State of the music scene

STEVE LEWIS/Durango Herald

Pagosa Springs’ Elder Grown played the Abbey Theatre on Dec. 21 and will return Thursday night as the opening band for Earphunk. The Abbey will host nine concerts this month before closing its doors after the Jan. 31 show by Oakland, Calif.’s The Polish Ambassador. New tenants will likely keep the venue a local movie and music house, but current owner Chuck Kuehn will keep the Abbey name, as well as much of the lighting and sound equipment. He and promoter Eugene Salaz plan to produce concerts at other local venues after the closing of the Abbey in its current incarnation.

By Robert Galin Herald staff writer

Below-freezing temperatures seem less intense when Durangoans stomp, dance and sing along with the many genres of music found in the area – often for free.

Residents have their choice of Celtic, bluegrass, jazz-funk, African drumming and indie rock, among others, in casual settings from jams and open-mic nights to more formal performances.

“The level of appreciation for music and its diversity in Durango is very high,” said Jim Gillaspy, a musician and co-owner of Katzin Music.

“There are interesting instruments and blends of styles” in Durango, Gillaspy said.

While some may focus on familiar sounds such as the Celtic jams at The Irish Embassy Pub or the ever-popular bluegrass, others move to the jazz-funk often heard at Moe’s “Jazz Church” or indie and eclectic folk-rock of groups such as The Poetic Minds.

College students driving trends

The modern music in Durango “is being driven by college students,” Gillaspy said. The bands that play classic rock or rock ’n’ roll are less popular because the fans of that music get older and stay home more often.

“Not that there isn’t ‘cliche’ rock, but it’s being pushed aside by edgier music,” Gillaspy said.

The indie and folk-rock scenes are one aspect of Durango’s musical growth. It’s that diversity of music that draws more people to the Durango music scene. Even the entrenched Durango bluegrass community has expanded and continues to attract more musicians.

“When some style like bluegrass takes hold, it draws people in ... It draws in friends,” Gillaspy said. “Lines are breaking down between genres.”

Adding instruments where they are not expected stirs the musical melting pot. The ukulele, for example, has increased in popularity. There is a ukulele group that has been jamming Sundays at The Lost Dog Bar & Lounge for several years.

It is an instrument that periodically surges in popularity; Rudy Vallee played it in the 1920s clad in a raccoon coat and Tiny Tim hit it big with “Tiptoe Through the Tulips” in the 1960s and made the rounds of TV talk shows almost until his death in 1996.

“A lot of people attracted to the ukulele never had music in their lives,” said Joan Green, better known in these parts as Ukulele Joan.

A shared vocabulary

What draws some people to bluegrass is the “instant ... shared vocabulary; you can immediately play stuff with people,” Green said.

There are about 20 songs common to the Durango bluegrass community used as a starting point. Different communities, such as Phoenix or Albuquerque, have different “community” songs.

That basic structure allows the musicians to improvise from the base. Unique to bluegrass, the “lead” goes around to any musician who wants it.

Musician and former veterinarian Sue Coulter agrees.

“In a bluegrass jam, everybody gets a piece of it,” Coulter said. “In Celtic and old-time music, musicians are more likely to play together.”

Green said Durango’s various jams and festivals also help to get people involved.

“There are an awful lot of people who play an instrument but stay at home and do it,” she said.

The friendly, open jams get some of these people out of the their houses and into the community, not just the community of musicians, but the broader community.

A welcoming community

Green says other jams, such as at Durango Brewing Co. or the Tuesday folk-oriented jams at the Strater Hotel, “are very welcoming.”

The Durango Brewing jams are especially lively, luring musicians ranging in age from 20s to 60s.

Gillaspy says it’s not just people listening to the different types of music, but wanting to play it as well. The demand for music instruction is rising.

“I have a feeling Durangoans’ level of musicianship is high, particularly as a portion of the population, compared to many other similar-size cities,” Gillaspy said.

Varied and eclectic

It has taken some time to shed the reputation, but Durango’s musical focus is not just on bluegrass and the types of music available in Durango are varied and eclectic.

After longtime Diamond Belle Saloon piano player Johnny Maddox retired at the end of the summer, some thought ragtime would vanish. But the Strater is hosting its first Durango Ragtime & Early Jazz Festival in March. Among the performers will be Maddox’s protege, Adam Swanson.

There is more to Durango music than casual jams. More formal performances also draw a significant variety.

“We are blessed with a supply of excellent musicians and talent that far exceeds the number of people who live here,” said Terry Double, a mandolin player who jams at the Irish Embassy on Sundays and plays classical mandolin.

Double said Durango draws residents and tourists who are well-educated, affluent and physically active. These are the types of people who also are likely to become involved as both patrons and performers. He also cited Durango’s resident classical music programs as being of a quality similar to larger markets.

He singled out St. Marks’ Episcopal Church for preserving the appreciation of classical music, which has developed into the offshoot organization 3rd Ave. Arts. That group hosts the Durango Bach Festival, the Durango Chamber Music Festival and a recital series, among other activities.

C. Scott Hagler, executive director of 3rd Ave. Arts and minister of music at St. Mark’s, said Durangoans “really value what they have” in classical music.

Unlike the other genres, though, classical music is less improvisational and doesn’t lend itself as much to the jam sessions, though there is a group of flute players that meets for somewhat less-structured musicianship.

Like Music in the Mountains, the programs offered by 3rd Ave. Arts’ music series have found strong support in Durango. Still, one of the main goals of classical advocates is to “lower the average age of the audiences,” Hagler said.

That is a typical problem among major classical music organizations, particularly symphony orchestras. Several have filed for bankruptcy protection or have had highly publicized financial struggles, among them the orchestras in Albuquerque, Philadelphia, Honolulu and Louisville, Ky.

Durango counters the trend by gathering community support. To build long-term adherents, 3rd Ave. Arts has programs to reach young people, Hagler said.

For example, last year, 120 students from Park Elementary School walked to St. Mark’s to play an organ, a harpsichord, a piano, a marimba and members of the mandolin family. The field trip allowed kids to hear what these instruments sounded like when they played them and, perhaps, show them that they aren’t so exotic and anyone can play.

Another program, Durango Chamber Music Academy, has 22 students ages 6 to 16. The academy gives them their first taste of playing chamber music in small ensembles.

Hagler, who also is an adjunct music instructor at Fort Lewis College, said he probably could not do what he does without the support of the other FLC music faculty coming down from the hill to work in the community. He said he will continue to work to build audiences for and increase awareness of classical music in Durango.

That increasing awareness of the inter-connectedness of musical genres is likely to boost Durango’s music scene for years to come.

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