On an unusually warm Thursday evening this early December, I visited The Bar at Plaza 38 to hear the Latin jazz sounds of The JT Jazz Trio–which, on this night, actually showcased five seasoned musicians. Like a lot of jazz groups, musicians sit in on each other’s gigs in a delightful chemistry of sound. Front and center was Vincent Wiggins, flautist, adding a clean coolness to the steamy Latin beats provided by drummer Bob Vasquez and conga player Lonny Rodriguez. Larry Henley, former house bassist for El Chapultepec, kept things funky when necessary. Carrying the overall jazz standard sound with the keyboards was the band’s namesake, JT (James Torres).
Torres and his band have long histories playing jazz in Denver. Torres has been associated with Plaza 38 owner, Gene Lucero, for many years. Lucero ran a production company in the 1980s and 90s and Torres made the musical connection with him back then, playing at many of his events during that time. As you wander The Bar, evidence of that period holds court on the walls in the form of framed concert posters, taking us back in time. Also, if you look up from the bar, large black and white photos depicting scenes of North Denver over the past decades line up along the ceiling. Having lived in North Denver most of his life, Lucero’s aim in developing The Bar was to celebrate the area’s roots by creating a new neighborhood establishment that acknowledges the folks who were here long before it was “cool” while also welcoming new residents.
Indeed, the night I was there it was clear that many of the patrons lived nearby and were acquainted with one another, apparent through many fist bumps and shoutouts. The crowd seemed to know the band, too, enthusiastically taking in the grooves. I am a neighbor and a music lover myself, and especially a jazz lover. I was thrilled at the prospect of being able to listen to jazz performed regularly and nearby. JT’s iterations of this band play every Thursday night at 7 p.m. at The Bar.
As is typical in a jazz performance, each musician “got their turn.” The patrons clapped in appreciation to several bass segues that showcased Henley’s legendary riffs, Wiggins’ flute flowered every piece, and Vasquez and Rodriguez both held their moments in the spotlight. Torres kept himself in the background as that steady strain flowing through each song, but took a moment during a few pieces to really let us hear his talent. Torres commented that his fellow musicians are “family,” and they have known each other a long time. This was clear in the smoothness of their performance.
I remember when El Chapultepec was one of the only places you could hear authentic jazz in Denver. As I chatted with Torres about how the scene has changed, especially in the last decade, he agreed that things have really “blown up,” as far as venues and opportunities available. He is aware of a slew of well-known musicians moving to Denver, many taking jobs as adjunct professors or teachers and reaping the benefits of a growing jazz community here.
The Bar at Plaza 38 is certainly one of the great new venues. The acoustics are fantastic and, although it is a new and slick-looking bar, there is a wonderful grittiness sustained in the mutual history shared among the locals and their genuine love of the music. I did not recognize anyone myself when I first approached the bar, but was warmly welcomed and found myself invited into several conversations. I will definitely be back, and I encourage you to check it out too.