Meadowlark’s Off The Cuff residency hosts some of the city’s best BIPOC musicians
The show features jazz, funk, soul and hip-hop performed by Denver’s professional local talent.
Up a small set of stone steps, Meadowlark’s back patio is a pink and purple-lit space with a tree planted in the middle, its foliage slightly covering the sight of center stage. Surrounding the island structure built around the tree are people seated holding their drinks and joints, collectively facing toward the back corner of the room where a wooden stage is lit by vintage overhead lamps.
On the left side of the stage, guitarist Enmanuel Alexander, artistically known as Namebackwards, plays neo-soul, funk and jazz fusion riffs and melodies. Using head nods, guitar motions and the occasional smile, Alexander communicates with those that accompany him on stage.
As the music builds and each musician finds their space on the song, some in the crowd begin to draw closer to the stage and, like Alexander’s locs, start to move to the rhythm of improvised sound.
Once he’s got the music and the people in his pocket, Alexander finally looks into the crowd and smiles. He knows his magic is working.
The performance is part of Off The Cuff, a musical residency at Meadowlark Bar that has become one of Denver’s hidden gems for local talent.
The residency, hosted by Alexander, is a weekly jam-session-style performance of professional BIPOC musicians. The goal is to highlight musicians of color in a historically Black neighborhood that was at one point considered the “Harlem of the West.”
The 21+ free show happens every Wednesday night starting at 9:30 p.m. at The Meadowlark Bar.
For Alexander, the residency means highlighting some of the best local talent he’s come across touring the Denver music scene.
He grew up a percussionist in Aurora before eventually picking up the guitar in 2014. He studied jazz and American music at Metro and eventually joined his first band in 2017 as a bassist for a local folk band.
Performing shows around Denver eventually led him to meet Denver musician Wes Watkins, who took him under his wing early on in his career. Watkins got Alexander a gig at Ophelia’s and would regularly refer him to other bands or people around town.
“[Watkins] is the reason why I’m trying to bring Black and brown people into Five Points,” Alexander said. “He was a big advocate for that. To see him in the Denver music scene, another Black person actually in the scene doing stuff around town, it was really cool to see that.”
Alexander started playing with Watkins at Meadowlark in 2021 before eventually encouraging Alexander to take over the venue while Watkins focused on other endeavors.
“Anytime we would play a gig in Five Points, it’s like, where are the Black people? Where are the brown people? You don’t see ’em here,” Alexander said. “We would always talk about that. Even in 2017 and 2018, I didn’t really see too many Black people. I really just want to bring more of that community to Denver because it’s important and I’m part of it.”
What began as a bi-weekly show, hosted every first and third Wednesday of every month, has now blossomed into a weekly residency that regularly draws 50-60 people late on a weekday.
Jason Torres lives near Meadowlark and attends the mid-week show when he can.
“I live two blocks away and I see some of the best jazz, R&B and hip-hop from a young generation,” Torres said. “[Namebackwards] is bringing in all of these talented people. These musicians are all so high level. I don’t think he brings anyone that sucks.”
Alexander doesn’t like calling “Off The Cuff” an open mic or a jam session.
“What I call it is intentional improv,” Alexander said. “It’s for experienced musicians to really express themselves in a way that maybe they haven’t done before.”
Alexander will begin each show with an improvised set featuring his band. Then, throughout the night, he will bring up local talent that he knows or is familiar with to improvise with the musicians on stage. Sometimes it’s preplanned, other times he’s just scouting the room to see who he recognizes.
Artists like singer and songwriter John Winston might hop on stage to freestyle a verse, local poet Franklin Cruz might recite a poem or singer Venus Cruz might improvise soulful lyrics.
Alexander plays regularly with local musicians, Will Gaines and Khalil Brown.
Brown, who is originally from Colorado Springs and moved to Denver two years ago, sees Off The Cuff as an escape from the outside world and an opportunity for musicians to express how they really feel.
“We’re playing the things that we feel and experience day to day,” Brown said. “We get to come here and have a safe place to release those different thoughts and feelings. We need to express this, and people need to hear it. Denver’s got something special here.”
What makes the performances at Off The Cuff so special is the spirit of improvisation.
As Gaines puts it:
“Improv is how you keep your s*** fresh. If you go up knowing what you’re gonna play, that’s one thing. But if you don’t know what’s going on, it keeps you on your toes. It challenges the musicians, it’s really fun to hear and watch how it’s happening.
“We just built it organically,” Gaines continued. “The music brings people in. The more we play, the more people come down to see what’s up. Historically Five Points is a Black neighborhood so we just like to feature Black, brown, Indigenous people. We never left in the first place, we’re just letting everybody know we’re here. We don’t plan anything, we just come up here and make it happen. It’s kind of magical.”
Venus Cruz, a regular performer at Gerard’s Pool Hall down the block, described the improv style as a spirit of, “immediate forgiveness and immediate creativity.”
Cruz said that “You gotta come with it. You don’t have to be perfect but you have to try. Music is risk. It’s a really good feel. We play with each other and it’s diverse, which I love. It’s great musicianship.”
Alexander described improvisation as a tool that he used to improve as a musician. Jumping in with other talented musicians is scary, but the sink or swim moment, the learning experience, is what matters most.
“If you sink, then you go home and you shed the f*** out of that tune, come back the next week and then you’ll be able to play that tune. But if they call another tune that you don’t know, you’re gonna sink again, right? That’s how I learned,” Alexander said.