Profile: Denver jazz legend Purnell SteenBy Reverb Staff | February 24th, 2012 | No Comments »
By William Porter
The Denver Post
Purnell Steen has been a fixture on Denver’s thriving jazz scene for decades, playing piano in venues such as Dazzle and the Burnsley Hotel. At 70, he is old enough to remember the jazz heyday of Five Points, where the Rossonian Hotel served as both venue and second home to America’s touring jazz greats.
Raised in Denver by his father, a Pullman porter, and mother, a caterer, Steen has lived here most of his life, save for some time during his youth in California and 5½ years in Europe during the 1970s.
He took up the piano at age 4 and hails from a musical family: His relatives include renowned bassist Charlie Burrell, Grammy-winning vocalist Dianne Reeves, pianist George Duke and the late sax player Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson.
A history major at the University of Colorado-Boulder, Steen was active in the civil rights movement in the 1960s.
Engaged to be married once, he stayed single. “I guess I’m married to my music,” he said. “That’s my real long-term relationship. All the women were jealous of the piano.”
One of Steen’s favorite places is the upstairs performance salon at Onofrio Piano on South Broadway. The shop was opened by the Onofrio family in 1900. Today it is run by Joe Onofrio, Steen’s friend.
A small stage in the salon holds a gleaming black Bosendorfer concert grand, one of the world’s great pianos. “Of course, you’d have to win the lottery to own one,” Steen said.
Fortunately, he has visitation rights. A recent afternoon found him working his way through “A House is Not a Home,” the 1964 Dionne Warwick hit written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David.
“I’d never played this song before today,” Steen said. “But I woke up at 3 a.m., and it was in my head.”
The Bosendorfer boomed and trilled. Steen has visited the factory in Vienna. “The piano case actually vibrates, and is built using the same guiding theory that went into Stradivarius violins,” he said. “If you put your hand underneath the piano you can actually feel it resonate.
“Whenever I get the opportunity to play one I just revel in it.”
William Porter is a Denver Post staff writer.