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Cote’s Colorado: Sounds of summer

When R&B upstarts Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings take the stage to kick off the Denver Botanic Gardens summer concert series June 1, they'll be helping to spread the Swallow Hill mojo.

The venerable roots music nonprofit offers classes and intimate concerts at its 22,000-square-foot headquarters at Yale Avenue and Broadway, but its reach stretches beyond the confines its 300-seat theater to larger venues around town. David Crosby and Graham Nash headlined this year's Swallow Hill RootsFest at the Paramount Theatre; and South African pop star Johnny Clegg recently made a rare U.S. appearance at the L2 Arts and Culture Center.

"We're continually going outside of our borders, which over the years may not have been the case as much as it is now," says Dave Weingarden, director of concerts for Swallow Hill and the guy you can credit for such dream bookings at the Denver Botanic Gardens as the July 15 show that features New Orleans legends Allen Toussaint, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band and Buckwheat Zydeco.

You have to have the music bug if you want to work at Swallow Hill. It's just part of the DNA. Weingarden jokes that about all he can play on the guitar are the opening chords of "Fly By Night" by the Canadian rock trio Rush, but Executive Director Tom Scharf plays mandolin, guitar and bouzouki and sings.

"I think a lot of people come here for mission reasons," says Scharf, who took the helm three years ago after running his own marketing and communications company. "They really love music, and it's expressed in everything they do. It's part of the whole community. I would say probably 95 percent of our staff plays or sings."

Walk the halls of Swallow Hill and you can feel that vibe as music wafts from a recording studio. More than 4,000 people, mostly adults, take music lessons here every year, so many that some students meet in hallways because there's not enough space to meet demand.

"We're usually a nighttime and weekend organization, but now we're pushing down into the day. We're finding more room," Scharf says. "We're definitely feeling the growing pains, which is a good problem to have."

Swallow Hill has been at its present locale since 1999. That soon could change, thanks to a donation that will be worth at least $750,000.

"We've had a recent bequest from a board member who passed away, Jeff Quinlan. He wants us to either expand this space or find a new one," Scharf says. "We feel the experience is A-plus - we just want to make sure the environment is, too, because that will make it even more desirable to the community to come and gather together."

That sense of togetherness as well as competitive pricing for both concerts and music lessons is what has helped Swallow Hill thrive even during a tough economic climate, says Scharf, who notes that since 2007 Swallow Hill has tripled its revenues.

"In hard economic times, we believe people still need to feed their souls. They need music," he says. "We're also very community based. We like to call it the ‘third place.' It's not work, it's not home, it's where people go to connect with other people and to connect with music."

Swallow Hill also is promoting music to the next generation of musicians and fans through programs it brings to schools and by bringing students to Swallow Hill. With help from such benefactors as the Bohemian Foundation, the nonprofit serves 15,000 K through 12 students each year.

"We'll take programs on the road, and we'll make sure those programs fit with Colorado content model standards, so we could be teaching history, we could be teaching the mathematics of music, cultural sensitivities. We've done programs on Afghanistan and Iraq," Scharf says.

"We literally do take our show on the road and try to reach as many people as we can."

Watch a two-part interview with Dave Weingarden and Tom Scharf at www.cobizmag.com.
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Mike Cote

Mike Cote is the former editor of ColoradoBiz. E-mail him at mcote@cobizmag.com.

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