Howard Stone: New Orleans Piano

If you were to ask most jazz fans what instrument most epitomizes New Orleans jazz, the trumpet would most likely be the answer. Actually, it should be the cornet, which Louis Armstrong and other early New Orleans jazzmen initially played, switching to the trumpet later. Another answer might be the trombone, most famously played in the “tailgating” style by Edward “Kid” Ory, who played with Satchmo (Armstrong). So, while it was brass instruments in The Big Easy around the turn of the 20th century that were initially associated with the new sound that became known as jazz, the clarinet also arrived on the scene and played a prominent role in early “Dixieland” jazz. However, by mid-century, it was the piano players of The Crescent City that had birthed a new style of music: rhythm and blues, or as it became known, R & B.

Howard Stone. (above: Jelly Roll Morton).

But I have gotten ahead of my story and must return to the 19th and early 20th century for some important details. At that time, New Orleans was a major port city and as such, received countless immigrants and visitors from places like Cuba, the Caribbean and South America. Many of the new arrivals brought with them their musical traditions and over time, their musical ingredients were added to the jazz recipe, creating a new musical multi-culturalism that furthered the jazz tradition. This is where the piano players of New Orleans took over.

It all started with the legendary Creole piano man Jelly Roll Morton (Ferdinand Joseph Lamothe), who in 1902 at the age of 12, began playing piano in the bordellos of Storyville, the red light district of New Orleans. While Jelly Roll claimed to have invented jazz (something that no one person can take credit for), he did move the music forward by fusing ragtime with the blues and added elements of the habanera from Cuba and the tango from Argentina. His extraordinary talent and new approach to the music elevated the piano to a position where it could vie for attention in a music that had up to then been dominated by brass bands, which even today remain an important part of the New Orleans jazz tradition.

What Jelly Roll set in motion ultimately lead to an approach whereby jazz pianists melded Caribbean and Latin American musical idioms that previously had not been combined with jazz or the blues. Subsequent New Orleans piano players continued this approach. Over the last 100 years, giants like Isidore “Tuts” Washington, Henry Roeland “Professor Longhair” Byrd, Champion Jack Dupree, James Carrol Booker III, Antoine “Fats” Domino, Allen Toussaint, Mac “Dr. John” Rebennack and Henry Butler created a music that can best be described as “New Orleans piano.”

While each of these piano titans had his own unique style, at the heart was a thumping bass line played with the left hand while a rollicking right hand played melodic lines. It is much like boogie-woogie and stride piano, except you can feel the rhythms of the habanera and rumba from Cuba, the Caribbean calypso beats and the hypnotic pulse of the tango from Argentina, all combined with jazz in a captivating way.

As mentioned above, one of the greats of New Orleans piano was Henry Butler. When Henry’s home in New Orleans was destroyed by Katrina in 2005, he took up residence in Colorado and performed on a number of occasions at the Vail Jazz Festival over the ensuing years, the last of which was in 2017. Tragically, Henry passed last year. To pay homage to him and many of the other greats of New Orleans piano, Vail Jazz will present Jon Cleary and his trio in a multi-media tribute to Henry and the other legendary piano men of New Orleans on July 31 at the Sonnenalp Hotel (get tickets here) and Aug. 1 at the Jazz Tent in Lionshead (get tickets here). Jon is a master of all the styles of New Orleans piano and will also share classic videos and tip his hat to some of NOLA’s legendary players.

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: Jazz and The Movies

The 1927 film, The Jazz Singer, was the first feature-length (not a short) “talkie” (a film with synchronized speech, singing, instrumental score and sound effects). While the title suggests that it was about a jazz crooner, the story is about a young man who wants to sing pop music instead of following in his father’s footsteps as a cantor. The film was a great commercial success, which revolutionized entertainment. By the end of the decade, 50 percent of the U.S. populace went to the movies weekly. Unfortunately, Hollywood’s track record when depicting the world of jazz has not been very good, as most films have relied on clichés and commercial themes that have strayed from reality. Periodically though, filmmakers have captured the essence of the music and the musicians. Forest Whitaker‘s portrayal of Charlie Parker in Bird and jazz saxophonist Dexter Gordon’s Oscar-nominated role in ’Round Midnight were thoughtful explorations of the jazz life.

Howard Stone.

In the past few years, two jazz-themed movies – Green Book (2018) and La La Land (2016) have taken home Oscars for Best Picture and in 2014, JK Simmons won an Oscar for his performance as a demonic jazz educator in Whiplash. While winning critical acclaim and box office success, many in the jazz community were less than pleased with these offerings. The most recent jazz film, Bolden, was panned by the critics and failed at the box office as well. On the other hand, there have been some wonderful documentary films about jazz in the last several years. Keep On Keepin’ On, I Called Him Morgan, Chasing Trane and What Happened, Miss Simone? are a few noteworthy offerings.

So, while in recent years some filmmakers have done a better job depicting the world of jazz, it hasn’t been films about jazz (or even jazz soundtracks) that have been that important to the art form. Instead, it has been the music in movies that has had an outsized impact on jazz. A little history is in order. The explosion in popularity of the cinema in the 1920s through the 1950s (when television viewing began to skyrocket and attendance at movie theaters began to decline) coincided with the period when composers and lyricists began writing songs that became known as “The Great American Songbook.” Many of these songs were written for the movies and even when they were first performed on Broadway, found their way into the movies, where the audiences were much larger. It was a time when the likes of Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Johnny Mercer, Jerome Kern, Richard Rodgers, Cole Porter and Harold Arlen, to name just a few, were writing the songs that jazz performers embraced and have been performing ever since, to the point that these songs are now “jazz standards.”

In 2004, the American Film Institute published its poll of the “100 Greatest Songs In American Movies,” Topping the list was “Over the Rainbow” from The Wizard of Oz (1939), with “As Time Goes By” from Casablanca (1942) next. On July 24 at the Sonnenalp Hotel (get tickets here) and again on July 25 at the Jazz Tent in Lionshead (get tickets here), Vail Jazz will present the great Ann Hampton Callaway, performing those two jazz classics and many more as she takes the audience on a walk down memory lane in her show entitled “Jazz Goes To The Movies.” I hope to see you all at these shows. As the character Sam (Humphrey Bogart) said in Casablanca … “here’s looking at you, kid.”

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.

Preview of the 25th Annual Vail Jazz Festival: Unforgettable

“Out of clutter, find simplicity. From discord, find harmony. In the middle of difficulty, lies opportunity.” The life of Nathaniel Adams Coles bears witness to these words of wisdom from none other than Albert Einstein. Nat “King” Cole, as he became known, was born into an African-American family in Montgomery, Alabama, 100 years ago this year, and this adage served him well during a lifelong struggle with racism.

Nat’s father was a Baptist minister and his mother led the choir at his father’s church. The family relocated to Chicago when he was 4 years old and during his early years, he played the organ at his father’s church. Nat’s mother taught him to play the piano, providing him with the only formal music training he ever received, and as a teen he would sneak out of the house late at night to listen to jazz at local clubs. By 15, Nat had quit high school, determined to become a jazz pianist. At 17, he joined an all-black touring musical show, but was stranded in Los Angeles when the show folded on the road. True to Einstein’s maxim, in the middle of a difficult situation, he saw opportunity and began playing in local bars, all the while honing his jazz chops. When his reputation began to grow, he was offered the opportunity to organize a quartet (piano, bass, drums and guitar) to play at a more upscale venue.

Howard Stone.

The band worked hard to prepare for the gig, as Nat understood this was the breakout moment he had been waiting for. But it appeared that fate would intervene. On opening night, his drummer failed to show up. This is when Einstein’s direction to find simplicity and harmony out of clutter and discord would save the day, along with the mantra of all great jazz players: when all else fails, improvise. Nat found simplicity and harmony with a drummer-less trio, forging a new way to present swinging jazz. It caught on, but as he put it, “for years the Trio did nothing but play for musicians and other hip people. We practically starved to death.”

He was not yet 21 and with all of his success, Nat was still unknown outside the world of jazz. Money was an issue and he was struggling. However, that was about to change, for as legend tells it, on a fateful night, the trio was playing in a club when a drunk began harassing him and demanding that he sing a specific song. At first, he tried to ignore the man as he didn’t know the tune and singing wasn’t part of his act. When that failed, he decided to try to shut up the drunk by singing “Sweet Lorraine,” a song that he knew. The audience loved his smooth baritone voice and his unique phrasing and enunciation. That night, out of an extremely difficult situation, he once again proved that when opportunity knocks, you need to open the door.

Nat went on to record the song in 1940, which would become his first hit record and started him on the road to success and fame. During the ensuing two-plus decades, he would record hit after hit, including “Unforgettable,” that aptly described him as a remarkably gifted entertainer. He became one of the most famous singers of the era, moving away from jazz to the broader audience of pop, and in the process selling over 50 million records and successfully touring throughout the world. In 1946, he had his own radio program – a first for a black musician – and in 1956, he had his own network TV program, another first for a black musician.

But unfortunately, in mid-20th century America, Einstein’s axiom proved to be no match for the “discord” and “difficulty” of racism and no matter how hard Nat tried to seize the opportunities that potentially existed for him, there were barriers for blacks that he could not break down.

A case in point, in 1948 he purchased a home in an all-white neighborhood in Los Angeles and was greeted by a burning cross on his front lawn. The family dog was poisoned and neighbors confronted him and told him that they did not want “undesirables” in the neighborhood. Nat responded, “neither do I. And if I see anybody undesirable coming in here, I’ll be the first to complain.”

His TV show, which was lauded by the critics, only aired for a year because a national sponsor could not be found. As Nat said at the time, “Madison Avenue is afraid of the dark.

At the height of his popularity in 1956, he decided to return to his home state of Alabama and perform in Birmingham. Playing for an all-white audience (audiences were segregated in the South at that time), he was “welcomed home” by four white members of the audience who vaulted onto the stage and attacked him. He survived, but he would never return to the South to perform again.

While racism threatened his very existence, it was Nat’s three-pack-a-day smoking habit that killed him, as he tragically succumbed to lung cancer in 1965 at age 45. And while he died way too young, his musical legacy was renewed for a new generation of fans in 1991, when his daughter, Natalie, recorded a Grammy-winning virtual duet with Nat of “Unforgettable.”

Vail Jazz is extremely pleased to present the John Pizzarelli Trio “For Centennial Reasons: 100 Year Salute to Nat King Cole” on July 17 at the Sonnenalp Hotel (get tickets here) and July 18 at the Jazz Tent in Lionshead (Get tickets here). These shows will be multi-media presentations combining a live performance by John and his trio with classic video of Nat King Cole performing some of his greatest hits.

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 DNA of Jazz

Genetic ancestry testing is skyrocketing in popularity with more and more people attempting to learn about their genealogy. Recently there was a story in the news about Korean-American identical twin sisters that had been separated for adoption at birth. Thirty three years later they were reunited after their connection was confirmed, when each had their DNA tested by 23andMe. That doesn’t happen very often, but the connection between relatives is being discovered regularly now and it is a common occurrence to discover the identity of second and third cousins through the testing.

Howard Stone.

In a way, the genealogy of jazz has been undergoing similar testing for years, not by geneticists, but instead by musicologists who have been examining various styles of music, trying to locate jazz’s “musical relatives.” At the heart of jazz, I’ll call it its musical DNA, are three distinctive “genes”: African rhythms; the blending of multiple music traditions, and improvisation. Many musicologists have concluded that the festive and exuberant music known as choro (pronounced SHOH-roh), which began evolving around 1870 in Rio de Janeiro, is one such relative. However, it would be decades later when jazz emerged in New Orleans, but both forms of music would share many similarities since they sprang from the same musical DNA. Both were A), built upon a foundation of Afro-centric rhythms, B), nurtured in a cosmopolitan center where there was a meddling of cultures and multiple European musical influences and C), heavily relied upon improvisation.

Not unlike jazz in the U.S., choro was at first played by unschooled musicians from the underclasses and with its earthy roots, was regarded with contempt by the white and wealthy establishment. However, by the decade of the 1920s, choro was the popular music of Brazil, while at the same time in the U.S., the decade was known as the “Jazz Age.” In essence, each music grew from the same musical DNA, but in different locales at different times. Each reflected the changing societies it inhabited, but grew into something new and different. And just as successive generations of jazz musicians have reinterpreted the so-called “standards” over time, so too, have choro players reinterpreted composition from an earlier time.

As a jazz fan, my first exposure to Brazilian music was the bossa nova, the musical DNA of which is traceable to the Brazilian samba and American jazz. A close examination of the samba shows that its musical DNA is traceable to choro. So if you were constructing a musical family tree for Brazil, choro would be the father of the samba and one of the grandparents of bossa nova, with the other grandparent being American jazz. The great grandparent would be the rhythms of Africa.

While jazz and choro share much in common, there are, of course, many differences as well. One significant difference is the prominent use in choro of acoustic stringed instruments (mostly guitars, mandolins and related instruments), with the Brazilian 7-string acoustic guitar often featured. Brass and reed instruments are also featured, but no piano or drum set. Percussion sounds are played on the pandeiro, a Brazilian tambourine. In jazz, the most common guitar played is a 6-string instrument; however, there are a few jazz guitarists that play a 7-string instrument. The addition of another string allows the guitarist to play a bass line and add depth to the music, but adds complexity that requires a high level of virtuosity if the player is going to master the instrument. In the hands of a passionate and brilliant player, the instrument can be played in a stunning and thrilling manner that defies description. One such player is Yamandu Costa, considered to be one of the greatest Brazilian guitarists of all time. A remarkable interpreter of choro, samba and the music of Brazil, Yamandu will be in Vail performing with his trio Wednesday at the Sonnenalp Hotel (get tickets here) and Thursday at the Jazz Tent in Lionshead (get tickets here). You won’t want to miss this rare opportunity to see and hear one of the finest guitarists in the world play the music of Brazil.

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.

Local Columbia student credits Vail Jazz for educational springboard

Studying in New York City, Alec Mauro is already playing his early musical lessons forward

Not every kid who taps on the xylophone during a Vail Jazz Goes to School session turns out like Alec Mauro. But the opportunity to learn about this key genre of American music and get some hands-on instrument time certainly helps plant (or discover) that seed of talent for musically-minded children.

Growing up in the Vail Valley with a music-loving father who runs local radio KZYR and a ski instructor mother, Alec Mauro knew he wanted to play music since he was a small child. Now living in New York City, he’s playing saxophone in a big band, studying jazz and serving as department head for jazz programming at Columbia University’s student radio. He recalls his early days with Vail Jazz Goes to School and considers them pivotal to where he is today and where he’s headed musically.

“I definitely was more into it than other kids … I don’t know if I was ahead at that point,” Mauro says. “Vail Jazz goes to School is cool because rarely in a community like Vail do kids get exposed to that kind of thing at that age.”

Led by local piano guru Tony Gulizia and a team of musician/educators – percussionist Michael Pujado, bassist Andy Hall, drummer Mike Marlier, trumpeter Mike Gurciullo and woodwinds specialist Gary Regina – Vail Jazz Goes to School (VJGTS) visits every fourth and fifth grade classroom in the Vail Valley four times a year, imparting free lessons on the fascinating history of jazz music, the 12-bar blues and hands-on workshops learning a variety of instruments. The sessions culminate with students writing their own original tunes, some of which are performed by VJGTS educators at the Vilar Center for the final Vail Jazz Goes to School session before the program restarts in the fall. In its 24th year, Vail Jazz Goes to School has reached 25,000 young students.

Alec Mauro (right) accompanies Tony G at a local performance.

“One of the main things I study at Columbia is jazz history. Vail Jazz serves its own education, honestly. Without that program, I wouldn’t be into music the way I am now,” Mauro says.

Mauro looks at his peers and feels especially grateful that he grew up in an environment and with the support that allowed him to pursue his artistic talents.

“I can say this with certainty, the only reason I got invited to this school is because I play the saxophone and because I’m passionate about jazz. I’ve certainly suffered from learning disabilities and stuff in the classroom,” he says. “Without that creative outlet, I don’t think I’d be able to do as well. So many kids that go to school, to Columbia, for instance, a lot of them are artistically inclined – they play instruments – but they’re studying biomedical engineering or something like that, so they don’t play that much. Without programs and accessibility and funding, especially for kids who aren’t going to get it otherwise, you’re not going to get that outlet. So much talent just goes to waste.”

With his own quiver of skills learned and refined thus far in his education, the 20-year-old sophomore has already begun playing it forward in New York City. During a call with Vail Jazz, he was in a cab home from instructing a private saxophone lesson.

“He’s an eighth grader and my mom taught his mom skiing. I really enjoyed it. Teaching is really cool. You use a hodgepodge of your own tricks and styles, plus a little Tony G, and it’s cool to see that work translate to another person,” Mauro says. “It’s easier for me to communicate with kids on a different level, because I was in their shoes not that long ago.”

Mauro makes time to play his sax daily (“you go crazy otherwise”) and has started performing around the city with a big band of talented young musicians. When he’s back in town, you might catch him sitting in with Tony G on a Sunday evening during Vail Jazz @ The Remedy at the Four Seasons or for one of Gulizia’s afternoon sets at The Westin. However, the young musician’s key aspirations for the future lean more toward teaching than making it in the world of jazz performers.

“I’m not 100-percent set on being a professional gigging musician,” he says. “I’m interested in a lot of other aspects of music. My dream job is to be a professor of musicology. I can take everything I learn from playing, the music in general and the history and write about it. I love writing and teaching. That would be the dream.”

 

The Faces of Vail Jazz: Tony G

The valley’s piano man has made a musical impact on multiple generations

When Tony Gulizia shops for groceries, it’s rare that he’s not recognized by someone who remembers taking his class at Vail Jazz Goes to School. Sometimes he’s accosted by an 11-year-old who he taught earlier that week; sometimes it’s a parent who took his class two decades ago, sometimes it’s a college student from one decade back. At this point, Gulizia’s impact bridges generations.

For the last 21 years, the Nebraska native has imparted musical education to more than 15,000 local students.

“The whole philosophy of the program is to get kids to appreciate jazz music,” says Gulizia, who moved to the Vail Valley from Omaha, Neb. 26 years ago and has become an integral part of the area’s cultural tapestry. “Of course, over the years, you get some students who take that appreciation over the edge. My gosh, that’s been one of the highlights of my career, seeing students who started in the program and are now pursuing studies or their own careers in jazz.”

Gulizia has given many children their first glimpse of music, not to mention their first glimmer of passion toward pursuing it. Some of his students have gone on to study jazz in college, land scholarships at schools such as Juilliard and have followed his early lead into careers as professional musicians.

Tony Gulizia passes on the rhthm at a Jammin’ Jazz Kids session.

Vail Jazz founder Howard Stone hired Gulizia more than two decades ago to head up Vail Jazz Goes to School, a four-part program offered free to every fourth and fifth-grader in Eagle County. The sessions begin with the basics of jazz, including history and the influence of African rhythms. Students are then introduced to the families of jazz instruments – strings, woodwinds and percussion and learn about syncopation, improvisation and the 12-bar blues. The program culminates with a concert at the Vilar Performing Arts Center in which Gulizia and fellow mentors perform original songs composed by the students.

All classes are hands on and highly engaging, hence the clear memories that students carry years later when they run into Gulizia at City Market.

“We try to make the classes really educational, but also entertaining and enjoyable,” Gulizia says. “It’s amazing to be in Eagle County, a place you wouldn’t immediately think would be such a strong place for jazz education compared to big cities. But to see a class of 80 students at Edwards Elementary, kids who are leaving the classroom and saying, ‘thank you for what you did, I’m going to go home and listen to more jazz’… it’s really rewarding.”

In addition to Gulizia, the Vail Jazz Goes to School education team is comprised of drummer Joey Gulizia, a starring member of Mannheim Steamroller, Andy Hall on bass, Mike Gurciullo on trumpet and Michael Pujado on drums/percussion. After nearly two decades of dedicated instruction, beloved Vail Jazz educator and woodwinds specialist Roger Neumann passed away last November.

When he’s not wearing his instructor hat, Tony Gulizia can be found playing piano at various restaurants and bars throughout the valley nearly every day of the week. He performs Tuesdays at The Remedy in the Four Seasons Vail (where he is also a summertime Vail Jazz fixture along with drummer Brian Loftus – BLT – every Sunday evening), plus several days at The Westin Hotel in Avon and is in the midst of his 26th year at Grouse Mountain Grill.

“I definitely have a lot of love for what I do,” Gulizia says. “I love working with people. Music is something very special in anyone’s life, whether you’re an avid or an occasional listener. It literally soothes the soul. It was 26 years ago that I moved here with my wife and kids. Before you knew it, word got around that there’s a new crazy piano guy around. I feel very fortunate that I’ve had such a great run.”

 

Remembering Roger Neumann

Woodwinds specialist imparted love and learning of music to thousands of Vail Jazz students

Roger Neumann played an integral role in delivering the art and joy of jazz music to more than 15,000 children in the Vail Valley. Based in Los Angeles, Eagle County was a second home to the renowned saxophonist, who, in addition to writing for, performing and recording with some of the biggest names in music, served as local educator over the last two decades through the Vail Jazz Goes to School (VJGTS) program.

He passed away on Nov. 28, 2018, at the age of 77.

“He was an outstanding educator, a jazz giant and a true friend,” said fellow VJGTS educator Tony Gulizia, who performed a tribute to Neumann at the saxophonist’s Celebration of Life on Dec. 15 in Los Angeles. “We’ve traveled the world together and had a history that goes back 38 years. He was an intricate part of our education program here in Vail. I can’t tell you how many thousands of kids knew him and loved him.”

A prolific composer and arranger, Neumann’s list of credits include work for/with Ray Charles, Count Basie, Buddy Rich, Barbara Streisand and The Beach Boys (to name a few). In addition to his successful career penning chart hits for other musicians, Neumann himself never stopped playing. He formed Roger Neumann’s Rather Large Band in 1975, recording two highly acclaimed albums in 1983 and 1994 and playing to audiences across the globe through autumn 2018. He performed extensively with Tony Gulizia and his brother Joey Gulizia, Vail local Kathy Morrow as well as Katie Thiroux, a graduate of the 2005 Vail Jazz Workshop.

“I’m going to miss the one and only Roger Neumann. He knew how to have the best time ALWAYS. He was a great support to me. I wouldn’t be where I am today without him,” Thiroux said.

Neumann taught jazz for most of his life, always finding ways to give back to the communities in which he lived in or visited. He served on the faculty for the Iowa Lakes community college jazz camp since 1984 and was an instructor for the Vail Jazz Goes to School program since its inception in 1997. In 2002, Neumann was honored as the jazz Composer/Arranger of the Year at the 20th Annual Jazz Tribute and Awards in Los Angeles, an event sponsored by the L.A. Jazz Society. At the 2012 tribute and awards, Neumann received the Jazz Educator of the Year Award, one of the greatest honors in the industry.

“The kids in our program looked up to him in the short period of time they got to know him kind of like a family member,” Gulizia said. “We approach the Vail Jazz Goes to School sessions that way – like a family. The kids looked at Roger like a big teddy bear who played the hell out of the saxophone. He was incredible as a musician and an educator. Just the love of this guy … it can’t be measured.”

Inside the Vail Jazz Festival: Organ Donors

Hammond, Leslie, Cobbs & Smith … do the names sound like a law firm? Actually, the first two men were inventors, the third was a man of the cloth and the fourth was a musician. Collectively, their respective contributions to organ music shaped the future of the sounds of Gospel, jazz and much more. So who were these organ donors? Let’s start with the inventors. Laurens Hammond invented the Hammond electric organ revolutionizing the world of organ music. Prior to Hammond’s invention, if you wanted an organ your only option was to purchase a very large and very expensive mechanical pipe organ and therefore they were generally only found in cathedrals and concert halls. However, when Hammond’s Model A made its debut in 1935, it transformed the world of organ music because for the first time, relatively inexpensive and small instruments could be purchased for home use and by small churches. The availability of the Model A (and subsequent models) greatly increased the number of people playing the organ and in the decades that followed its introduction, Hammond organs could be found in the living rooms of homes across the U.S. and in many churches.

Howard Stone

While the Model A sounded good in a large venue, to Donald Leslie, another inventor, it sounded “dull, shrill and still” in a confined space, so Leslie set out to improve the sonic qualities of the Hammond organ. In 1937, Leslie approached Hammond with his new invention, the Leslie, special speakers and amplifier housed in a separate cabinet that was to be connected to, and placed next to, the organ. The Leslie gave the Model A a distinctive whirling/swirling sound, known as the Doppler effect – the sound you hear as the source of a sound moves towards you and then past you.

To Leslie’s ears, his invention was what the Hammond organ needed to sound like a symphony in a box. Leslie suggested to Hammond that they join forces, but Hammond was indignant that Leslie was critical of the Model A’s sound, so Leslie decided to manufacture and sell his invention himself. Hammond was extremely hostile to the idea and redesigned subsequent models of his organ so that they couldn’t be easily connected to a Leslie. Ultimately, consumers decide which products succeed and which fail. Notwithstanding Hammond’s aggressive posture with Leslie, the organ buying public made it clear that the combination of the two was what they wanted and Hammond organ buyers bought Leslies and connected them to their instruments.

Two years later in 1939, the African-American founder of the First Church of Deliverance in Chicago, the charismatic and dynamic Rev. Clarence H. Cobbs, decided to purchase a Hammond organ and Leslie for his church. Cobbs was one of the first preachers to broadcast his services on the radio; he had a large congregation and a gift for promoting his ministry. It is speculated that the purchase of the Hammond organ and Leslie was a shrewd marketing move by Cobbs, but whatever the motivation, congregants flocked to his church after hearing them played on the radio and many black churches, particularly in the South, began to emulate the new Gospel music that was being beamed from the First Church of Deliverance. The Hammond organ and Leslie had forever changed Black Gospel music and it would never be the same. The passion, joy and earthy expressiveness of Black Gospel music were now joined with a rollicking exuberant sound of the Hammond organ and Leslie, and the result was a seismic shift in the music. Eighty years later, it is still going strong.

Now to the musician: James Oscar Smith. Growing up in Philadelphia in the 1930s, Jimmy played piano as a young boy, winning a radio talent contest when he was 9. In 1947 after service in the Navy, Jimmy studied music for two years with the assistance of the G.I. bill. By the early 1950s, he was playing piano in an R&B band, but on a fateful night in Philly, he met Wild Bill Davis, a jazz organist, and decided he wanted to become an organ player. Playing piano at night and practicing the organ during the day, Jimmy, totally self-taught, explored the myriad possibilities of the newest Hammond organ, the Model B-3 (and of course Leslie). He developed a technical command of the instrument and a musical approach that allowed him to combine Gospel, blues and bebop. Singlehandedly (actually he used both hands and feet), he created a jazz genre that inspired generations of musicians that followed, whether they played jazz, blues, R&B, pop, acid jazz and many others.

Miles Davis called Jimmy “the eighth wonder of the world.” Some called his music “soul jazz” and others called it “grits and gravy,” but it didn’t matter what it was called, it had an unmistakable groove and for the next five decades Jimmy was a major force in jazz influencing generations of organ players. A true innovator, Jimmy received the NEA Jazz Master Award, the highest honor that an American jazz musician can be bestowed. He was a prolific performer, who played with most of the jazz greats of the last half of the 20th century and when he died in 2005, he left behind an extensive catalog of recordings that are musical treasures. It is now generally agreed when reviewing the history of jazz organ playing, there was the period prior to 1955, the pre-Jimmy Smith era, and for the five decades following 1955, the Jimmy Smith era.

Vail Jazz will present the great Hammond B-3 wizard, Tony Monaco, a disciple of Jimmy’s, in a multi-media tribute concert to Jimmy at 8:55 p.m. Saturday in the Grand Ballroom of the Marriott Hotel in Lionshead. Come hear why Jimmy Smith was the master of the B-3!

Get tickets here.

Howard Stone is the founder and artistic director of the Vail Jazz Foundation, which produces the annual Vail Jazz Festival. Celebrating its 24th year, the Vail Jazz Festival is a summer-long celebration of jazz.

A moment in the life of a musical prodigy

Esteban Castro was running to escape the rain before the biggest experience of his young life, performing in the prestigious Montreux Jazz Piano Competition in Switzerland. Only 13, he was the youngest pianist in the history of the contest and was up against extraordinarily talented adults from all over the world. He’d been practicing a steady 13 hours a day back home in New Jersey leading up to the competition. It was two days before his performance and he was outside enjoying the stunning Swiss landscapes when it started pouring. He ran toward cover, slipped, fell and landed on his right hand.

“It was swollen; looked and felt terrible. I think it may have been broken. It hurt more than I put on. I didn’t say how much it hurt because I still wanted to participate,” recalls Castro.

In a cinematic feat of overcoming adversity, Castro entered the contest and powered through the pain. Uninhibited, his hands fluttered up and down the keys.

He won.

“It was one probably the most rewarding experience I’d ever had,” he says. “I was completely shocked when I won.”

This tenacity – not to mention modesty – is characteristic of the teenage musical prodigies that participate in the Vail Jazz Workshop, the 2018 edition of which is underway this week, featuring 12 carefully selected young musicians from across the country.

The group was vetted from more than 150 highly qualified applicants for the 23rd edition of the workshop. Led since its inception by iconic jazz bassist John Clayton, the Vail Jazz Workshop has cultivated some of the nation’s top professional jazz musicians and features fellow Vail Jazz Party House Band members and mentors Jeff Clayton, Bill Cunliffe, Wycliffe Gordon, Terell Stafford and Lewis Nash. The week-long workshop is comprised of intimate and intensive training – two students to one mentor – focusing on the art of improvisation and playing by ear. Upon “graduation,” the group of students becomes the Vail Jazz All-Stars, performing on the same stage as their mentors in the 24th Annual Vail Jazz Party over Labor Day weekend.

“We look at each other and say, ‘Wow. Not only are they doing stuff we could never do at their age, but they’re doing stuff we can’t even do now’” John Clayton says of the students.

Turning 16 during his time in Vail, Castro is very much looking forward to the workshop with his musical heroes. In addition to the Montreux Jazz victory, he’s won numerous other major awards in his young career, recorded three albums and has been performing around New York City for the last several years – making his Blue Note debut at age 10. He wrote his first composition at age 6 and began tinkering on a toy piano as an infant, his parents renting him his first real piano at age 4. When asked how much of his free time he spends at the piano these days, Castro is momentarily confused by the question.

“It’s pretty much all of my free time,” he says.

“I find that my best stuff comes out in a natural way,” he says. “It’s less of a meticulous process and more of a creative process. The stuff I’ve written I’m most proud of, I’ve written in a short amount of time, maybe 30 minutes. I love the feeling of connecting with an audience. I want to play all over the world and make people happy with my music. That’s what it’s all about.”

Meet the 2018 Vail Jazz Workshop students

In addition to Castro, the 2018 Vail Jazz Workshop includes fellow pianist Eugene Kim. The 17-year-old South Korean was invited to play at the Newport Jazz Festival and has attended the New England Conservatory’s preparatory school and Jazz Lab, winning numerous awards including the Massachusetts Association for Jazz Education’s gold medal, first place at the UNH Clark Terry Jazz Festival, first place at the Berklee High School Jazz Festival and Downbeat Magazine’s Student Music Award for Outstanding High School Jazz Soloist Performance. Bassists include Rhode Island native and Grammy Band finalist Ian Banno, 17, who was selected for the Berklee Global Jazz Institute Workshop at the Newport Jazz Festival. Also, Los Angeles native and bassist Dario Bizio, 16, has played in a variety of school-based bands, orchestras, combos and ensembles. Trumpet players include 17-year-old Florida native Summer Camargo, who has been principal trumpet and section leader for the Dillard Center for the Arts Jazz Band and Wind Orchestra, lead trumpet for the All Jazz Band of America, lead trumpet of the All-County Jazz Band and has played in Florida’s All-State Jazz Band. California resident Joey Curreri, 18, won the National YoungArts competition and has been a member of several Grammy bands, played in the Monk Peer-to-Peer All-Star Sextet and received the Los Angeles Jazz Society’s Shelly Manne New Talent Award. From Massachusetts, trombonist Nate Jones, 16, believes in bringing personality to his music and has won numerous awards from the Massachusetts Association for Jazz Education, five Stanford Jazz Awards including Outstanding Soloist and three Outstanding Musicianship Awards from the Clark Terry Jazz Festival. After his father introduced him to trombone as a small child, Arlington, VA’s Zach Niess, 18, has played with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Summer Jazz Academy Milt Hinton Big Band, the Grammy Band, a YoungArts combo, the Arlington Youth Symphony and will be attending the Frost School of Music at the University of Miami. Traveling from Olympia, Wash., saxophonist Willie Bays, 16, was accepted into the Next Generation Jazz Orchestra, has performed in Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola in NYC, the Montreal Jazz Festival, Toronto Jazz Festival and the Rochester International Jazz Festival and has his own quartet. New York native and sax player Coby Petricone-Berg, 17, has played in numerous bands, including the Manhattan School of Music PreCollege Jazz and Berklee Global Jazz Institute at Newport Jazz Festival, was as a Grammy® Jazz Camp Finalist and a National YoungArts Merit Award winner. Also a Precollege Jazz Student at Manhattan School of Music, drummer Varun Das studies with greats Tony Moreno and Tommy Igoe, has played in the Grammy Jazz Band, the Manhattan School of Music Precollege Big Band, the Princeton Symphonic Brass Group and has toured Europe with the New Jersey Youth Symphony. Last but not least, 17-year-old drummer Michael Manasseh of Massachusetts incorporates a myriad of styles into his rhythms – rock, funk, Latin, Afro-Cuban, Indian and West African. He was a Grammy® Band Finalist and has won many awards, including Outstanding Soloist in the Charles Mingus High School Competition, the Massachusetts Association for Jazz Education Outstanding Musicianship Award (twice), and Berklee High School Jazz Festival Outstanding Musicianship Award.

Live in Vail Aug. 30

See the 2018 Vail Jazz Workshop students in their newly found stardom. To kick off the 2018 Vail Jazz Party, it’s a triple bill at the all-weather Jazz Tent in Lionshead’s Vail Square beginning at 6 p.m. with the Vail Jazz All-Stars followed by the Vail Jazz Workshop Alumni Quintet at 7 p.m. and wrapping up with an 8 p.m. performance by the mentors themselves, the star-studded Vail Jazz Party House Band – John Clayton, Jeff Clayton, Terell Stafford, Bill Cunliffe, Wycliffe Gordon and Lewis Nash. 

Go here for tickets.