DENVER -- Among the boarded-up flophouses, art schools and artists' lofts in Denver's suddenly hip but still seedy lower downtown is a little tavern with a big metal cactus sign out front that is known throughout the jazz world as a real jumpin' joint.

Well it should be, since the literal translation of El Chapultepec from the Aztec is "the hill of grasshoppers."

"It's really like a step back in time," said saxophonist Rich Chiaraluci, who has played for Mel Torme, Tony Bennett and Nancy Wilson. "It's kind of a dive. But it reminds me of walking into a jazz club in about 1945."

"There's never a cover. The music is for the people. When you have a cover, the music is just for those who can afford it," said Jerry Krantz, the tousle-haired owner-bartender.

Among the jazz greats who have dropped by to "stretch out and blow their brains out" since Krantz began bringing jazz to El Chapultepec have been all three Marsalis brothers (Wynton, Branford and Darfileo); Woody Herman; the Count Basie Orchestra; Artie Shaw; Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis; saxophonist Buddy Collette; and tenor saxophonist Charlie Rouse.

"Buddy DeFranco {the clarinetist} came to the University of Denver to do a clinic. He came down and played here. He was the first of the greats," Krantz recalled. "Pretty soon, everybody in the country was calling."

Guitarist Ozzie Carlson likes the place because people "go in to hear some good American jazz. People from the symphony and what you might say is higher-echelon society come in and not just to go slumming. They're serious to hear jazz.

"I guess just about every well-known jazz musician in the country would know the name El Chapultepec as a jazz place."

The 20-by-40-foot main barroom with the bandstand jammed down at the end by the restrooms sometimes becomes so crowded that Krantz says each patron gets just one of the foot-square black-and-white checkerboard floor tiles to stand on -- or less.

"The place is no bigger than a bus and it does fill up just as much as one of 'em at rush hour," the former packing house worker and cabdriver said.

At 5-foot-6 and 180 pounds, the 55-year-old Krantz is built like a brick, at least "they say that's what it feels like when I hit them. But I have very, very little trouble down here. That is the beautiful part of it."

"Jerry is very nice to the guys," says Carlson. "When it comes time to pay, there is never any hesitation. He pays right smack on the spot. There are a lot of joints that aren't particularly like that."

"When a good musician is scuffling for work, he could go in there and Jerry would hire him and put him in on the weekends with the house band to help out the guy. He doesn't have to do that. The guy seems to care," Chiaraluci said.

Drummer Bruno Carr says the clientele sets "the Pec" apart because "they come from all walks of life and everybody rubs elbows ... the rich and the poor and the in-between."

Carr, who has played for Sarah Vaughan, John Coltrane and Ray Charles, said the Pec was for a long time "the only joint in town that really had any jazz 52 weeks a year."

It all began back in 1978, 10 years after Krantz bought the Pec from his father-in-law, and he changed the club's music format from Mexican mariachi to jazz.

"I went to an after-hours club and got the jazz group to come down," he said. "The people loved them. I went strictly into jazz in 1978 -- Friday, Saturday and Sunday. The people wanted more. I tried a 'Blue Monday,' where a jazz band came in and played blues, be-bop, jazz. They just kept packing the place. In 1980 I went jazz seven nights a week." It's been that way ever since.

The clientele changed. The Hispanic crowd that had supported the Pec since it opened at the close of Prohibition in 1933, began to give way.

"The kids think they've found a new music. ... I have doctors, lawyers, merchants, thieves. ... They all get involved with the music. All colors, all walks of life. Nobody cares who's alongside them. Everybody is welcome and everybody is treated equal.

"Last night, I had the minister of arts from Poland. He was here in town doing a study of American ballet. They came to listen to the music. He said during the war in Poland, jazz represented freedom to the Polish people because jazz represented the United States. He started an underground jazz thing."

But the noisy crowds irk longtime jazz fans of the Pec.

"I'd been going in there for years before it got hip to go there," said Linda Grunow, who writes for downbeat and Cadence magazines and is jazz critic for Denver's West, an alternative newspaper.

"It's a wonderful place ... a smoky old jazz bar. {But} it's not what it used to be," she said. "The public at large has discovered it. They think it's hip. You'd better stake out your bar stool a good two hours before the music starts."

There have been other attempts to establish jazz clubs in Denver. They failed after a few months of thin crowds. New ones on the scene include La Cupol, the Jazz Works and the Burnsley Hotel.

The Pec is a survivor.

During its 57-year existence at the corner of Market and 20th streets, it has seen the city's old "red light" district torn down -- except for Madame Mattie Silks's old "parlor" house across the street. Neighboring Chinatown was torn down for warehouse construction during World War II. Now the warehouses are falling to the wrecking ball as developers hope lower downtown becomes the site of Denver's next development site.

Through it all, the Pec's jazz goes on.

"It has been beyond any imagination how the music got the attention and satisfaction of the people," Krantz said. "My era was the jazz-swing music. And all I do is provide a place for them to play it."

Somewhere amid the din of the crowded, hot little joint lies the magic elixir of success.

"When all the other clubs die, El Chapultepec will still be standing," Chiaraluci said. "If it wasn't for the owner's love of jazz, it just wouldn't be there."