This saxophonist records music in fallout shelters

Neil Welch gained the confidence for his exploratory pro music career at the Vail Jazz Workshop

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.

Neil Welch has always gravitated toward certain sounds. The most significant so far is that of the saxophone, which beckoned him when he saw and heard one up close for the first time during an elementary school assembly.

“When that group was performing they broke up into the audience and had students hold instruments,” Welch recalled in a recent phone interview with Vail Jazz Board member JoAnn Hickey. “I was seeing this glorious, shiny, sonically rich, expressive instrument being played right in front of me. In that moment I absolutely knew that I was going to play the saxophone.”

Welch ran home that day to inform his mother of this revelation. She told him he might have to wait until he had an opportunity later in school.

“I was a bit young to play it and my family didn’t have the means to get the instrument at that time. I truly believe I was called to it. Once I got the opportunity to sign up for band I was number one in line asking to play saxophone,” he said.

Neil Welch. Photo by Bryan Lineberry

Thus, growing up going to a public school that offered a music program in the Pacific Northwest, Welch took up the sax in fifth grade and began exploring the depths of its sound. He joined the high school jazz band and began studying with professional, Seattle-area musicians like Jay Thomas, Hadley Caliman and Don Lanfear. His high school jazz band performed in the prestigious Essentially Ellington competition in New York. After winning a solo award, Welch received a call from Vail Jazz founder Howard Stone, asking if he’d be interested in attending the Vail Jazz Workshop, a 10-day intensive musical education that invites 12 of the nation’s most promising teenage musicians to learn the art of improvisation and playing by ear.

Although he “jumped at the opportunity,” he was immediately intimidated. This was 2003. Welch was 17.

“That was a challenge for me,” he said. “At that time I was doing my best to try and learn melodies, chords and to try and work with other musicians with an understanding that to play at professional levels you really don’t often have music in front of you. You need to know a repertoire of music in order to be able to communicate with one another at that high level. That was the first time playing without written music had been expected of me. To be honest, I distinctly remember being pretty terrified heading there.”

Upon arriving in Vail and hearing the talent of his fellow students, he was additionally unnerved by a sensation that his own talent did not measure up. He leapt these hurdles by the time the workshop wrapped up, buoyed by his newly discovered skill set and the thrill of connecting with other musicians.

“What I distinctly remember is that when I walked away from the camp I had performed, socialized, communed with people through music in a way that felt closer to what jazz music, as it had been formally described to me, could actually be like,” he said.

This is an approach he’d take through college, when he was drawn to world music and specifically, the Indian sitar. Welch began studying traditional Hindustani music with sitar master Pandit Debi Prasad Chatterjee. He said this experience, like studying with great saxophonists and trumpeters, opened his eyes to how devotion to a craft’s specific forms can “build a culture around it” and “shape the culture.”

“It was through Pandit Chatterjee that I was able to tie a lot of different elements together in a musical study that had previously been mysterious to me,” Welch said. “I realized what was possible in a field completely different from my own. He was able to find entry points to bring me into it, despite the fact that I had no upbringing in it, very few cultural ties to Indian music or Indian culture. The study with Pandit Chatterjee and great jazz musicians in Seattle, eventually – in a bizarre, roundabout way – helped open my spirit, open my ears and my mind towards collaboration and hearing specific sounds and forms. When I became more interested in abstract music it actually felt a lot more comfortable trying to find entry points into abstraction to study and also bring others into the fold who hopefully would want to listen to the music and enjoy it, too.”

Now, the saxophonist is drawn to abstract sound in abstract locations. He records solo compositions in unusual places, including parking garages, remote mountain and desert locations and even a World War II fallout shelter. He co-founded Seattle’s famed creative music series Racer Sessions, is co-director of the Seattle Saxophone Institute, has released six solo albums, is a highly sought instructor and collaborates with as many musicians as possible from a variety of backgrounds. He credits the Vail Jazz Workshop with instilling the confidence he needed to embark on this unique lifelong musical journey.

“I feel at that point in my life I was really on the edge,” he said. “I knew music was going to be in my life. I knew the saxophone was going to be my life, but at that time I felt more confident going into education than playing. What I didn’t really understand at that time is that you can have both, and there are different ways to go about that.”

 

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.

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.

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.

Howard Stone: I Did It My Way

The Academy Award-winning documentary film, Twenty Feet from Stardom (2013) explores the careers and lives of a number of rock/pop “backup” singers. These very talented women backed up Bruce Springsteen, Mick Jagger, Sting, Stevie Wonder and other iconic rock/pop performers, but while the public may have known their voices, they were largely anonymous, performing while standing in the shadows, as the spotlight shone brightly on some of the legendary pop vocalists of the 21st century. Their value was their ability to blend and harmonize with the “front person,” enabling the group effort to create an overall sound that propelled the leader to fame and fortune. The film examines the hurdles, some self-imposed, that prevented these great vocalists from solo careers and stardom. There have been, of course, many male backup singers in rock/pop, as well, and many of both gender have gone on to great careers. Cher, Elton John, Luther Vandross, Mariah Carey, Michael McDonald, Sheryl Crow, Whitney Houston, Katy Perry, Pink, Mary J. Blige, Phil Collins and John Legend, to name just a few, all sang backup before becoming huge commercial successes.

Howard Stone (above: Catherine Russell).

What about jazz backup singers transitioning to the limelight? The simple answer is there haven’t been any, because there haven’t been any jazz backup singers. While there have been several instances where members of a jazz vocal ensemble (Lambert, Hendricks & Ross and the Manhattan Transfer come to mind) have vocally supported a solo by one of its members, the jazz vocal tradition relies more on the interaction between the vocalist, who is seen as another one of the instrumentalists, and the remaining members of the band. In jazz, everyone is responsible for the group sound or you are a soloist and everyone else in the band supports you. Scatting, the vocal technique of singing non-sense syllables, is a perfect example of how a jazz singer and the band work together for a group sound. So in jazz there is a totally different approach to the music.

Interestingly enough, there have been only a few rock/pop backup singers that have become top draw jazz vocalists. Catherine Russell and Niki Haris are two of them. Each started out singing backup for legendary pop artists. In the case of Catherine, she spent over two decades singing backup for the who’s who of pop music – Steely Dan, Al Green, Cyndi Lauper, Paul Simon, Jackson Browne, Rosanne Cash, and many others. Catherine toured extensively with David Bowie and is a multi-instrumentalist, not only singing backup, but also playing mandolin, guitar and percussion. It was only as she approached her fifth decade that she decided to take a stab at a solo career, not as a pop vocalist, but as a jazz singer.

Niki Haris began singing pop and R&B music in the early 1980s after college and from 1987 to 2001 she toured the world singing backup for Madonna. During the same period, her vocal work could be heard on the soundtracks of a number of films and she appeared in the documentary film about Madonna, Truth or Dare. She also worked as a choreographer for Madonna and others. By 2003, Niki decided to focus on family life and gave birth to her daughter, and when she returned to work as a vocalist several years later, she began to sing jazz and gospel.

So how is it that these two very successful rock backup singers suddenly discovered jazz and decided that in the later part of their careers they wanted to be a soloist singing jazz? Well, I guess the old proverb, “an apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,” and the lyrics of the Frank Sinatra hit, “My Way,” may explain it. Catherine and Niki have several things in common that I believe led them to jazz. Both are the daughters of jazz greats, but they both chose a career path outside the world of jazz. While their musical journeys may have started with jazz, both established their own identities and didn’t initially follow in the footsteps of their fathers.

In Catherine’s case, her father was Luis Russell, the legendary jazz pianist, bandleader, composer, arranger and long-time music director for Louis Armstrong. In Niki’s case, her father was Gene Harris (Niki uses one “r” in her last name), who was one of the most soulful pianists to ever play jazz, with a career that spanned over four decades.

So now you can see why the metaphor and song lyrics above are so appropriate. The daughters of two jazz greats grow up and develop into remarkably talented vocalists, but the world they grow up in is not the world of their fathers. Instead, they come of age in a world dominated by rock. My view is that as gifted, independent young women, they didn’t want to follow in the footsteps of their famous fathers, but instead, they did it their way.

Catherine Russell makes her Vail debut as part of the 25th Annual Vail Jazz Festival on Aug. 15 at the Jazz Tent in Lionshead (Get tickets HERE). Niki will once again return to Vail to lead the perennial Vail Jazz Party favorite, The Gospel Prayer Meetin,’ which will make its inaugural appearance on the big stage in the Ford Amphitheater on Sunday morning, September 1 (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.

Howard Stone: The Jezebel of Jazz

This year is the centennial of the birth of Anita O’Day (Anita Belle Colton), a daring jazz vocalist who developed her own style and created a vast body of innovative vocals while being tagged “The Jezebel of Jazz,” for her nonconformist ways. At mid-20th century, she was considered to be one of the top female jazz singers along with Ella, Billie and Sarah. In a career spanning seven decades, Anita rode the proverbial elevator of fame to the top, only to descend to the depths of hell on earth on more than one occasion. Somehow, she was always able to rise again.

Raised in an impoverished, broken home in Chicago, Anita left at age 14 in order to make a living competing in the marathon dance contests that were popular during the Depression. At 16, while dancing with a partner, she was asked if she could sing and responded by breaking out in song. The crowd showered her with money … and her destiny was revealed.

Howard Stone (above: Anita O’Day).

Anita returned to Chicago determined to be a singer and adopted her stage name. She sang wherever she could find a gig, developing unique timing and phrasing, mastering scat singing and trying new interpretations of the established repertoire. By 1941, the 21-year-old was hailed as the “New Star of the Year” by DownBeat magazine and joined Gene Krupa’s big band.

Bands weren’t integrated then, but Gene’s band featured the great African-American trumpeter Roy Eldridge. When Anita and Roy performed in a duet, the mixed racial pairing was considered scandalous. However, their “Let Me Off Uptown,” was a hit, making Anita a star. (See the video here)

Other hits followed and for the better part of the 1940s, Anita would sing with prominent big bands, including Woody Herman’s and Stan Kenton’s. This was the big band era and each band had a “girl singer,” conspicuously seated in front of the band, projecting a glamorous image dressed in a strapless gown, while she waited for her turn to perform. Anita rebelled against the stereotype and wore a band jacket and a skirt to show that she was one of the band. Her attire was considered shocking and she was once again judged guilty of outrageous conduct.

By the end of the decade, she left the world of big band singing and went out on her own. She began performing at major venues with many jazz greats, culminating with her appearance at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival. The epitome of cool, flamboyantly attired in a black dress, white gloves and a wide brimmed hat with ostrich feathers, Anita projected a stunning visual appearance that appeared on the covers of national magazines, catapulting her to international fame.

From 1955 to the mid-60s, she recorded 17 LPs that confirmed her reputation as a unique song stylist, using an inventive technique fueled by the freedom to improvise, to sing before and after the beat. She combined a great wit with a fearlessness that led her to places others dared not go. “Given a choice, I wanted to be where the action was,” is the way she explained it. While this approach paid dividends musically, she paid dearly for it in her personal life, as there were failed marriages and affairs, no children and numerous abortions. After her triumph at Newport, the elevator ride up continued a while longer, but the seeds had been sown for a change in direction. Starting in the late 1940s, Anita had begun smoking marijuana and became addicted to heroin. She was jailed for possession and use of both marijuana and heroin on several occasions and regularly abused alcohol. She nearly died from an overdose in 1967, but she quit cold turkey in 1968 and made a miraculous comeback in 1970. She continued to perform and record into the 1990s, but in 1996, she had a terrible accident, suffering life-threatening injuries. Once again, at the age of 80 in 1999, Anita resumed her career, performing sporadically, but died in her sleep at the age of 87 in 2006. Her life story was brilliantly told in her autobiography, High Times, Hard Times, as well as in a compelling documentary film, Anita O’Day: The Life of a Jazz Singer.

It is clear when reflecting on Anita’s life, that well before the #MeToo era, she was an extraordinarily talented, independent woman who was unwilling to be just “the girl singer in the band.” In the process, she inspired many young women jazz singers to do it their way. Veronica Swift, the remarkably talented 25-year-old, is one of the next generation jazz singers inspired by Anita. Veronica possesses perfect pitch, a stylish sense of phrasing and timing and can scat with the best of them. Whether she is interpreting the Great American Songbook or bebop classics, she says “I try not to imitate, but to emulate.” Vail Jazz is pleased to present Veronica Swift and the Emmet Cohen Trio on Aug. 7 in two shows at the Sonnenalp Hotel (Get Sonnenalp tickets here) and at 6 p.m. Aug. 8 in the Jazz Tent in Lionshead (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.