DU Alumni / Magazine Feature / People

DU alum is the brains behind the Evergreen Jazz Festival

Denver’s Gypsy Swing Revue is among the bands performing at the 2010 Evergreen Jazz Festival, running July 23–25.

To Sterling Nelson, classical music doesn’t mean Beethoven and Bach — it means Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman and Fats Waller. And as co-founder and music director of the Evergreen Jazz Festival, Nelson (BSBA ’56, MBA ’71) has made it his mission to share the uniquely American art form with as much of the world as he can.

“I call [jazz] our other classical music,” he says. “Most people don’t think of it in that way — if they do think of it in a positive way they think, ‘Oh it’s fun music.’ It’s more than just fun music; it has deep meaning. It tells the story of a history of a people, of our country.”

A former president of the Denver Jazz Club and a longtime fan of Denver-based Dixieland outfit the Queen City Jazz Band, Nelson first had the idea for a festival devoted primarily to pre-1940s jazz in the 1970s. But it wasn’t until his 70th birthday that the concept really started to develop.

“In 1999 I turned 70, and my wife asked me what I wanted for my birthday, and I said, ‘That’s easy — let’s have a party and we’ll throw it not for me but for family and friends,’” says Nelson, now 81. “So we got together at the Elks lodge and I got a lineup [of Colorado jazz musicians] and we had a great party. Along the way one of my friends got up to the mic and he said, ‘We ought to do this every year.’ I followed him up there and I said, ‘I agree. You get the committee together that has money and we’ll do it.’”

The first Evergreen Jazz Festival took place in 2001, and after a one-year hiatus it became an annual event welcoming a mix of national bands and Colorado favorites to the mountain town 15 miles west of Denver every summer. The 2010 fest, taking place July 23–25, features the Queen City Jazz Band and fellow Colorado acts the Hot Tomatoes Dance Orchestra and Gypsy Swing Revue, along with national acts such as James Dapogny’s Chicago Jazz Band and Philadelphia’s Independence Hall Jazz Band.

Bandleaders construct special themed sets for the festival; this year’s lineup includes tributes to Lionel Hampton, George Gershwin and Artie Shaw, as well as dance music showcases featuring music of the ’20s and ’30s. On July 24 the festival pays tribute to another DU alum, bassist Charlie Burrell (BME ’65). Nelson hopes to show a video of Burrell accepting Denver’s Mayor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts in 2008, and local jazz radio host Ed Danielson is scheduled to speak about Burrell’s legacy.

Evergreen is far from being one of the country’s biggest jazz festivals — they’re expecting about 900 audience members this year — but that’s to its advantage, Nelson says. The fest’s laid-back vibe and focus on audience-performer interaction has made it a favorite among players accustomed to playing bigger, less personal events.

“They really appreciate Evergreen and what we do,” says Nelson, who has taught courses on the history of jazz for DU’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute. “I have to talk sometimes to get [musicians] here for the first time, but once they come and experience it they’re ready to come right back again.”

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