TINA – The Tina Turner Musical is coming to the Buell Theatre Oct. 18-29. Turner influenced a variety of genres of music and musicians of all ages. We’re fortunate to have black musicians, based here in Colorado, who have been influential and entertaining, creating their own impact on the local music scene. Here are a few of them to get to know.
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Early in her career, Dzirae Gold worked as a private voice and piano teacher and recording assistant in Denver. But eventually she realized her true passion was for the stage and started performing her soul, jazz, Motown, and disco music in small gigs. In 2020, she committed to full-time performing as a singer who occasionally accompanies herself on keys.
“It has been a journey since then to get here – lots of empty hole-in-the-wall venues, coffee shops, etc. I wouldn’t trade the experiences for anything,” she says.
Career highlights include singing background vocals for Devan Blake Jones at Red Rocks in 2022 (she’s determined to be there as the main performer someday). She’s performed at numerous Denver City events and local concerts, including at the VIP party for Mayor Mike Johnston’s inauguration. Gold also performs at weddings and other corporate events, collaborating with other musicians.
She has been told that her “go get ’em” attitude inspires a lot of her peers, which, Gold says, encourages her on tough days. What matters most to her is helping pave the way for other local black artists on the Denver scene.
“I hire other black and brown musicians as often as possible and say their names in the rooms I think they should be in,” she says. “I’m beginning to see that effort pay off! I don’t intend to be in Denver forever so when I go, I want to see my place taken by other deserving BIPOC musicians.”
Otis Taylor took a break from music between 1974 and 1995 to work as an expert in high-end antiques and to help organize one of the first African American bicycle racing teams in the U.S. As a favor for friend Kenny Passarelli (renowned bass player for Elton John and Joe Walsh), Otis performed with him. Taylor, who plays banjo, guitar, and blues harp, said the audience’s reaction was so positive and he enjoyed himself so much, he returned to recording and touring.
Although the banjo was the first instrument Taylor learned to play, he quit because of the association with racism in the American South. But when he discovered its African roots, he returned to it. Taylor has recorded albums and performed all over the world playing Trance Blues, a genre that combines traditional blues with electronic elements.
“I’ve performed in Europe, North Africa, New Zealand, Mexico, and all over the U.S.,” says Taylor who feels his influence on upcoming musicians comes from being committed to playing his own form of blues.
In addition, for years, Taylor put together the Trance Blues Festival in Boulder, and he and his wife created a school program, “Writing the Blues,” to educate students about the history of the blues and writing original material.
Taylor’s accolades include numerous W.C. Handy nominations, making the New York Times’ Top 10 Album of the Year, and winning several Downbeat Critics’ Awards. Taylor was inducted into the Colorado Music Hall of Fame in 2019.
Born and raised in Denver, Sheryl McCallum knew she wanted to sing but getting into acting was unexpected. Although she performs all genres including blues, gospel, musical theater and jazz, opera soprano Leontyne Price is her real inspiration.
McCallum, who has been in the business for 30-plus years, played several roles on Broadway in Disney’s The Lion King for 13 years. She has had roles on TV in “Golden Boy” and “Law and Order.” In Colorado, she’s played numerous roles at a wide variety of theaters including Curious Theatre Company, the Arvada Center, and Aurora Fox. At Denver Center, she has performed in The Wild Party, Oklahoma!, and Xanadu.
Most recently, McCallum stars in Miss Rhythm: The Legend of Ruth Brown at Denver Center, which she wrote with composer/lyricist David Nehls about the pioneer of rock, blues, and jazz. She considers the show one of the highlights of her career, up there with her first and only European tour with the show Blackbirds of Broadway, and touring with The Harlem Globetrotters.
“I don’t know if I’ve been influential, but I think it’s good for people to know there are several, surprising, wonderful paths in life,” says McCallum. “Here I am, not thinking I would be in theater, go to New York and work on Broadway. Then return to Denver and have a show I co-wrote having its world premiere at the Garner Galleria.”
“I’ve only been playing jazz about the last 40 years but I’ve been playing music for 78,” says pianist Purnell Steen, whose first professional job was when he was 8-years-old.
“I used to play piano, violin and pipe organ, but I only play piano now,” says Steen, who was a church musician for years.
Having a love of and career in music runs in Taylor’s family. The late singer-songwriter, keyboardist, composer and producer George Duke was a cousin. And here in Colorado, Steen’s cousins are multi-Grammy Award winning singer Dianne Reeves and classical and jazz bassist, Charles Burrell. Back in 1949, 8-year-old Taylor attended Burrell’s debut as the first black musician under contract with a professional American symphony orchestra with the then Denver Symphony Orchestra (now Colorado Symphony Orchestra). Steen heard people making derogatory comments about his cousin as he walked out onto the stage.
“There he was, ramrod straight and in tails, like everybody else. I was emotionally conflicted and too young to process it,” says Taylor, who is part of a documentary, The Longest Walk, about this time in the life of Burrell, who is over 100 years old.
“I’m classically trained and I wanted to be a concert pianist until I couldn’t because of my color. But that was my dream,” says Taylor. “I saw Nat King Cole and was fascinated by him. But the greatest influence in my life has been Charles Burrell.”
Taylor’s career highlights include playing for Doctors Billy Graham and Martin Luther King Jr. in Birmingham, Alabama in 1964; and opening for Count Basie, Oscar Peterson and Ella Fitzgerald at a jazz festival in 1968 in Berlin. He played Red Rocks when he was 12 for Easter Sunday and, as an adult with his band at the time, the Mile High All Stars. With his current, and long-time band, the Five Points Ambassadors, he has played with the Colorado Symphony, a full circle moment.
To help bring along the next generations of jazz musicians, Taylor invites young people to sit in with him and his band when they perform, especially at Dazzle Jazz where he is a regular, hosting the Friday Lunch Bunch jam sessions.
“My advice to them is to study classical music because, I’ll tell you what, that is where you truly get your foundations of music,” he says.