What could improve live jazz on a cold winter’s night? Whiskey.
by Jamie Siebrase
Less than a century ago – in the 1930s and ‘40s – downtown Denver was the best place to hear jazz between St. Louis and San Francisco. Back then the spot to be was in the Five Points neighborhood, at the club inside the Rossonian Hotel, a triangular ballroom filled with good sounds, great company, and so much magic that Jack Kerouac immortalized the area in his book On the Road . The music died decades ago at the Rossonian — but there are plenty of other swinging spots where travelers can warm up with fresh beats and craft cocktails.
Begin in LoDo on the corner of 20th and Market streets at El Chapultepec, which earns serious bragging rights as Denver’s oldest jazz and blues club. A downtown landmark since 1933, the ‘Pec (as locals call it) launched as a Mexican cantina that quickly distinguished itself by pairing authentic, house-made comida with the unexpected sounds of traditional jazz. It’s perfect. This no-frills dive – and we do mean dive! – still serves up some of the best live music in town, inviting local artists to jam from 9 p.m. until last call, which is usually around 1:30 a.m. Eat tamales or a burrito, smother your order in the joint’s legendary green chili, and chase your meal with a shot of local whiskey from Breckenridge Distillery, which is always available at the bar. Make sure to bring cash; credit cards aren’t accepted at the ‘Pec.
1962 Market St.
Speaking of well-known clubs, Dazzle has been a staple in the Denver jazz scene for two decades, hosting an unmatched level of talent, accruing accolades and earning a spot in DownBeat magazine’s top 100 jazz clubs in the world. From its upscale digs in LoDo’s historic Baur’s building, this venue books all the big names in modern jazz, including René Marie, Dr. Lonnie Smith, Bill Frisell, and Brian Blade and The Fellowship Band. During shows Dazzle operates as a seated supper club with tiered seating and correlative pricing; at select performances, though, an area is cleared on the wood floor for patrons to boogie down. A big attraction is Sunday Brunch, 9:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., when $25 gets guests access to an all-you-can-eat buffet and music. A $15 minimum purchase is required at performances, but that’s never a problem: More than a jazz house, Dazzle is also a popular barroom. We recommend the Dazzle Fashioned with Old Forrester whiskey, bitters, and seasonal jam. “Colorado Casual” attire – aka dressy casual – is also advised.
1512 Curtis St.
Cover: Up to $40
Powered by wind, sun, and unicorn sneezes, Mercury Café is where local foodies and hipsters head for live music and farm-to-cup cocktails. The vibe at this split-level spot is funky, and like the food, most performers are local, including crowd-pleasers like Queen City Jazz Band and La Pompe. Order food on the main floor, or follow the signs upstairs to a dance hall for larger crowds ready to shake their tail feathers under an enchanting canopy of twinkling lights. Drinks change with the seasons, but we can pretty much guarantee you’ll find offerings you haven’t yet tried. We’re currently digging the Black Widow, made from Hatch green chili bitters and Better Days Bourbon, the cask-strength spirit Colorado-based craft distillery Feisty Spirits makes exclusively for this venue. Too much? There’s no shame in ordering an Old Fashioned, dressed up with fresh, organic fruits. Bring cash for the evening.
2199 California St.
Nocturne Jazz and Supper Club
Three-year-old Nocturne might be newer to the downtown arts scene, but the River North neighborhood club has already earned its reputation as a can’t miss stop-off on any proper tour of Denver. Think of the cover as an artist’s fee; it’ll be added to your tab to support a residency program that pairs up like-minded musicians for multi-week stints, helping groups boost their careers. Sets run from 7 p.m. to 8:30 p.m., 9 p.m. to 10:30 p.m., and – on Fridays and Saturdays – bands play until midnight. Beyond top-notch music, Nocturne delivers an eclectic food menu inspired by iconic albums and a strong cocktail program showcasing all the classics: Old Fashioneds, Manhattans, and the bar’s top-seller, the Sazerac — available for $7 during social hour, daily from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m. The bar’s “newfangled list” has creations like Quoth the Raven, a dark, warm, and bitter rye and scotch rinse with a shaved egg topping. Yes, you’re in Colorado, and jeans are always acceptable; but if you want to get gussied up, you won’t be out of place here.
Nocturne Jazz and Supper Club
1330 27th St.
Cover: $5 to $15
Located in the heart of LoDo, this musician-owned and operated venue is a dimly lit dive bar that happens to attract some of the best artists in town, from big names to emerging talent. Herb’s books live music nightly, and while the venue welcomes entertainers from all genres, it always reserves space for jazz performances on Tuesday and Thursday nights. Don’t be fooled by the bare-bones décor: This old-school watering hole serves up some of the hippest cocktails around, stocking small-batch brands such as Knob Creek and Booker’s, as well as all the requisite Irish whiskeys. Order up a rye Manhattan at the bar, grab a stool on the perimeter of the dance floor, and settle in for a mellow evening that’s sure to warm your soul.
2057 Larimer St.
The Crimson Room
In a turn-of-the-last-century brick building on Denver’s historic Larimer Square, you’ll find the telltale crimson door with stairs leading patrons below ground, to a speakeasy that’s known to locals as one of the best destinations for live jazz and acoustic sets. You’ll always hear jazz, blues, or funk on Thursdays, and the owner books jazz trios on the weekends, too, from 5 p.m. until last call. What’s really special about this sophisticated hideout is the intimacy. Settle into one of the oversized chairs circling the stage, and you’ll be an arms reach from the band. Tables are available, too, and drinks are made tableside on vintage bar carts. We’re loving the Excitable Boy, named after a Warren Zevon song, made with Old Forester Bourbon, grapefruit juice, Cynar, and oolong simple syrup. The bar specializes in smoking its Old Fashioneds, most notably with Angel’s Envy rye.
The Crimson Room
1403 Larimer St.
Sometimes it pays to venture past Union Station. Case in point: La Cour Art Bar, a South Broadway neighborhood gem where traditional jazz gets a French reboot. La Cour brags the second largest French wine selection in Denver, but we suggest the barrel-aged concoctions dreamed up by award-winning mixologist Matt Cowan, who’s usually working the charming, first floor bar. Cowan’s Neige Alpine is best described as a high-altitude Manhattan, a boozy snow cone with rye whiskey and chartreuse VEP. Any of the bar’s French whiskeys will go down smooth when consumed fireside; there’s a pit out back. Upstairs, the music picks up at 7 p.m. nightly; whether it’s a solo badass pianist or a fiveman ensemble, you’ll always hear jazz, and you’ll always get local talent — unless there’s a French band passing through town.
1643 S. Broadway