rodriguez, one of the first artists to play at El Chapultepec who passed from COVID; and the co-owners of local family-owned string company, Mi Vida Strings.
“The husband [Eric Trujillo] is a local Denver native who is Mexican-American and also comes from Mexican-Indian roots, and his wife [Michele Trujillo] is Native American,” Dawkins said. “So we're also bringing in the Native American Indian influences on jazz in the community.”
Above the piano are detailed depictions of hosts and personalities from jazz station KUVO: Carlos Lando, Arturo Gomez, Tina Cartagena and Flo Hernandez-Ramos. (KUVO, like Rocky Mountain PBS, is part of Rocky Mountain Public Media.)
KUVO personalities and pioneers Flo Hernandez-Ramos, Carlos Landos, Tina Cartagena and Arturo Gomez by artist Shay Guerrero. Photo by Peter Vo, RMPBS.
KUVO, Dawkins explained, has roots in El Chapultepec.
“Flo, Carlos and Tina were the three people who sat in the booth in the corner booth at El Chapultepec and broadcasted from there,” she said. “That is why we have KUVO today, because they thought the music was so cool and that other people needed to hear it, and that that was the place where it was happening.”
Preserving local legacies
The inspiring start of KUVO is just one of many local legacies displayed throughout Dazzle. Upon entering, you’re greeted by the head of a bighorn sheep made of wood.
Created by Brett Matarazzo, each detail displays an element of Denver’s jazz legacy, including the historic Rossonian.
Even the wood itself has a story.
“Both the Big Horn and the Charles Burrell piece over here are reclaimed wood from north Denver neighborhoods as those buildings are torn down,” Dawkins shared proudly.
The Burrell piece Dawkins referred to can be found in the back, near the kitchen. Here, the names of donors and other contributors are burnt into wood slats as a “thank you.”
Near the Dawkins piece is the depiction of various women in jazz who have helped create the rich music scene Denver sees today, including Erica Brown and Tenia Renee Nelson. The wall behind them is lined with the music they have created.
Erica Brown and Tenia Renee Nelson, local musicians. Photo by Peter Vo, RMPBS.
Two colorful murals adorn the main stage space. One is a depiction of artist Rene Marie. The piece, entitled “Our Colorado River Song” was created by artist Jazz Holmes, one of Redline Contemporary Art Center’s artists-in-residence.
Marie played in Denver for decades before moving to take care of ailing parents. Her parents have since passed, prompting her return for the opening of the new space.
“We were thrilled to welcome her back,” said Dawkins. “She likes to push boundaries with music. We love that. We like to push boundaries as well."
Mural of musician Rene Marie by artist Jasmine Holmes. Photo by Peter Vo, RMPBS.
Across from Marie is a memorial to Ron Miles created by Denver artist Detour. Miles ran the jazz program at MSU Denver. He taught for around 30 years, influencing countless young musicians. Much like Dazzle, Miles was known for going above and beyond when it came to caring for others.
“It's really amazing watching some of the local musicians come in and especially when they didn't know this mural was up, there were a lot of people who were overcome for a moment or two because he means so much to them,” said Dawkins. “A lot of people who have really enjoyed performing on the stage with him looking over them.”
Community contributions around every corner
At Dazzle, no good deed goes unseen, and the art curation makes it clear. Every detail of the space, from the room itself, to art sponsors, all the way down to the salt and pepper shakers were the result of community collaboration.
Just one of many community-contributed salt and pepper shaker sets. Photo by Peter Vo, RMPBS.
“Those are from Donald's personal collection at home,” Dawkins said of the eclectic table ornaments.
“We have four owners and he is the primary owner, but he wanted to bring them in so that he has a touch of home in the space. And then he didn't have enough. So we've been asking other people who have pairs of salt and pepper shakers, unique ones in particular the animals to bring them in.”
“Community is really important to Dazzle,” Dawkins concluded, “and why we're still here today.”
Elle Naef is the multimedia producer at Rocky Mountain PBS. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Peter Vo is the journalism intern at Rocky Mountain PBS. You can reach him at email@example.com.