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Massaro: Ray Iverson's sax was heard all over town

Published May 20, 2006 at midnight

Ray Iverson is at full rest.

The popular Denver jazz musician died May 1 in San Diego, a week after cancer surgery that removed most of his jaw.

Friends and fellow musicians gathered at a memorial service in San Diego on Monday.

"Ray's not really gone," said drummer Ray McGuinness. "He's just on break."

Ray was mostly a saxophone player who also played some bass. He performed in clubs around Denver and in the mountains as well as gigs with big-name types like Lou Rawls and Count Basie.

He also had a side job. He tuned pianos.

For years, he owned the Robin's Nest on Lookout Mountain.

He was a regular a couple of years for Richie Italiano, who used to own the Red Vest in Sheridan. And also worked at his friend Vince Limberg's Granny's Cellar in southeast Denver.

Fellow musicians will host a jam session in his memory from 6 to 10 p.m. Sunday at the Boca Room, East Colfax Avenue and Marion Street.

He was born Feb. 18, 1929, in Grand Forks, N.D. He was raised by his mother and stepfather, Christine and Tom Walsh. His father died when he young.

But one thing his father told him stuck with him while growing up on the family potato farm.

"He decided picking potatoes for a living wasn't what he wanted to do," said his ex-wife, Betty Lou Iverson, of San Diego. "Even though his dad died when he was young, he remembered something his dad told him. He was sitting on the back of a potato truck one day when he was 7 or 8. His father told him, 'Play your horn and get off the farm.' "

Ray listened. He kept practicing. Then he started working in bands. He quit high school.

"He was too busy playing his horn," Betty Lou said.

Ray and Betty Lou met when he owned the Robin's Nest and she owned the nearby Thunderbird.

They were married Feb. 28, 1966.

"Our friendship lasted 40 years," she said. "But our marriage only lasted 13. He was my best friend."

Ray got high marks from other people he knew.

"He gave me some good advice," said Rich Italiano, who employed Ray at his Red Vest nightclub, where Italiano was also a singer. "I used to snap my fingers when I sang. He said, 'If you don't snap your fingers, nobody will know the difference.' What he told you, you could take it to the bank."

It wasn't just the way he played, but that he energized fellow musicians and encouraged them to share the spotlight, said Limberg, a guitar player and retired engineer.

After the Robin's Nest, Ray owned the Royal Roost in Five Points, an after-hours club. And then he managed the Senate Lounge on Capitol Hill.

"We worked in Breckenridge every weekend for seven years," Limberg said.

They were playing the jazz festival in the early '80s. For Ray, it started out more like a little water music. They were supposed to play from a gazebo in the middle of a lake. Ray was putting his sax together when the gooseneck fell into the lake, Limberg said.

Ray persuaded a fisherman to snag it and reel it in, which he did.

In Breckenridge, they stayed at their drummer's place, a surveyor by day. Ray and Limberg bought him a microwave as a bread-and-butter gift.

"There's not much to do in Breckenridge if you don't ski," Limberg said. "The microwave wasn't the best. It didn't have a light bulb in it. So on a Saturday morning, we bought some electrical apparatus and some lightbulbs and put a light in it. And I'll be damned if it didn't work."

Survivors include three sons, Eric, of Denver, Kris, of San Diego and Neal, of Kona, Hawaii; and two grandsons.

When Gary Massaro listens, people talk. or 303-892-5271

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