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Free Summer Concerts Music to Denver's Ears -- and Wallets

An aerial view of City Park Jazz.

People enjoying City Park Jazz.

The University of Denver's Lamont Symphony Orchestra.

A conductor with the Lamont Symphony Orchestra at the University of Denver.

Free concerts at Elway's in Cherry Creek.

In a budget-conscious era, free summer concerts around the city are not only providing a bargain for attendees, they help create a sense of place in Denver. While the music events continue to grow and new ones appear on the radar every year, putting on the shows is serious work for concert organizers -- and it costs serious money -- but it pays off in a variety of ways.
City Park in Denver was pretty rough in the 1980s. 
 
"At the time, it was a dangerous place to be at, plenty of drugs, violence and it was overtaken by homeless people," says Chris Zacher, President of City Park Jazz. "A group of people got together and decided they needed to figure out a way to take the park back." 
 
This group combined two ideas they wholeheartedly believed would bring a city together: free and concerts. 
 
City Park Jazz Summer Concert Series started off with just a handful of jazz concerts in 1986. The concerts eventually found their rhythm and today fans of all ages, ethnicities and socioeconomic backgrounds have come out in droves to enjoy the combination of jazz, blues, salsa, nature and a sense of community. City Park Jazz produces 10 free jazz concerts each summer. 
 
"Sure, these kind of events do exist in other places, but our event series is still pretty unique," Zacher says. "City Park Jazz is very organic compared to a lot of events, we only work within the community. We are centered on Denver and exposing the city to the arts community, while at the same time giving local artists the opportunity to perform in front of their home city."
 
Attendance numbers fluctuate, but Zacher says during the early season of the 2012 concert series, more than 8,000 people came out to the shows. People enjoying City Park Jazz.
 
But the series experienced a tragic loss last June when Denver Police Officer Celena Hollis was fatally shot during one of the concerts. She had worked security at the event for seven years. Attendance dipped after the tragedy, but Zacher is optimistic the 2013 concerts will receive plenty of support.  
 
"Truthfully, outside of that incident, it's been a nice, peaceful celebration," he says. "City Park Jazz creates a place for families, young single people, the elderly, to all come together and enjoy something together. It's pretty distinctive and special." 

The 2013 series begins Sunday June 2, when Hazel Miller performs from 6 to 8 p.m., and continues every Sunday through August 4.
 
Not Entirely Free
 
The thousands of attendees who have enjoyed the free series in their lawn chairs or on blankets probably aren't dwelling on the fact that these shows do come with a price tag. 
 
The cost to put on the entire series is about $100,000. City Park Jazz is a nonprofit, organized and managed by volunteers, so the group relies on funding from private sources, individual gifts, grants and corporate sponsorships. 
 
"I do think it's important for people to understand that for events like this 'free' is a relative term," Zacher says. "It does cost an awful lot of money to put these on and without the community support, it wouldn't exist."
 
Jolon Clark, Associate Director for The Greenway Foundation, echoes the idea that while free concerts are great for connecting the community, planning and executing the free concerts still cost a pretty penny. 
 
Since 1998, The Greenway Foundation, a group that advocates reclaiming the riverfront for public enjoyment,had hosted a free summer concert series every Thursday in July at Confluence Park to bring the community closer together. 
 
This year, the Foundation has evolved it from a series of free concerts into a two-day signature event at Confluence Park called the Coors Light South Platte River Festival. This year's event will take place June 22-23. 
 
Presented by REI and benefiting The Greenway Foundation, this event will feature two days of stand up paddleboard
"Concerts and events are particularly powerful that they do bring people together from a wider spectrum, you're not just interacting with your neighbors," says Jolon Clark of The Greenway Foundation," but a broader community and I think it does help us define us as a city."
lessons, live music, food and drinks. Oh, and it's free to attend.  
 
Still, to be able to put on such a full-scale event, The Greenway Foundation needed financial support from sponsorships. Clark says the Foundation had already established relationships with various corporations and when they mentioned the idea for a two-day river festival, he says MillerCoors and REI bought in immediately.
 
"It's often about taking the time to build relationships so that everyone can have a win-win situation," he says. "There are a lot of great people in corporations in Denver who want to make a difference in the community, and they come to the table with a vision and financial support to help make stuff like this happen."
 
Building Awareness, Boosting Sales
 
Putting on free concerts, whether it's a series of events or a two-day festival, isn't solely about providing cheap entertainment for the city. 
 
The Greenway Foundation's mission is to continue improving the health of the South Platte River watershed and its habitats, but just as most nonprofits have limited resources and marketing budgets, it can be difficult to reach a wide audience. This is where a free event plays a large part in supporting the Foundation's efforts. 
 
"The free events help engage people from all walk of lives as we really want to focus on continuing the effort to make the river better," Clark says. "These free events aren't always easy to do because we have to find the revenue and support, but it's important because it can bring in a lot people to the area and they can see what we're doing." 
 
Getting the word out is one of the reasons Elway's in Cherry Creek began sponsoring a free summer concert series at its restaurant starting in 2005. 
 
Jennifer Wiard, Elway's director of sales, says they decided the concerts should be free because increased alcohol and food sales would more than cover the costs. Wiard says the music series, staged Wednesday nights from June to August,  grew so much that the restaurant had to stretch out its courtyard to allow more people into the area. 
 
"We get calls as early as January about what's the lineup going to be," she says. "People talk about coming here year after year and it continues to grow. Again, it doesn't hurt that it's free." 
 
The University of Denver's Lamont Symphony Orchestra. Serving the Community
 
This year, the Lamont School of Music at the University of Denver will be producing 250 free concerts, including performances by the Lamont Symphony Orchestra, at the Newman Center for Performing Arts. 
 
Chris Wiger, Lamont's Director of Public Relations, says the free concerts give students the experience to perform in front of an audience, but it also offers the public a chance to hear musicians who will eventually become the next performers for professional orchestras, ballets and operas.
 
"I think the city takes a certain amount of civic pride in that," he says. "DU is very intent on serving the community and it's very easy for people to get to the center, either from the light rail or people who live in the neighborhood can walk over to the facility."
 
As The Greenway Founhdation's Clark helps plan the Coors Light South Platte River Festival, he says he believes free concerts help build Denver's character as a city.  
 
"I think anytime you have people coming together and building a tradition, that contributes a lot to a sense of place," he says. "Concerts and events are particularly powerful that they do bring people together from a wider spectrum, you're not just interacting with your neighbors, but a broader community. I think it helps define us as a city."  

Read more articles by Heather Caliendo.

Heather is a Denver-based journalist and Confluence contributor. 
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