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World of music: Jazz Fest brings a swinging weekend

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By Stephen Knapp

“The hippest thing you can do is not play at all. Just listen.”

— Lennie Tristano

The word “jazz” covers more ground than any other in the musical lexicon, which means it had a lot in common with them what played and them what listened at last weekend’s eighth annual Evergreen Jazz Festival.

This year’s smokin’ smorgasbord featured 10 top-flight ensembles from places as near as Denver and as far as Ann Arbor and San Diego. On the other side of the proscenium, discriminating ears from across the state and the country savored a delicious menu of jazz traditions from zesty dance favorites to smooth acoustic delicacies to piquant bayou fare.

“What’s beautiful about this festival is that you get all different kinds,” remarked Sid Sather, a Fort Collins hipster with a smile on his face, a song in his heart, and a green, three-day festival pass hanging from a lanyard around his neck. “I normally listen to traditional jazz, but I love these guys.”

Sather was among more than 100 hep cats beating the heat with a cool hour of Rain Dogs on the Elks Lodge patio. A Kansas City quartet with no horns but plenty of brass, Rain Dogs borrows much of its play list from early 20th-century legends like Bessie Smith, Muddy Waters and mossy Southern jug bands like the Mississippi Sheiks. Acoustic guitar and upright piano with a genuine washboard beat — it’s what jazz sounded like before it had a name, and history never sounded so good.

“I haven’t heard that kind of jazz before, but I love it,” said Lakewood resident Patricia Mayhercy. “It’s great fun.”

While Rain Dogs pounded out a lively rendition of Memphis Minnie’s bawdy “Sellin’ My Porkchops,” class was in session in the lodge’s grand ballroom. Under the patient tutelage of amateur Denver hoofers Meg York and David Fagan, about a dozen couples were getting a laid-back crash course in applied music appreciation. You see, with all due respect to Mr. Tristano, jazz can be a lot more than either playing or listening.

“I always tell people that it’s a trio,” York explained. “It’s one music and two dancers.”

“I think dancing improves the jazz experience,” agreed Fagan. “Even though you’re not playing an instrument, it makes you part of the music.”

A former Evergreen resident, York’s been beating the drum for free swing schooling since 2006 and, happily, she and the festival organizers finally got syncopated this year.

“A lot of people want to dance, but they either don’t know how or just have a little hitch in their git-along,” she grinned. “We just help them get over that little hurdle, and they can start having fun.”

Slightly tuckered from an earlier turn on the floor with the Queen City Jazz Band, accomplished hoofers Lori and Steve Whybark were content to watch the lesson from their table at stage right. They’d come a long way to trip the light fantastic, and it was quickly turning into a fantastic trip.

“It’s really hard to find this kind of music, and, so far, this has been great,” said Lori, looking smart in a graceful black print dress and comfortable low-heeled shoes. “We live in Seattle, and they have a few jazz festivals around there that we always go to. We go to dance.”

“Every couple of years we pick a little adventure and, this year, this seemed like a fun one,” explained Steve. “We’d heard of the Evergreen Jazz Festival, but we’ve never been here before now.”

It was well after noon when After Midnight exploded on the ballroom stage. A Denver band of growing reputation, After Midnight casts a reverent nod to Benny Goodman’s classic jazz sextet, with bandleader Roger Campbell hammering the scales with his licorice stick and the powerful, fluid commotion of Rick Weingarten’s vibraphone.

For York’s and Fagan’s dance students, After Midnight’s energetic opener was a test, of sorts, but an optional one, and everybody who showed up — with or without a No. 2 pencil — got an A. In less time than it takes to dial PEnnsylvania 6-5000, the Elk’s expansive dance floor was transformed into Saturday night at the old Trocadero Ballroom at Elitch Gardens.

Some couples made do with a slightly hipper version of the reliable two-step, while others, though newly introduced to the form, managed a very creditable effort at swing dancing. With class in recess, York and Fagan tossed away their mortarboards and kicked up their heels, and the Whybarks, feeling refreshed, tore it up with the easy abandon that comes with long practice and an abiding jones for jazz.

“So far, this has been a great festival,” said Steve, meaning it. “I think we might have to come back for this one.”

“One thing I like about jazz, kid, is that I don’t know what’s going to happen next. Do you?”

— Bix Beiderbecke