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Last call for Denver’s El Chapultepec
Photo courtesy: El Chapultepec Facebook

By Ernest Gurulé

It was a good run, a hell of a good run! But there’ll be no encore for Denver’s landmark jazz joint, El Chapultepec. The nationally known hole-in-the-wall jazz club and famous dive bar has called it a night. After eighty-seven years, last call has come and gone at the corner of 20th and Market.

El Chapultepec, more informally, the ‘Pec,’ is just another casualty of a pandemic and economy that have claimed far too many souls, killed too many dreams. Its eulogy came last Friday, outside its front door, one that had swung open for locals and luminaries through boom and bust, war and peace and everything in between.

Though it never had a guest book or marquee, if it had, the names of jazz royalty---Counts and Dukes, Basie and Ellington---would be there. Also, icons like Sinatra, Ella, Dakota Staton, the Marsalis brothers, Wynton and Branford, Doc Severinsen. Bill Clinton once stopped by and played his sax and the Jonas Brothers took the stage at the ‘Pec,’ too. It’s a long and eclectic list.

Most of the greats who stopped by all had played the big rooms, the Carnegie Halls, the Hollywood Bowls. Perhaps the ‘Pec’ drew them in because it took them back to their own musical roots or just because they knew the joint jumped.

Like countless other places, the pandemic’s shadow had darkened The Pec. Add to that an insatiable gentrification transforming the neighborhood and, as musicians are wont to say, ‘the stuff got real.’

“Denver’s different than it used to be at 20th and Market,” said Anna Diaz, last Friday outside its front door and beneath the familiar ‘cantina-bar-café-single cactus’ sign above the entrance. Diaz is the daughter of club patriarch, Jerry Krantz who died in 2012.

Faced with few options, the family, quietly and dutifully, pulled the plug on the place and packed things up---decades of memories. But this time---the last time---they did it choking back tears before walking away and leaving inside the countless ghosts and stories created by decades of all that jazz.

“The ‘Pec’ is a living, breathing part of Denver, especially part of our family,” said Diaz. Both she and her sister, Angela Guerrero, who joined her for the sidewalk memorial, practically grew up inside the place. They knew the regulars, what time they’d come in and what they would order. Indeed, it was that place where ‘everybody knew your name.’

“It’s very intimate to us and we’re just ready to close this chapter,” said Diaz. But while the last chapter may be more than melancholy, the rest reads like a booze-stained script of “Guys and Dolls,” but with real life characters, none more surreal than Krantz.

He was a friendly and talkative guy who watched the door, an omni-present baseball bat nearby. It served more as warning than weapon. But every now and then, when a drunk ran afoul of house rules, its secondary purpose was made crystal and painfully clear.

No need for the walls to talk when you have guys like Andrew Hudson, Freddie Rodriguez, Jr., and so many more to spin yarns about the place. Hudson and Rodriguez rose through the ranks at the ‘Pec,’ often hanging out as teenagers near a side door, hoping for a chance to sit in with the pros, including Freddie Rodriguez, Senior, the man who christened the joint, the ‘Pec.’ He thought El Chapultepec was too hard to pronounce. He pared the name down to a single syllable. Rodriguez died last spring of Covid.

As teens, Hudson and Rodriguez periodically got the call and were invited to sit in with the pros for a song or two. Like an inmate, Hudson recalled stuffing his bed with pillows and sneaking out for the chance to play. Rodriguez would simply ride down with his old man, Freddie, Senior, for decades the musical face of the place.

They both credit these special moments as growth spurts in honing their musical chops. But, as Hudson tells it, the learning curve often came with a price. It could be a head turn from an older player that didn’t require words. Other times, it wouldn’t be so subtle.

“One night I got a chance to sit in (on bass) and got lost in the song,” he recalled. The drummer, an older guy who made no concession for youth, reacted. Without missing a beat nor Hudson’s head, a drumstick landed squarely. “You don’t do that in my church,” the drummer said, showing no trace of a smile.

Today, Hudson and Rodriguez are well respected members of Denver’s jazz community and both, until the pandemic, regulars at the ‘Pec.’ Until his passing, they backed up Freddie, Senior, as part of the Freddie Rodriguez Quartet. You could catch them every Thursday night.

While El Chapultepec was known as a jazz haven, its origins were more salsa---literally. It opened at the end of Prohibition as a Mexican restaurant where the music was mariachi. All that changed in 1968 when Krantz, who married into the family that owned the place, replaced mariachi with jazz. It’s been a musical staple ever since.

The closing of this landmark is more than nostalgic. It also means one less venue for live music and, more to the point, one fewer place for Denver’s jazz musicians to play for a living. “Just as important as the ‘Pec,’” said Diaz, “are the musicians who played here and will continue to play. But they need a place to play.”

At a time to be determined, said Carlos Lando, Denver’s jazz station general manager, KUVO will replay live performances from the ‘Pec.’ Lando said sets going back to the ‘Pec’s’ golden age are being prepared. For now, it’s ‘take-five’ for the ‘Pec.’ Only, this time, ‘take-five,’ a musical expression for a short break is open-ended. The only thing coming out of this iconic corner bar now are the sounds of silence. But in its day the ‘Pec,’ had a hell of a good run.





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