The woman was aghast.
“You’re moving to Colorado Springs?” she asked.
“The only traffic jams are on Sunday mornings when everyone is going to church,” she said. “Nobody cares about the arts there. What a terrible place.”
We were standing in the middle of a somewhat arty party in New York in 2003, a few days before I traveled to the Springs to begin work for The Gazette. The woman’s daughter, I soon found out, had suffered through frustrating years leading a Colorado Springs arts organization before retreating home to New York.
The woman was convinced everyone — every last breathing human — in the Springs cared nothing for music, theater, literature or serious television. She would have called Springs residents hicks, but she didn’t want to insult hicks. Her point was obvious: The Springs is beautiful, no doubt, but kind of dumb.
I was thinking of that anti-Springs woman Friday night at the Pikes Peak Center while surrounded by a bouncy, happy group of Springs residents as we enjoyed the audacious and stupendous U.S. premiere of “Black American Symphony,” composed and performed by trumpeter Nicholas Payton.
It was an incredible night. Payton’s symphony is daring and melodic and entertaining and different, and I mean deeply, wonderfully different. I guarantee no other symphony features an extended solo by a bald man on the bongos. This was a 21st-century symphony through and through.
The joy of the night was propelled by an educated, perceptive audience, who discarded concrete rules for symphony attendance on this jazzy night. Usually, decorum demands symphony audiences remain silent until the conclusion of a composition. Friday, the crowd clapped with gusto during breaks between movements. It was improvisational, unorthodox audience behavior that fit perfectly with an improvisational, unorthodox symphony.
Members of the crowd took a chance. Freshly composed symphonies are often chaotic, overly complex and dreary efforts. I’ll admit to wondering if Payton’s creation would deliver a 45-minute musical ordeal.
A diverse crowd of all ages embraced the risk. I could tell, seconds into Payton’s symphony, the performance would be entertaining instead of grating. Payton is a highly dignified performer who never panders. He instantly seized the hearts of the audience.
If you gathered a big group of state residents for “Jeopardy” and asked, “In which Colorado destination did ‘Black American Symphony’ make its U.S. premiere?” I doubt anyone would ring the bell and ask, Jeopardy style, “What is Colorado Springs?”
We dwell in an underrated city for the arts. The Colorado Springs Philharmonic, which joined Payton on Friday night, thrives while classical music in larger cities battles extinction. The Fine Arts Center offers a sprawling and fascinating look at artists who taught and studied at the Broadmoor Art Academy. (Go see the show. It’s stellar.) The local theater scene is solid. All this means that tough drive north to Colorado’s Big Town is not a requirement.
OK, we’re not New York or Chicago or even Denver. I get that.
But I’m still celebrating Payton and a Springs crowd, which joyfully leaped into a fresh and wondrous musical creation.
Friday night, the question from 16 years ago was bouncing in my mind to the beat of a bongo.
“You’re moving to the Springs?”
Yes, and I’m so glad I did.