Purnell Steen has led his own band in Denver for more than 35 years. A long-time favorite on the Denver jazz scene, Steen and his band are regulars at Dazzle — Denver’s premier jazz club. He is passionate about preserving the “Five Points” style of jazz — named for the Denver neighborhood Jack Kerouac called “the Harlem of the West."
The Five-Points neighborhood of Denver got its name because its center was the junction of five streets. Early in the twentieth century, African Americans in Denver began moving to the neighborhood because it was near the rail yards, where many worked. White flight and subsequent discriminatory housing policies eventually kept blacks segregated there. Despite hostilities from the Ku Klux Klan and other discriminatory practices, Five Points flourished as a vibrant black community.
From the 30s to the 60s, Five Points reached new heights as a cultural and entertainment mecca, especially for jazz. “That was the only place to go between St. Louis and California”, according to Charlie Burrell, famed bassist of Denver. Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald and Nat King Cole performed there — and a young Purnell Steen was in the audience, enthralled. Already a passionate student of classical piano, Steen was hooked. The style of jazz he heard then became the foundation of his music.
From an illustrious musical family — among his cousins are vocalist Diane Reeves; keyboardist, composer and producer George Duke; saxophonist Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson; and Denver bassist Charlie Burrell. Due to the color barrier customs of the day, visiting musicians were not welcome at Denver hotels — so Steen's parents regularly invited them to their home. A history major at the University of Colorado–Boulder, Steen was active in the civil rights movement in the 1960s.
Steen’s piano style is influenced by Oscar Peterson (“Nobody can play like Oscar Peterson but I try!”), the internal voicing of George Shearing, the cool rhythmic quality of Amahl Jamal, and the powerful, Gospel-inspired swing of Gene Harris. He reminds audiences that jazz music originally started as dance music, and he aims to retain that sense of fun in his music — the music of Five Points, Denver.
A few weeks ago, Steen and the band performed to an audience of 90,000 at the annual Five Points Jazz Festival in Denver, now, the city of Brest, France, Denver’s Sister City, has invited them to perform there this September as the Five Points Ambassadors.
Taos Jazz Bebop Society presents
Purnell Steen & Le Jazz Machine
Saturday, June 25
Harwood Museum, 7:30 p.m.
Tickets: $25 / $20 (members of Harwood and Taos Jazz Bebop Society)