Born in 1941, Purnell Steen grew up in Denver as a student of classical piano and part of a musical dynasty, with cousins including 5-time Grammy Award-winning vocalist Dianne Reeves; keyboardist, composer and producer George Duke; saxophonist Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson; and legendary bassist Charlie Burrell. Between the 1920s and 1950s, the Five Points neighborhood was a sanctuary for the African American community and the heart of Denver’s thriving jazz community, with over fifty bars and clubs playing host to local players and all the greats, from Duke Ellington and Billie Holiday to Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald. Jack Kerouac called the cultural and entertainment mecca the “Harlem of the West.” For nearly 40 years, with his bands Le Jazz Machine and the Five Points Ambassadors, Steen has been a favorite on the Denver scene, dedicated to preserving and playing the “Five Points style” of jazz at clubs and festivals. In September 2022, the Ambassadors toured Denver’s sister city, Brest, France, as part of a cultural exchange.
Purnell talks to G. Brown about the influence of his cousin Charlie Burrell, who broke the color barrier in symphony music (2:50); growing up in Denver (7:10); the legacy of George Morrison, who played a major role in the careers of many Black musicians (13:41); the development of the Five Points neighborhood and jazz scene (16:43); his accomplished relatives (22:40); studying with Dr. Antonia Brico, whose most famous student was folk singer Judy Collins (28:15); returning to Denver to resume his musical career after a tour of duty with the US Army and having lived in Germany as a civilian (32:08); his intersecting passions for the Denver Broncos, good barbeque and Willie Nelson (33:20); performing as the leader of Le Jazz Machine and the Five Points Ambassadors (36:11) and why Denver is one of the best places to hear live jazz (41:21).