Willoughby: Aspen, jazz, small clubs, never a dull night | AspenTimes.com

Willoughby: Aspen, jazz, small clubs, never a dull night

Tim Willoughby
Legends & Legacies
For many years, Aspen favored entertainer Louise Duncan.
Aspen Historical Society/Patrick Henry Collection

Aspen’s jazz concerts attract great crowds today. Jazz popularity grew during the 1950s and early 1960s, when jazz artists packed small nightclubs.

Folk musicians flocked to Aspen during the 1950s, notably resident artists and club owners Glen Yarborough, Marilyn Child and Bob Gibson. But jazz clubs outnumbered folk venues from the time Freddie Fisher kick started the local jazz scene. A well-known entertainer of the 1940s, Fisher played clarinet and introduced humor to his Schnicklefritz Orchestra’s performances. He sang the hit “Horsey Keep Your Tail Up.” During those years, Fisher and his orchestra played in nine movies.

Freddie told my father and others that he moved to Aspen because he had tired of working for the IRS. For a day job, he ran a repair shop in Aspen. Known as Fisher the Fixer, he could repair almost anything. In the evenings, he played in local nightclubs with other local musicians. He supplemented a regular gig at Aspen Highlands with frequent engagements at the Golden Horn and the Hotel Jerome.

In 1956, Fisher created a small local band of young jazz musicians, which included his son, King. Later, in Australia, King established a reputation as a jazz trumpeter. High school students Raphael Mecham, Jim McCabe, Melvin Hoagland, and Greg Feinsinger also played in the band, introducing jazz to many Aspen residents.

The Red Onion ranked as one of Aspen’s most popular nightclubs. In addition to booking local musicians, they brought in notable jazz entertainers, including “Lady Day,” Billy Holiday.

Two additional, nationally known pop/jazz artists moved to Aspen: clarinetist Joe Marsala and Adele Girard. Marsala led a touring group that included his wife Girard, a jazz harpist. Marsala wrote songs, some of them national hits, including “Don’t Cry, Joe (Let Her Go, Let Her Go, Let Her Go).” Marsala wanted to remove himself from the alcohol and smoke of jazz clubs. For one of their first Aspen venues, they chose Trader Ed’s, which featured Chinese cuisine.

Sunnie’s Rendezvous opened during the early 1960s. Sunnie had worked as a singer in New York and had performed with jazz bandleader Louis Prima. Sunnie brought Louise Duncan to Aspen for the piano bar and she became one of the longest running performers in Aspen’s nightclub scene.

The Music Festival formed a jazz band each summer. Some years it was big-band sized and played everything from Goodman to Ellington.

After Aspen developed an audience for jazz of all kinds, Richard Gibson of Denver organized a Dixieland jazz party in 1963. He invited jazz stars from all over to play for a weekend at the Jerome. The party developed into an annual event that featured musicians who often played or lived in Aspen: Fisher, Bert Dahlander and Ralph Sutton. After well-known artists such as Count Basie and Cal Tjader starred at the event, they returned and played local clubs.

Changes occurred in 1963, with the opening of Galena Street East, which often featured the Queen City Jazz Band. Over time, the club began to book garage rock bands. During the second half of the ’60s, Aspen’s nightclubs diversified and took on new life. Some, like the Abbey, still featured folk artists. Others offered jazz. The newer clubs rocked and rolled. The mélange of musical styles confused no one, and guaranteed a shining night out on the town.

Tim Willoughby’s family story parallels Aspen’s. He began sharing folklore while teaching Aspen Country Day School and Colorado Mountain College. Now a tourist in his native town, he views it with historical perspective. Reach him at redmtn2@comcast.net.