The neon signs were dark, the photos of historic jazz figures were off the walls, and the bar was being taken apart on Tuesday afternoon at El Chapultepec. The owners had gathered out front to tell supporters and reporters why the iconic Denver nightspot was closing.
Yes, the coronavirus pandemic played a role. One of the Pec’s longtime familiar musicians, Freddy Rodriguez Sr., even died of COVID-19 earlier this year. But the family says the pandemic was really just the last nail in the Pec’s coffin.
“There are so many things that led to this decision,” co-owner Anna Diaz said.
The arrival of nearby Coors Field and the delivered-on promise of redevelopment in the neighborhood felt, in retrospect, like the beginning of the end.
“Jazz musicians and blues musicians, they shouldn’t have to time their sets around baseball innings and when the crowds are going to get out and be wild. They should be able to play their music, and the crowd should just be there to enjoy them,” Diaz said. “The employees and our musicians, our customers, we shouldn’t have to be worried about our safety when it’s time to leave.
“Denver’s outgrown us.”
El Chapultepec started as a Mexican restaurant and takes its name from the famous park in the center of Mexico City (translation: grasshopper hill). Jerry Krantz had worked at the Cantina and married into the Romano family, who owned the place. When the family was ready to move on in the 1960s, Krantz took over ownership and built it into a legendary and notably unpretentious jazz room.
“There was nothing around here,” said pianist Freddy Rodriguez Jr., whose father first played sax at the Pec in 1980. “Things were completely different. Nothing around here. Just a few guys laying on the street, just the Pec and a couple of restaurants. They had mariachi music in here before my dad came along” and asked for a gig.
“Let’s try it,” Rodriguez said Krantz told his father. “And that’s all we played here was jazz. Old jazz. Straight ahead jazz for years and years and years.”
Over the years, Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, all of the Marsalis brothers, all of the Tonight Show band, Tony Bennet, even ZZ Top stood on the Pec’s tiny stage.
And the side door by the stage along Market Street was where aspiring players would hang out in the hopes they might get called to jam with the bold-face names.
Bassist and jazz musician Andrew Hudson recalled one of his earliest sit-ins with the house band, and how he lost his way in the middle of one tune. Soon enough he felt the drummer’s stick tap the top of his head.
“I turned around, and he had this look, like ‘not in my church, you don’t,'” Hudson said.
This was back before Coors Field and the endless development of places to eat, drink and live in what became the Ballpark neighborhood. The north side of downtown Denver pretty much came to a darkened end at 18th Street.
“But you knew when you saw the Cantina sign, that’s where the auction was, that’s where jazz was, that’s where you were welcome,” said KUVO general manager Carlos Lando on Tuesday. “It didn’t matter where you came from, what your lot in life was, if you had enough money to buy a beer, and you wanted to enjoy some music, you were welcome. And you’d be in there, rubbing elbows with the mayor, with a senator, with a famous musician, or a famous celebrity or movie star. Whatever. This was the place where everybody came to kinda let their hair down and unwind, and be part of a scene.”
“Denver’s different than it used to be, and 20th and Market is different than it used to be,” Diaz said as she held back tears. “The Pec is not for sale. The business is not for sale. We’re not interested in selling. And the decision is final. There’s not going to be a GoFundMe that’s going to reverse our choice.”
The family never owned the building, but because the structure has been deemed historic, the iconic Cantina sign won’t be taken down. Instead, it will serve as another reminder of what used to make Denver Denver.