Saxophonist Recounts Royal Inspiration in Vail

Vail Jazz Workshop alumni Khris Royal is returning this summer for the Vail Jazz Gala

Over the last 25 years, nearly 300 teenage musicians have been transformed by the Vail Jazz Workshop; a large majority have gone on to become professional musicians. This is one of their stories.

Growing up in New Orleans, it’s not surprising that once Khris Royal was old enough to read, he leapt immediately into playing jazz and big band charts. Before that, he was playing organ and drums at his family church. When it came time to choose an instrument, he wanted a trombone (Trombone Shorty was in his kindergarten class). He claims it was his mother who chose the saxophone for him.

“I actually wanted to play trombone because my older cousin played trombone,” Royal told Vail Jazz board member JoAnn Hickey in a recent phone interview. “So we went to the music store when I was 7. We were checking out horns and the salesman said, ‘man, you’re not going to be able to play trombone. Your arms are too short.’ I was like, ‘What? Trombone Shorty plays trombone and I’m taller than him, so give me a trombone.’”

He didn’t get one. His second choice was a trumpet, but he didn’t get that either.

Photo by D. Owsley

“My mom said, ‘no, you’re going to play the saxophone because girls like the saxophone.’ That’s how I ended up with the saxophone,” Royal said.

Royal attended an elementary school geared toward “art magnets,” where “we all grew up playing from an early age.”

In middle school, he played for the marching band and then joined the ranks of Wynton and Branford Marsalis, Terrence Blanchard and other musical greats in attending the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts, an experience he said matched or even usurped his later education at Berklee, which he won on full scholarship.

One of the cornerstones of his education, however, came while attending the Vail Jazz Workshop, which invites 12 of the nation’s top teenage musicians to Vail for 10 days of intimate learning with professional mentors John and Jeff Clayton, Lewis Nash, Wycliffe Gordon, Terell Stafford and Bill Cunliffe.

Royal attended the workshop in 2004. The mentors’ approach to playing – by ear without the help of sheet music – resonated to his core.

“I can relate to that coming from New Orleans,” he said. “The music started in the streets. “It was a part of my upbringing. It felt natural. That’s how music is supposed to be passed on.”

The most transformative component of Royal’s experience at the Vail Jazz Workshop was discovering how to blossom beyond the confines of traditional jazz music.

“What has stuck with me are two really amazing drummers that were there: Coran Henley and John Adams. When we got together something cool would happen because we were listening to all types of music,” he recalled. “We would be playing jazz during the day [at] the workshop, but at night we were listening to a lot of stuff like ‘RH Factor’ by Roy Hargrove and ‘Comfort Woman’ by Meshell Ndegeocello. That was pivotal because it encouraged for me to want to be more versatile. This was important because up to this point I felt like a jazz purist. I used to hide to listen to the funk records I was drawn to.”

Royal has taken that versatility and skyrocketed.

He navigates other instruments – bass, drums, keysboards – seamlessly and has enveloped himself in a multitude of genres – jazz, rock, hip-hop, R&B, electronic, funk and reggae – proving how all can compliment one another with his band Khris Royal & Dark Matter.

“We didn’t really have a goal or a mission at first. I was just going to call some friends to play some music since I had this gig. The gig went so well that they asked us to play weekly. We began to think, what do we want to sound like? I had no idea. I just knew I wanted to play music that felt good and make people happy.”

Not only has Royal performed and recorded with everyone from Bobby Brown to Mary J. Blige, Tony Clifton to Nelly, but regularly accompanies George Porter Jr. and his band as well as performs at Red Rocks and other stadium-sized venues touring with popular reggae outfit Rebelution.

“I’m just playing music that I want to hear,” he said. “I definitely want to play things that attract younger people so maybe they’ll check out what I’m doing and they’ll check out other things I’ve done that influence me.”

Royal returned to Vail last year to perform for Vail Jazz’s 25th Anniversary Gala and will be back again this summer, performing with a select crew of fellow workshop alumni on July 6 for the 2020 Vail Jazz Gala at Larkspur. Tickets and more information are available here.

Miles Mosley has made waves since Vail Jazz Workshop days

A pioneer participant in the workshop, 25 years later Mosley is one of America’s top upright bass players

Over the last 25 years, nearly 300 teenage musicians have been transformed by the Vail Jazz Workshop; a large majority have gone on to become professional musicians. This is one of their stories.

At age 16, Miles Mosley couldn’t have positively imagined the extent of his success yet to come: performing at Red Rocks or touring the world doing what he loves – playing music. While attending the very first Vail Jazz Workshop back in 1996, the young musician did get some inkling that something magical was transpiring … and it certainly instilled a powerful taste of what his future held.

“To be able to get on a plane and go fly somewhere to make music was an amazing opportunity in itself,” Mosley said in a recent interview with Vail Jazz’s Connor Williams. “I didn’t come from a wealthy family. I certainly didn’t come from a family that did a ton of traveling, so to be able to go to a camp was an affirmative experience because it made it feel real. It felt like music can actually take you somewhere. That’s an important feeling confidence-wise to have as a high school kid who doesn’t know how to feel about anything.”

Photo by Visual Thought.

Now 39, the upright bass player who grew up in Los Angeles learned a lot of things during the week he spent in Vail back in 1996. Learning from Vail Jazz Workshop founder and fellow bass aficionado John Clayton and a team of pro mentors, Mosley made discoveries about himself and his musical talents that he had never before realized. He was one of 10 teenage musicians participating in the workshop. Celebrating its 25th anniversary in 2020, the Vail Jazz Workshop hosts a carefully selected group of 12 top young musicians from across the country for 10 days of intensive, play-by-ear learning with a team of musicians that in addition to John Clayton, has included Jeff Clayton, Lewis Nash, Wycliffe Gordon, Terell Stafford and Bill Cunliffe. The workshop culminates with student performances during the Vail Jazz Party – launched by Howard Stone the year before Mosley arrived in 1995 – over Labor Day weekend, sharing the stage with a roster of A-list jazz musicians from all over the world.

“It was encouraging to be creative and express yourself on top of learning what you learned from the group. We played a song that ended with … ‘ba ba da da da da ba’ and we walked off the stage,” Mosley recalled. “We thought that was the most clever thing that has ever happened in the history of jazz. We were so proud of ourselves for thinking outside of the box. I was studying with John. It was a great experience … great experience.”

It was in Vail that Mosley met fellow teen musical prodigy Ryan Porter. The two have “been brothers in arms since then,” forming the West Coast Get Down, one of L.A.’s most popular ensembles.

“The immersiveness of [the Vail Jazz Workshop] allowed for a lot of sharing of ideas not only with my peers but with legends and heroes and professors and people who have really changed what was possible in [jazz],” Mosley said. “To be able to be in a room constantly surrounded by people at the height of their abilities and your heroes, whether it’s a basketball camp or a spelling bee convention or a jazz summit like Vail Jazz, it changes people’s lives … kids’ lives.”

The experience set the path for West Coast Get Down, whose genre-defying, “out-of-the-box” sound exemplifies the creative approach for which Mosley feels he has, in part, the Vail Jazz Workshop to thank.

“The music can begin to envelop all of the styles that we love. Cameron Graves loves

death metal. When he sits down and plays the piano, no matter what he’s playing, there’s death metal in it. I love Joni Mitchell and Jimi Hendrix and Otis Redding, and when I play the upright bass, that stuff is gonna leak in. Kamasi Washington loves Snoop Dogg. It’s gonna leak into the music. I think there’s this perfect storm of we learned jazz and we studied it properly and we show respect to it and we show honor to it, to where it came from, what it is, what it’s going to always be and then we contextualized it into our experience of the world,” Mosley said. “We held a mirror up to society to reflect that and it came out in our music.”

 

In addition to his work with West Coast Get Down, Mosley composes scores for film and TV and has shared the stage or recorded with Cee Lo Green, Chris Cornell, Lauryn Hill, Rihanna, Korn and many more standout stars from every imaginable musical style. His most recent solo release – “Brother” – is a single on which he performs vocals and bass and provides a glimpse of his forthcoming album, slated for release later this year.

 

 

Grammy-nominated trombonist sealed musical fate in Vail

Jeffery Miller’s Vail Jazz Workshop experience still serves him six years later

Over the last 25 years, nearly 300 teenage musicians have been transformed by the Vail Jazz Workshop; a large majority have gone on to become professional musicians. This is one of their stories.

Raised by his grandmother in New Orleans, taking up the trombone as a child and performing at Carnegie Hall by the time he was 15, Jeffery Miller didn’t realize how much music meant to him until he came to Vail in 2013 and was brought to tears.

That was back in 2013, when Miller was 17 years old and attending the Vail Jazz Workshop, which hosts 12 of the nation’s top teenage musicians for a week of intensive play-by-ear training with instructors from the Vail Jazz Party House Band and culminates with performances in the Vail Jazz Party over Labor Day weekend.

“I remember the moment like it was yesterday,” Miller says. “It was at the Vail Jazz Party and the faculty was playing an original – it was so beautiful and powerful. I had to go the bathroom to wipe my eyes. It was amazing music. It made me realize how amazing music can be. That’s why Vail Jazz will always have a place in my heart. That was one of my biggest moments.”

Photo by Lindsey Theong.

Now 23 years old, living in New York City and in the final semester of his Masters of Arts degree at Juilliard, Miller took that big moment and carried it skyward.

Not long after his mind-blowing week in Vail, Miller landed a full scholarship to pursue his Bachelor’s degree at Juilliard and then performed at the Apollo Theatre. He’s returned to his hometown many times in a blaze of glory, playing big stages at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival and the VooDoo Fest. He’s performed and recorded with some of the biggest names in jazz – The Count Basie Orchestra, Wynton Marsalis and younger brother Delfeayo Marsalis as well as Vail Jazz Party mentor Wycliffe Gordon.

“For me, it’s hard to pinpoint a most rewarding accomplishment, but developing relationships with so many people I respect and looked up to like Wycliffe and Wynton, that’s been a beautiful thing,” Miller says. “The experiences I’ve had performing that re-instill the passion of being a musician … I wouldn’t trade those for anything.”

While also difficult to pinpoint a single performance that’s served as an ultimate standout, Miller says the thrill that came with playing a sold out crowd at Madison Square Garden with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band supporting rock icon Arcade Fire ranks – so far – as the major highlight.

“We shut the show down. The energy and the sold out crowd was incredible. It was like a dream,” he says.

Branching beyond the jazz genre has also given Miller a great deal of satisfaction. He has been nominated for three Grammy Awards for his work with Jon Batiste and John Legend, recently recording a Christmas album with the latter.

“I want to make music that is not just jazz music,” he says. “I’m working on a lot of different projects – some pop stuff, some R&B stuff – I’m sitting on a live jazz album that I might put out soon.”

In the immediate future, however, Miller’s key focus is to earn his advanced degree. This should happen before he knows it, given the whirlwind that is his daily routine in the Big Apple.

“The day might start out with me barely waking up from the night before after having a gig until 3 a.m. I’ll wake up super early to go teach kids about jazz at a middle school in Queens or Brooklyn. Then I’ll have to rush off to class in an expensive Uber. Then I usually have a break and big band rehearsal from 3 to 6 p.m. Then I’d probably have another gig that night from 7:30 to 11 p.m. and if I’m pushing it, I might schedule myself for another gig from 11:30 into the late night …”

In spite of the early mornings, Miller has found teaching the middle school kids incredibly rewarding, imparting some of the tips and tricks he learned in Vail.

“Most of the time it’s kids who haven’t had any music training,” he says. “I like showing them the funny sounds a trombone can make, how loud it can play and how you can speak through the instrument. … that’s what gets you interested. It’s about educating their ear and challenging their ear musically. That’s how I came up in New Orleans and what I found in the Vail Jazz Workshop. It’s a very powerful tool.”

After he finishes his degree, Miller’s goal is to sign a record deal and start traveling the world again. He’d love to make enough money to help his grandmother – who raised he and his twin sister after their mother died when they were infants – re-open a women’s shelter back in New Orleans. He’s returned to Vail a few times since his Workshop days to perform at the Vail Jazz Party as well as at the Vail Dance Festival and he hopes to be back again soon.

He explains his overarching career plan rather simply:

“I hope to find myself in some kind of situation that garners respect and makes the people who care about me proud.”

 

Alumni Series: An Instrument for Life

Almost a decade later, Vail Jazz Workshop alumni Patrick Bartley still carries a big part of his Vail experience onto every stage

Over the last 25 years, nearly 300 teenage musicians have been transformed by the Vail Jazz Workshop; a large majority have gone on to become professional musicians. This is one of their stories.

When Patrick Bartley came to Vail in 2010 as one of 12 teenagers carefully selected for the Vail Jazz Workshop, he had never owned his own saxophone.

The one he was renting from his high school was padded out with paper towels and partially held together by rubber bands. The thing wasn’t even completely functional, as discovered by workshop instructor and sax pro Jeff Clayton. As the workshop got underway, Clayton allowed the then-17-year-old Bartley to try out his own horn while he tried a few notes on the teen’s janky sax.

“We were all looking at Jeff’s horn,” Bartley recalled in a recent interview with Vail Jazz board member JoAnn Hickey.

“He had a King Super 20, the same type of horn that Cannonball Adderley played. I thought, wow. Jeff to me was the link to Cannonball. I felt he represented a lot of the same values I do today. He had a big sound, he was teaching everybody how to get a big sound,” Bartley says.

Yet, it wasn’t until the teen tried Clayton’s horn that he realized how big the sound of the alto sax could truly be.

“I was the only alto player, so Jeff asked, ‘you want to try my horn?’ I took my mouthpiece off, put it on his horn and went, ‘whoa, this is what a saxophone’s supposed to feel like.’ It was crazy. Meanwhile, he starts playing through my horn. To my amazement, he is struggling to play the instrument. He looked at me and said in that Jeff Clayton voice, ‘How do you play this? This horn is unplayable.’”

As a young child growing up in Hollywood, Florida, Bartley was initially much more interested in visual art and video games than he was in playing an instrument. Around the age of 9 he discovered he was colorblind and found himself gravitating toward the school band. He began playing the clarinet, moved to baritone and then alto sax …and his course lit up before him.

“When that saxophone got into my hands, that was that moment when everything clicked. That was the moment I realized this is what I was going to do for the rest of my life,” he says. “From that moment, I took all influences and used my saxophone to communicate the experiences. Music has never felt labored. It never felt like something I had to do.”

Patrick Bartley (second from right) performs with the Vail Jazz All-Stars in 2010.

Getting back to Bartley’s experience in Vail with his janky, rented saxophone … it turns out to have been more pivotal than anyone, Bartely included, would have ever imagined. Bartley had attended other prestigious national workshops, but none compared to Vail, which is notorious, as workshops go, for teaching students to play by ear and without the use of sheet music.

“That was not my first workshop experience but it was the most unique workshop experience,” he says, recalling a specific lesson with Clayton and fellow students learning Cole Porter’s “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye.”

“He taught everyone to sing together as a group, lyric by lyric,” Bartley says. “That was powerful and important for me. It taught me the importance of understanding the context of the song. We were all relying on each other and also relying on our ability to internalize the meaning of what the song meant while we played the notes. The concept stuck with me.”

That was not the only thing that stuck with Bartley from his Vail experience. Not even close.

Again, it was Clayton imparting the gifts, in this case, a brand new, Yamaha 62 Alto saxophone, which Clayton bought with his own funds and those of fellow donors.

“It was a week of my mom and me crying after the saxophone arrived,” Bartley says. “My mom was more in shock than me. She recognized by this point I was getting good at saxophone … but this was serious. She knew this would mark the path I would take, the solidifying moment of my life. It was like having a new body. Imagine every issue you might’ve had, any sickness, any bone fracture, any injury. You’re the same person inside, but suddenly you have a completely new body. Every day since I’ve vowed to continue that generosity.”

That saxophone has traveled with Bartley around the world. Now based in New York City, the young composer performs in a number of eclectic bands and ensembles. He has performed and recorded with musicians such as Louis Hayes, Jonathan Batiste and Wynton Marsalis from iconic stages from Madison Square Garden to the Black Sea Jazz Festival, performing on the Late Show with Stephen Colbert, at the 52nd annual GRAMMY Awards with Dave Matthews Band and has himself been nominated for a GRAMMY.

“I’m 100-percent playing this Yamaha 62 Alto that Jeff got me,” he says. “I’ve tried other saxophones with the intent of buying but I just can’t part with this horn. It’s special to me. It has taken me all over the world. People identify my sound. I am positive it’s because of the saxophone.”

 

Workshop Welcomes 2019’s Teenage Prodigies

Meet two students training in this week’s intensive 2019 Vail Jazz Workshop

The flight to Colorado to attend the Vail Jazz Workshop marked Natalie Barbieri’s first time on an airplane. However, like all of the young musicians selected for the workshop, the 17-year-old from Long Island, NY, has notched several experiences outside the range of “typical” for most teenagers. For instance, she regularly performs until 4 a.m. at a West Village bar on Monday nights (dragging her parents along, since she’s not 18) in a jam session run by Billy Joel’s former saxophonist. She’s attended Manhattan School of Music’s pre-college program for the last four years, spent the summer with Berklee College’s Women in Jazz Collective and has big plans for her future. Right now it’s the Vail Jazz Workshop, an intensive, week-long learning session featuring 12 of the nation’s top teenage musicians (selected from about 150 applicants). The week of ear-learning and focused improvisation culminates with students performing on stage for the 25th Annual Vail Jazz Party alongside their workshop mentors, Vail Jazz Party House Band pros John Clayton, Dick Oates, Terell Stafford, Lewis Nash, Wycliffe Gordon and Bill Cunliffe.

“I didn’t have much of a chance to travel when I was younger,” Barbieri says. “There’s a lot I want to accomplish. I want to be a performer, I want to release my own music. I want to see the world.”

One of Barbieri’s earliest musical memories was at a family event in which a big band was performing and she climbed on stage to join them.

Natalie Barbieri. ABOVE: Anton Kot – photo by Todd Rosenberg.

“My parents were busy having a conversation and when they turned around, I was dancing on stage with the big band. I don’t know what it was … there was something I was drawn to,” the teenager recalls.

Growing up with a music teacher mother, it wasn’t much longer before Barbieri, at barely 3 years old, sat down at the piano.

“I came and sat down at my mom’s piano and I started figuring it out … one note and then two,” she says. “Then my mom called my father and said, ‘we have a problem … because she’s playing ‘Brick House.’”

Learning by ear from this tender age, it wasn’t until Barbieri was about 13 that she took up the alto saxophone after also learning the clarinet and focusing on classical music. It was the sax that allowed her to truly connect the music with her emotions.

“With jazz and saxophone, I could put my own feeling into it,” she says. “I think it was the spontaneity of it, the fact that people could put their emotions in it and create something on the spot.”

Now when Barbieri plays, whether it’s on stage performing or practicing at home – glancing at the clock to see that it’s 1 p.m. and glancing back what feels like moments later to see that it’s somehow 6 p.m. – she gets lost in the feeling of it.

“It’s hard for me to explain for people who haven’t seen me play. When I’m performing, I go someplace else,” she says. “My mother tries to record me, but I hate watching myself on the playback. You can see that I’m somewhere else. It’s very spiritual sounding … but I close my eyes and leave my body.”

Growing up in Brooklyn, Anton Kot also began developing his innate passion and talent for music at an incredibly young age … specifically, in his high chair as a baby. He was drawn, quite literally, to a different beat.

“I repeated two notes when hungry as an infant and extended those notes as a way of helping myself go to sleep,” he says, adding that he has photos of himself playing chopsticks in a family favorite Asian restaurant as a 1-year-old. “I played anything in sight…bread loaves, tin cans and cellar doors. I could mimic sounds so closely that they confused people in the subway. I was able to re-present the sounds of the L Train moving, yet it was standing still. I have always been very drawn to sound.”

As a child, this tractor beam pulled Kot into musical experiences all around New York City. Latin artist Louie Miranda noticed a 4-year-old Kot drumming along in the audience at a botanical garden performance and called him up to the stage. Kot continued to perform with Miranda’s band for thousands of people around the city throughout his childhood. He’d also attend Brazilian percussion performances in local parks, build instruments with artist Ken Butler at his SOHO studio, stop for Peruvian panpipe and plastic bucket drum performances in the subways. Eventually, Kot and his family moved to Connecticut, where the young musician joined the Neighborhood Music School in New Haven, studying with Jesse Hameen II, Rina Kinber and Istvan B’Racz. In sixth grade, he joined Thelonious Monk III on stage at Woolsey Hall.

Today, at age 17, he attends Manhattan School of Music and not a second of his waking life –and not many when asleep – go by when he’s not working out a beat.

“I will awake and play the piano before going to school. If I am late, it may be because I needed to record some new ideas that happened in my sleep,” he says. “Sometimes I awake in the middle of the night and will record something new.”

He uses the hour and a half-long drive to Manhattan School of Music to do homework. He does the same on the way home, unless he’s practicing something he learned that day. Some evenings, he plays gigs around the city. Others, he travels to Wesleyan University to participate in the Advanced Gamelan Ensemble. On Sundays, he returns to NYC to practice in an ensemble at Jazz at Lincoln Center. On Mondays, he plays a gig at Dizzy’s Club. He comes to Vail on the heels of a jazz tour in Asia with famed trumpeter Sean Jones and Grammy winner Kurt Elling and sharing the stage at Carnegie Hall with Vail Jazz favorite Wycliffe Gordon.

Studying under Gordon and the other ace instructors at the Vail Jazz Workshop, Kot hopes to learn something new and ultimately, to impart something himself down the line to young musicians and audiences everywhere.

“I would like for my music to be useful to others in positive ways,” he says. “I like the idea of offering something that can reduce the stress of people’s daily responsibilities, to take people out of this pattern of habit and let go and enjoy themselves. I have a true sense of myself when playing. When performing, I can feel that no one can disturb me. I am in a place that is inside-out. At the same time, I always depend on the environment, the space, the people in the audience, the bass player, the pianist, the horn section and so-on. I love when everyone is making a connection, and the moment when you can feel that connection taking place.”

In addition to Anton Kot on drums and Natalie Barbieri on alto sax, the 2019 Vail Jazz Workshop features teenage musical prodigies Ethan Avery and Max Nierlich on trumpet, Joey Ranieri and Gavin Gray on bass, Seth Finch and Vittorio Stropoli on piano, Jett Lim and Benny Conn on trombone, Miguel Russell on drums and Nico Colucci on tenor saxophone.

Vail Jazz All-Stars Aug. 29 at Vail Square

Catch the Vail Jazz Workshop students after their transformation into the Vail Jazz All-Stars, kicking off the 25th Annual Vail Jazz Party and a triple header performance beginning at 6 p.m. Aug. 29 at the all-weather Jazz Tent at Vail Square in Lionshead. Their performance will be followed by workshop graduates turned professionals, the Vail Jazz Alumni Quintet and then the masters themselves, the Vail Jazz Party House Band: John Clayton on bass, Dick Oates on alto sax, Bill Cunliffe on piano, Lewis Nash on drums, Terell Stafford on trumpet and Wycliffe Gordon on trombone. Tickets are $55.

The Gospel of Gospel: Embracing the Good

Niki Haris’ Vail Jazz Party performance is all about finding one’s goodness

Those unversed in gospel music might view it as a purely Christian genre … a style of music geared toward praising the lord and clapping for Jesus. But really, gospel is a music that speaks to everyone, regardless of religion, faith or belief system. Witnessing a performance like Niki Haris’ Gospel Prayer Meetin’ delivers an individual experience for each person, an experience that involves tapping into one’s deepest, glowing core.

“Everybody has a spirit and that’s what gospel speaks to, the individual spirit … the goodness of an individual,” says Denver KUVO radio’s “Gospel Train” presenter Deborah Walker, who also hosts Niki Haris’ Vail performance, which takes place Sept. 1 at Gerald Ford Amphitheater as part of the 25th Anniversary edition of the Vail Jazz Party.

“Some people don’t call it God or Jesus. It’s that individual goodness you’re speaking to,” Walker says. “The music is bringing them into the oneness of what that goodness is.”

Haris herself refers to this simply as “the light.”

“That’s what’s so great about [the Vail Jazz Party gospel performance]. It’s the one moment when people let their guard down and open their arms up. People might say, ‘I’m Jewish.’ They might say, ‘I don’t go to church.’ I say, whatever gets you to the light,” Haris says.

Haris has long been a favorite among Vail Jazz audiences. Her Gospel Prayer Meetin’ is typically the first performance to sell out every Labor Day weekend, hence its transfer this year to the big stage at Ford Amphitheater.

A back-up vocalist for Madonna for a number of years, Haris’ 15-year solo career has brought her to still more global stages and her recordings, ranging in genre from gospel to pop, R&B to funk, have topped Billboard charts.

“I’m really lucky after doing the celebrity, award-driven pop show stuff, I get to go all over the world and reach people in a deep place,” Haris says. “I get to go to India, Cambodia, Vietnam and do concerts to build non-violent centers. I get to do music that tends to change people ‘s lives in a way that’s more than just coming to a concert. My music is not just soulful, it’s soul-filled.”

Walker, whose mother was a gospel singer and who herself sang in a church choir, has lived and breathe various forms of gospel music all of her life. Of all the performances she’s hosted or witnessed, she says that Haris possesses a unique ability to reach audiences on an individual level.

“It’s her ability to be who she is and connect with the audience. She gives so much of herself,” Walker says. “I’m not saying that other artists don’t do that, but the way she connects is special. She’s not preach-y. She’s not church-y. She’s spirit-filled. She’s speaking to individual people. Even though they might not go to church, their beliefs might be different, everybody loves that good-feel music. Everybody loves to feel good. That’s what Niki brings. That’s what gospel Sunday does. It gives you that feel good spirit.”

Walker says that every year she’s hosted Haris’ Vail show, before the singer steps on stage, she collects all of her band members, which includes a musical army of the Mile Hi Gospel Choir plus nine of the Vail Jazz Party’s top musicians, into a huddle.

“I could be out there talking, talking, talking and they will be back there in a unity of oneness, of prayer, bringing it all together,” Walker says. “Niki always has that moment of holding hands, uniting the musicians together. I think a lot of artists do that. That’s what I was saying … about what gospel is. They might perform or perfect their performance in other genres of music – jazz or R & B – but when they were developing, when they first knew they had talent, it’s because they were able to tap into their inner spirit.”

In general terms, gospel can be described as musicians tapping into this spirit and sendig it outward. The experience, according to Haris, is one of both shining and absorbing light.

“It’s so important that everyone be in their own light. People forget they have a light. If we can tap into our light, we can change the world,” Haris says. “If someone wants to be in the light, they’re welcome it. If they don’t want to be in my light, they’d better put some sunglasses on.”

Sept. 1 Niki Haris’ Gospel Prayer Meetin’

Join vocalist Niki Haris, The Mile Hi Gospel Choir and a cast of top Vail Jazz Party musicians at 10:30 a.m. Sunday, Sept. 1 at Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater for a stomping, clapping, feel-good live music experience. Tickets start at $50 ($5 for students and audience members 18 years and younger).

Howard Stone: The Party

When Vail Jazz presents its 25th annual Vail Jazz Party over the Labor Day Weekend, it will continue a Colorado jazz tradition that is 56 years-old and was nurtured right here in Vail. The story begins in 1963 when Dick Gibson, a Denver investment banker, and his wife Maddie, gathered 10 jazz musicians and 200-plus friends to have a party in an Aspen hotel over the three-day Labor Day weekend. Without intending to, they created the first “Jazz Party,” a presentation format that combined jazz musicians and fans in an intimate atmosphere with various combinations of musicians performing in jam sessions all weekend long.

Howard Stone (above: Diego Figueiredo and Jeff Hamilton).

When Dick returned to work after the holiday weekend, the word had spread throughout Denver about his party and people were clamoring for him to present an encore. Dick was friends with Vail locals Marge and Larry Burdick (then owners of The Red Lion) and Billy Whiteford and Bettan Laughlin, Billy’s future wife. Billy was the owner of Casino Vail, the original “nightclub” in the heart of Vail Village. In 1964, they all joined together to successfully present the next edition of what became known as the “Dick Gibson Jazz Party” at Casino Vail.

The annual event was ultimately moved out of the mountains and down to the Front Range and during its 30-year run, the annual Dick Gibson Jazz Party presented all-star lineups that featured some of the greatest jazz musicians in the world. The fame of “The Party” spread. Attendees traveled to Colorado each year from all around the world, causing the demand for tickets to grow dramatically, which outstripped the limited seating capacity at the Party. Therefore, it wasn’t long before other Jazz Parties were organized and by the 1970s, there were as many as 150 annual Jazz Parties throughout the United States. By the 1990s, Jazz Parties were being presented at sea, as the cruise industry began filling their ships with jazz fans.

I was one of the lucky ones that attended many of Dick’s legendary Jazz Parties. After Dick retired, I was inspired to present the first Vail Jazz Party in 1995. Twenty-five years later, the Vail Jazz Party has grown from three days of jazz over the Labor Day Weekend into the Vail Jazz Festival, a summer-long celebration of jazz and the longest summer festival in Vail. When the last note will have been played on Labor Day of this year, Vail Jazz will have presented 100 performances in the Vail Valley as part of its silver anniversary celebration.

For the past 24 years, Vail Jazz has presented innovative educational programs to the children of Eagle County and beyond, as well as professional level training for some of the most dedicated high school jazz musicians in North America. In 2017, in recognition of the positive impact that our programs have had on the tens of thousands of children we have reached, DownBeat magazine bestowed upon Vail Jazz its coveted Jazz Education Achievement Award.

Beginning on Thursday, Aug. 29 and continuing through Labor Day, Sept. 2, Vail Jazz will celebrate the culmination of its 25th season by presenting over 70 musicians and vocalists performing over 40 hours of jazz. Of special note will be the screening (10:30 a.m. Aug. 30) of the documentary film, The Great Rocky Mountain Jazz Party, which captures the magic of Dick’s 1976 Jazz Party. The weekend will be filled with unique shows, including tributes to George Shearing, Ray Brown, Oscar Peterson and The Beatles. Also, Vail Jazz will produce its first ever live recording of the great Brazilian guitarist Diego Figueiredo and friends, plus Wycliffe Gordon will present his acclaimed Nu-Funk Machine Dance Party on Sunday afternoon. In addition, the perennially popular Niki Haris’ Gospel Prayer Meetin’ will be expanded with the addition of the 22-member Mile High Gospel Ensemble and presented at Ford Amphitheater at 10:30 a.m. Sunday.

Don’t miss the opportunity to see and hear some of the greatest musicians in the world performing in Vail over this Labor Day weekend and join with us in celebrating 25 years of world class jazz in Vail. Go here for more information about and tickets to the 2019 Vail Jazz Party.

Howard Stone is the Founder and Artistic Director of Vail Jazz, the presenter of the annual Vail Jazz Festival. This summer Vail Jazz is celebrating its 25th Anniversary Season with performances by internationally renowned artists in multiple venues throughout the Vail Valley. In addition, Vail Jazz presents throughout the year jazz educational programs with a special focus on young musicians and young audiences. Many of Vail Jazz’s performances and educational programs are presented free of charge.

Not-To-Miss Vail Jazz Party Shows For All Music Fans

As usual, the Vail summer is flying by at mach speed, but the season’s crowning event – the Vail Jazz Party over Labor Day weekend – is geared up to be summer’s grand finale like never before.

Celebrating its 25th anniversary, the 2019 Vail Jazz Party is pulling out all of the stops and you don’t have to be a staunch jazz fan to catch a dose of the thrill ride. There are only a handful of such parties across the globe, in which a collection of the world’s most acclaimed jazz artists descend on the same place for several days of multimedia performances and one-of-a-kind jam sessions that will never again be recreated.

Because the blowout event is comprised of more than 45 hours of performances over five days, picking and choosing which shows to hit can be challenging. If you are new to the party or not necessarily a jazz connoisseur, there are plenty of performances that appeal to a broad audience and will be sure to blow your hair back no matter what kind of music you love. Here are five to consider:

  • A tribute to Ray Brown –1 p.m. Friday, Aug. 30

Growing up in Pittsburgh in the 1930s, Ray Brown was barely a teenager when his fast-fingered, unique ability to play the upright bass put him on the national radar. He moved to New York City, joined the famous Dizzy Gillespie band, became a Grammy Award-winning composer and Downbeat Jazz Hall of Famer and is recognized as one of the most skilled bass players of all time. Brown’s talent and style can be appreciated by anyone who revels in a deep, bouncing bass line. Starring in this performance is a trio of famed musicians who actually performed and/or recorded with Brown before his death in 2002 – Vail Jazz Party House Band leader, fellow bass player and Grammy winner John Clayton, drummer Jeff Hamilton and pianist Larry Fuller.

  • Jazz & The Struggle for Freedom – 8:10 p.m. Friday, Aug. 30

Led by Byron Stripling, one of the world’s most recognizable trumpet players (he’s starred in Broadway musicals and produced theme songs for numerous TV shows and movies), this performance highlights the connection of jazz music to the Civil Rights Movement. During a time when racial inequality ruled the day, a handful of black Americans were gaining national and even global popularity as jazz musicians, becoming major influencers of pop culture, pop music and turning the tide for all black Americans.

  • The Jazzy Side of The Beatles – 9:35 p.m. Friday, Aug. 30

Nobody would promptly classify The Beatles as jazz music, but the crossover is stronger than you’d think. As it turns out, the styles of the best-selling band in history found its way under countless musical umbrellas. Jazz great Count Basie had a hey day with Beatles tunes such as “Hey Jude” and “Come Together,” and famed jazz pianist Herbie Hancock won a Grammy for his studio album The Imagine Project, in which he collaborated with artists such as P!NK and Seal in a cover of The Beatles’ “Imagine.” Vail Jazz House Band pianist Bill Cunliffe joins famed Aussie bassist Nicki Parrott and drummer Ernie Adams to show you just how jazzy The Beatles can be.

  •   Niki Haris’ Gospel Prayer Meetin’: 10 a.m. Sunday, Sept. 1

This performance is the first Vail Jazz Party event to sell out year after year, but this year, it’s moving to the wide open confines of the Gerald Ford Amphitheater. Starring soulful, soaring, charismatic vocalist Niki Haris, who performed for many years with Madonna, along with the Mile Hi Gospel Choir and nine A-list soloists, the big stage will be a party of dance-inducing, hand-clapping harmony. The audience is guaranteed to get swept up in the communal, gleeful surge of good vibes.

  •  Wycliffe Gordon’s Nu-Funk Machine Dance Party: 4:30 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 1

Clear out the chairs, people. You’re going to need space. Possibly the world’s most talented trombonist, Wycliffe Gordon would be the first to point out that the first three letters of funk spell F-U-N. The Vail Jazz Party House Band veteran is famous for getting crowds on their feet and believes that the foundation for any good time is for those both on and off the stage to “join us in the groove.” Joy will be shared all around.

2019 Vail Jazz Party Aug. 29 – Sept. 2

The 25th Annual Vail Jazz Party takes place Aug. 29 to Sept. 2. Tickets are available for individual sessions (starting at $25) HERE as well as party passes for five days of performances (starting at $375) HERE.

Following The Beat of The Conga …

Poncho Sanchez recounts his decorative path of pounding rawhide

Growing up with 10 siblings in a Mexican-American family in Los Angeles, Poncho Sanchez had to work for everything he got starting from a young age. Music drew him from the time he was a small child, but percussion was not his first calling.

Sanchez, the youngest of 11 children, recalls admiring a neighbor’s shiny Fender guitar and his prowess when practicing in a Motown band, which was fairly new at the time.

“He’d let me touch the guitar but not too much because I was just the kid across the street. He sold me a little Spanish guitar with three strings for $.50. I got that and started plucking on it. I went to join a neighborhood band. Long story short, they said, ‘we don’t need a guitar player. We need a singer.’ I didn’t think I was a singer.”

But the young Sanchez surprised everyone … including himself.

“I think I sang a James Brown song. I started dancing around like James Brown. When the song was over, they said, ‘wow, you can sing and you can really move.’”

Fast forward more than 50 years, and Sanchez is still doing exactly that … as well as inspiring audiences all over the world to get up and get themselves moving.

Sanchez can thank his seven sisters for the dance moves. He and his siblings listened to late 1950s mamba and cha cha cha records incessantly as children, but while his sisters danced around the house, Sanchez would stare at the album covers and hone in on the deep rhythms of the songs.

“What attracted me to Latin percussion is the sound of the drum itself,” he says. “It was the flavor of them, or, as we say in Spanish, el sabor. I felt it, the rhythm, the flavor, the ‘unk-cha, chik-ah, chi-ka.” My sisters would dance and I would hear their feet shuffling on the floor. I’ve loved it as far back as I can remember.”

It wasn’t until high school that Sanchez landed his first conga drum, a pawnshop gift from his father. None of his friends or neighbors could guide him in Latin jazz, so he paved his own percussion sound with the help of multi-instrumentalist Cal Tjader, considered by many to be the king of Latin and acid jazz.

“I learned the trade of how to be a front man in a band. But all this time, I always liked the conga and the timbales,” he says. “I went home, put Cal Tjader’s records on and started to play. The sound of the instrument when I laid my hand down and learned how to slap it, felt right to me. It felt good on my hands.”

Sanchez led several local bands throughout his youth in Los Angeles. Then in 1975, Cal Tjader himself invited Sanchez on stage to perform with his band. The famed musician was so taken with Sanchez that he made him the official conguero in his band until Tjader passed away in 1982. Sanchez went on to take his fiery, gritty, danceable beats to front and center, producing nearly two dozen albums and winning a Grammy award.

Leading a nine-piece ensemble, Poncho Sanchez brings his sizzling salsa, soulful vocals and maybe a few dance moves, back to Vail.

“What can we tell people who come to the show? We’ll be playing lots of Latin jazz, salsa and a little Latin soul. They’re guaranteed to have a good time,” Sanchez says.

Poncho Sanchez at Vail Jazz @ Vail Square – Aug. 22

Latin jazz and salsa leader Poncho Sanchez and his nine-piece ensemble perform at the Jazz Tent at Lionshead’s Vail Square at 6 p.m. on Thursday, Aug. 22. Tickets are $25 for general admission, $40 for preferred seat and $50 for premium seat. Beer, wine and cocktails are available for purchase. Get tickets HERE.

Howard Stone: Afro-Cuban Jazz and Politics

Previously I have written about the differences between Afro-Cuban jazz and American jazz and examined the reasons why the descendants of the same African ancestors, living only 90 miles apart in the New World, created two distinctively different forms of jazz. I concluded that that the outcome was predictable considering that each group’s music evolved in distinctly different cultural environments. Yet a society’s culture does not exist in a vacuum and in most instances, it is the handmaiden of the politics of the realm. Politics have had a lot to do with the shaping of Cuba’s music in the recent past.

Howard Stone (above: Poncho Sanchez).

In the late 19th and early 20th century, musicians (and many others) moved freely between Havana and New Orleans, soaking up the rich musical traditions of their neighbors. The U.S. invasion of Cuba in 1898 at the beginning of the Spanish American War changed the course of Cuban history with the U.S. military occupying Cuba three separate times, ending in 1922. By that time, Havana was the “Vegas” of the Prohibition Era. “Rum, sun, sin and fun” was the mantra of the day and “Latin” music became familiar to many Americans. Many Cuban musicians arrived in New York in the 1930s and 1940s, igniting the mambo and cha-cha dance crazes. At the same time, the rich polyrhythms and unique percussion instruments from Cuba began to influence American jazz, and Afro-Cuban jazz evolved in the 1940s and 50s.

However, things changed course in 1959 as the Cuban Revolution began. Fidel Castro seized power, followed by the Cuban missile crisis and then the U.S. embargo of Cuba. It wasn’t long before the flow of junket-bound tourists from the U.S. looking for a good time in Havana came to an abrupt halt and Vegas took over as the new “sin city” in North America. Neighbors had become enemies and 60 years later this sad state of affairs remains.

The result was that Cuba fell into the waiting arms of the Russians, as Castro was in desperate need of economic assistance. The popular revolution that began with the goal of removing a tyrant led to a new tyrant leading a repressive communist regime. Politics then eclipsed culture in Cuba and anti-Americanism became the credo of the masses. Jazz, the music of the Yankee enemy, was declared anti-revolutionary and no one dared play the music of the imperialist Americans.

As Cuba grew closer to Russia, the ideology of communism began to conflict with the roots of Cuban music. The African rhythmic tradition of native Cuban music, traceable to religious practices, conflicted with the “party line.” Hand drumming, which is at the heart of much Cuban music (conga, bongos), was perceived as primitive and was looked upon as undignified and vulgar. The use of cymbals on a drum set was criticized as being “too American.” Politics overshadowed music. Gonzalo Rubalcaba, the great Cuban jazz pianist who lived in post-revolution Cuba, is quoted as saying, “to play jazz music in Cuba between the ‘60s and the beginning of the ‘80s had the meaning to be playing the music of the enemy.”

Many famous Cuban jazz musicians left the island – Rubalcaba, Arturo Sandoval, Paquito D’Rivera, Bebo Valdés and later his son, Chucho Valdés, to name just a few. But not all Cuban jazz musicians left and many young musicians continued to play jazz surreptitiously. By the late 1970s, the Cuban authorities concluded they couldn’t suppress the music any longer and decided to sponsor an annual jazz festival. Most saw it as a cynical propaganda move by the government to establish its support of the country’s youth, even if it meant they were playing the music of the enemy. Others believed it was a disparate way of bolstering the economy, as jazz fans from throughout the world attended. Whatever the motivation, there has been an annual jazz festival in Havana ever since. However, Cuban musicians must always take into consideration whether their music will potentially offend the government, which controls all aspects of the economy. In addition, the freedom of Cuban and American jazz musicians to travel between the two countries has ebbed and flowed as the political winds have shifted in this country. So unfortunately, when it comes to Afro-Cuban jazz, politics eclipse the music.

This Thursday at 6 p.m. at the Jazz Tent in Lionshead, Vail Jazz will celebrate the great Afro-Cuban jazz tradition by presenting Grammy Award-winning conguero (conga player) Poncho Sanchez and his Latin Jazz Band in a concert that is guaranteed to get everyone up and moving. Get tickets here.

Howard Stone is the Founder and Artistic Director of Vail Jazz, the presenter of the annual Vail Jazz Festival. This summer Vail Jazz is celebrating its 25th Anniversary Season with performances by internationally renowned artists in multiple venues throughout the Vail Valley. In addition, Vail Jazz presents throughout the year jazz educational programs with a special focus on young musicians and young audiences. Many of Vail Jazz’s performances and educational programs are presented free of charge.