Ziggies: Denver’s mixed drink of poetry & blues



Ziggies_from_Stage_2You might not notice Ziggies at all, that old penny of a bar on West 38th Avenue, the one with a corrugated metal exterior, neon beer sign, rusty gate and padlock. You might think something nasty is going on inside. Once that was true, but today, you’d be wrong. What’s inside is as shiny as a silver dollar, as clean as your grandma’s kitchen, as smooth as the backside of an old guitar. It’s Ziggies, Denver’s oldest blues club, now in its 51st year.

“It’s not a neighborhood bar. It’s a destination bar,” said Ziggie’s Poet Laureate, Julie Cummings, “a place for people who know the sound they’re looking for and where to find it, seven nights a week, 52 weeks a year.” Inside you might hear Country or Delta or Chicago Blues, Blues Rock, Swing, or a Slow Blues Shuffle. It’s a blend of seasoned musicians who have plinked, strummed, blown and shouted out more blues, than you’ll ever know, and rag tag poets who know they will never master the words, but they keep trying anyway.

Constructed in 1888, Ziggies’ building might have once been home to a mercantile, or possibly a row of apartments, or a watering hole of the alcohol variety.   “Some say the bar was named for the Zeigler family that once owned the property,” said Carla Jordan, who has owned Ziggies since she bought in out of bankruptcy in 2007, rescuing it two weeks before it was due to close. “Or for a farmer who sold fruits and vegetables in the area, or for Zig Zag rolling papers.” Jordan shrugged. “Who knows?”

From 1952 until he lost it in 1964, Lou Corn held the first liquor license, when 4923 W. 38th Avenue, was Lou’s Bar & Tavern, a restaurant and bar without live music.   Corn’s liquor license was issued January 31, 1964, the same one Ziggies operates under today. According to Jordan, who recently heard it from Lou Corn’s grown children, he lost the bar in a gambling debt to the notorious Smaldone family. Then over the years, Lou’s became Club 38, then Ziggy’s then Ziggies, then Ziggies Saloon.

Jordan used to hang out at Ziggies for the music and the people. Then in 2009 after she retired from a big career in the technology sector, she decided to buy the place.

“Why? Temporary insanity,” she laughed. “At that time the place was funky, scary, dark. The stench was terrible and the walls were tarred yellow from 65 years of indoor smoking. Believe me, it took a lot to make the place smell like nothing. I worked 12- hour days cleaning the place for ten months. I was determined to make it work, no matter what.”

Today Ziggies has been stripped of its dirt and hard times, but has lost none of its old-time juke joint authenticity. It’s a music venue with a 100-person capacity (and they track numbers at the door), a 10-piece stage, sound system and lights, small dance floor, full bar, a short menu, and all the music you can drink.   No imported bottled water here. There’s a fresh water tank and you can help yourself. It’s microwaved bar food, not small plates. Along with regular bar drinks, the menu offers six kinds of non-alcoholic beers. Music, not alcohol, is the main thing.

Friday and Saturday nights are reserved for leading blues bands, and for forty years the Sunday night blues jam has played at Ziggies, winning lots of awards. Monday is open to acoustic with Tuesday and Wednesday dedicated to open jam sessions Thursdays for touring bands and musicians not so well known. In 2009-2010 “Live From Ziggies” televised blues sessions on local cable. In 2012 Denver’s Bluesman Willie Houston, recorded his CD at Ziggies, the same year that the Mile High Blues Society (MHBS) was born there. It still calls Ziggies its home.

“What makes this place work,” Jordan said, “are the professional musicians and the loving clientele. It is a safe place. We want you to leave here happier than when you arrived. But you can’t come in here drunk, and if you get drunk, we will stop serving you. We card everybody. Employees are not allowed to drink alcohol on the job, or they will be fired. I’ve only had to do that once,” she said proudly. “Our license is clean. We have surveillance cameras everywhere. We don’t have trouble here. The last time the cops were called? Maybe never!

“Sometimes I feel like I’m a Public Service Announcement,” Jordan added. She gave the Columbine Poets of Colorado a free place to meet for Saturday morning workshops. Now poets and musicians mix it up on the second and fourth Wednesdays of the month at 6:30, when featured poets perform and locals sign up. Around eight o’clock the musicians begin pushing through the door with their guitar cases and horns. Then at 8:30, the music starts up again.

Ziggies hosts Blues Children on Stage (BCOS) with the Mile High Blues Society, to give musicians under age 21 the opportunity to play in the jam format. Young musicians get a mentor and a list of styles and tunes, along with a CD, so they can prepare. (Next BCOS Sunday Feb. 21, 3 pm) Then, each December, MHBS and Ziggies present a Children’s Hospital Toy Drive Blues Jam on the second Saturday of December, hosted by MHBS Vice President, Jodie Woodward.

“I’ve never worked so hard for so little money, but it’s rewarding in other ways,” Jordan said, admitting Ziggies had changed her. “Now I think–let’s do this for the kids, for the poets. Let’s do it for the music.”

The website, http://ziggieslivemusic.com is a rockin’ place to visit, always up to date, with blues tunes playing so you can sample the sounds that are coming up. Check it out—the music usually starts about 8:30, give or take.




About jackiestjoan

Jackie St. Joan is not Ziggies Poet Laureate, but she currently serves as Ziggies Poet of the Year. Her novel, My Sisters Made of Light, was a finalist of the Colorado Book Award in Literary Fiction. Her first collection of poems is forthcoming and she is working on a sequel to her novel.
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