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Sterling Nelson keeps the jazz playing in Evergreen

To Sterling Nelson, classical music doesn’t mean Beethoven and Bach — it means Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman and Fats Waller. And as 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 summer event welcoming a mix of national bands and Colorado favorites to the mountain town 15 miles west of Denver. The fest — which celebrates
its 10-year anniversary July 29–31, 2011 — has become a favorite among musicians 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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