Vail Jazz Workshop alum Lakecia Benjamin performs to uplift her audiences

“My goal is the emotional wellbeing of my audience. Every note that I play is aimed at  uplifting people. Every time I play I would like listeners to feel emotionally impacted, moved.”  Alto saxophonist Lakecia Benjamin knows that this attitude of positive connection sets her music apart. It’s no wonder then that her lingering memories of the 1999 Vail Jazz Workshop  are of elevation, encouragement, and inspiration. As she explained to Vail Jazz Foundation board  member JoAnn Hickey,

“I’m from New York City, which is crowded and fast paced. Before  Vail, I had never been on a plane and had never been to a place with clean air. In Vail, I stayed in  a house in the mountains. I didn’t have to think about food or money. The Workshop instructors made it so spiritually easy, emotionally easy. It’s amazing to get chances in life where there is  nothing to worry about other than the art.”

Of course, a tremendous amount of hard work goes into many easy-seeming projects.  That’s true of the effort it has taken to present the Vail Jazz Workshop every summer for the past  25 years. For instance, this year’s Workshop, involving 12 young musicians and a faculty of six  jazz professionals, took place over the internet. 

Hard work exemplifies Benjamin’s career as well. Her drive, intensity, and commitment  to music have fueled her determination to carve a place for herself in the jazz world. That  perseverance paid off with the release this March of her third album, “Pursuance: The  Coltranes,” which has received glowing reviews from critics and fans alike. 

Benjamin envisioned her homage to the legendary tenor saxophonist John Coltrane and  his pianist wife Alice as being enriched by vast range of jazz luminaries, each of whom had some  claim to the ‘Tranes. She doggedly enlisted a stellar, multigenerational assemblage of musicians,  including Coltrane contemporary Ron Carter, singer Dee Dee Bridgewater, rising players such as  singer Georgia Anne Muldrow and trumpeter Keyon Harrold, and avant-garde musicians Meshell Ndegeocello and Surya Botofasina. 

Lakecia’s connection to the esteemed 82-year-old bassist Reggie Workman proved  fortuitous. Workman performed on numerous Coltrane albums; he also auditioned Benjamin for the jazz program at the New School University in New York City, where she studied. Workman  agreed to co-produce “Pursuance” and to share his extensive industry contacts with Lakecia.  

Still, her vision for the lineup was sweeping and the logistics involved in getting 40 musicians into the studio was daunting. “When people said no,” she says, “I went to their houses.  I just kept hounding even up to the day of the recording. By August I realized I had all of these  people and needed to get on with the arranging. I did all of the writing on the piano. After two  weeks I called in the band.” 

Stunningly, recording was completed over the course of just two 12-hour days. Why such  a grueling schedule? “It was about finances with a little bit of luck from God. Everyone was free  in those random days in August and they were also in New York. I didn’t have to fly anyone in.  A lot of factors worked in my favor. Being naive really helped each step of the way.” 

From the get-go, Lakecia was keen on giving equal play to the music of Alice Coltrane. “Her music is so flexible,” Benjamin explains. “Some of it doesn’t even have drums. It’s like a  constant droning chant. It was easy for me to convey her spiritual message.” 

Lakecia Benjamin 2019

Lakecia Benjamin grew up in a Dominican neighborhood in New York city. Her home  was multi-generational and her exposure to musical genres diverse. Her musical heritage is  evident in her unique blend of Latin, fusion, hip hop, funk, soul…and of course, jazz.  

Prior to releasing “Pursuance,” Benjamin recorded several albums and performed with  the likes of Stevie Wonder, Anita Baker, Alicia Keys, The Roots, and Macy Gray.  However, 2020 has been her year to shine. By an overwhelming margin, DownBeat  magazine’s Critics Poll named Benjamin the rising star on alto sax. “Pursuance” placed in the  same poll’s Album of the Year category, and Benjamin also placed as a Rising Star Arranger.  The Jazz Journalists Association named her Up and Coming Artist of the Year. And in its  November cover story, DownBeat featured Benjamin as one of “25 for the Future”—young  musicians “who have the potential to shape the direction of jazz in the decades to come.” Reflecting on her Vail Jazz Workshop experience, Lakecia recalls,

“What was interesting  to me was that the faculty brings all of these legends to life through their musical instruction. The  stories they had, the way they embraced life….to meet teachers that were friendly, open minded  and dedicated to the jazz lineage, inviting me to look them up when I got older – that doesn’t just  happen for young musicians. Now with my students, I see them as potential musicians I will  know for the rest of my life. How I make them feel, how I treat them they will never forget.”

Written by: Sarah Valente

 

John Austria builds a community through music

Jazz pianist and teacher John Austria is humble. So humble, that to this day he assumes he was accepted

into the 2001 Vail Jazz Workshop by fluke: “I think I may have been a second choice…someone dropped out and I was accepted.” Given his solid grounding in music, starting at an early age, and his inarguable talent on keyboards, it’s hard to imagine Austria ever being “second best.”

Austria grew up in New York, surrounded at home and at school by a rich musical culture. His parents met at the Manhattan School of Music and infused in their three children the love and importance of education, exploration, and performance. His father, a professional bassist, nurtured the love of jazz in his youngest child. As John told Vail Jazz board member JoAnn Hickey: “My father was from the Philippines, but when he heard Thelonious Monk on the radio it was mind altering. That’s what made him come to New York. He was always gigging and sometimes he would sit down and teach me.” Monk’s “Straight, No Chaser” was the first jazz song young Austria learned to play.

Austria attended LaGuardia Arts High School in Manhattan, where he learned of the Vail Jazz Workshop, and it became his first musical learning experience outside of New York. “The level of musicianship was so high, I didn’t feel I belonged there,” Austria reflects. “Those first couple of days, I was pretty blown away. It was great hearing different styles from around the country, regional sounds and dialects.”

By the time he returned to New York, Austria’s confidence had soared. He credits the weeklong Workshop for helping him become a more accomplished accompanist and for instilling the importance of personal chemistry between band members. Although focused these days on teaching, Austria performs with several jazz quartets as well as with the West African/jazz ensemble Denbaya. “I don’t get to play with a group consistently for a long stretch of time, but I follow through with the different groups I play with. I keep connected.”

As a teacher, John Austria strives to cultivate each student’s unique musical voice, while passing on the oral traditions of the great jazz masters. Upbeat NYC, located in the Bronx, is a non-profit after school program, with a jazz program that is now in its fourth year. “The kids have been playing music for a while, so we now have enough for a small big band; they can play real charts like Ellington and Thad Jones,” he says with pride.

He carries a key value learned at the Vail Jazz Workshop­—creating a sense of family among players—into the classroom. He also believes in the importance of bringing jazz generations together, another value instilled by the Workshop. “The kids are as young as eight, then you have teachers who are gigging musicians in their 20s and 30s, and finally there’s the older generation in their 50s and 60s, who have played with everybody. The kids pick up these various nuances in the jazz language, as if through osmosis.”

Negativity, ego-driven attitudes, and unbridled competition have no place in John Austria’s world of jazz. During the Workshop, teachers set aside time to share their personal stories and one in particular stuck with him. “John Clayton spoke of playing with Ray Brown and another bassist. He spoke of the encouragement to be gained from fellow musicians and about the need to open yourself up to the love and support of each other’s playing.” He imparts this message to his youngest students and repeats it often. “As a kid, if you’re not properly counseled by the great musicians you look up to, your insecurities can lead to a cutthroat attitude,” he cautions. As the next generation of performers, Austria’s students will enter the world of jazz with open minds as well as open hearts.

By Sarah Valente

         The Vail Jazz Workshop accepts the dozen most promising high school musicians and pairs them with six professional jazz practitioners for a week of intense instruction. More than just music is learned. The pros impart what to expect if the young men and women enter the music life and reflect on their own experiences, including missteps. Because of the Covid-19 virus, this year’s Workshop will take place digitally in August.

Vail Jazz Alumni: When the going got tough, Owen Broder staged an online jazz festival

The Covid-19 epidemic makes life miserable for everyone, and musicians are no exception. Their ability to make a living from performances abruptly vanished last spring. “The music industry was effectively shut down,” says saxophonist Owen Broder, a graduate of the 2007 Vail Jazz Workshop who now lives in New York City. To help out-of-work musicians financially, Broder and vocalists Thana Alexa and Sirintip Phasuk in April organized what Rolling Stone termed “the first jazz festival of the quarantine era” over the internet.

Called “Live From Our Living Rooms,” the series of live-streamed concerts featured the likes of pianist Chick Corea, guitarist Bill Frisell and bassist Christian McBride. These events were followed in late June by the online DC Jazz Festival in the nation’s capital, also produced by “Live From Our Livings Rooms.” During July 1-12, Broder and his friends will put on the virtual         Creative Summit, featuring educational webinars hosted by jazz professionals each afternoon and live concerts every evening (on July 12, starring 2002 Vail Jazz Workshop alum and pianist Gerald Clayton). Broder says that as of late June, these projects had raised $84,000 to distribute to musicians.

Owen Broder’s path to the Vail Jazz Workshop began at age 4 in Jacksonville, Fla., when he started playing piano. A few years later he also took up clarinet, and in sixth grade, when he became interested in jazz, the saxophone. By middle school, he was composing music, although “certainly not something that I would be proud of.” In high school, Broder attended the North Carolina School of the Arts, where he met saxophonist Eddie Barbash, a 2005 attendee of the Workshop. Broder’s chance to go to Vail came two years later.

The Vail Jazz Workshop, celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, each August pairs a dozen high school jazz virtuosos with six experienced jazz musicians, including pianist Bill Cunliffe, trumpeter Terell Stafford and drummer Lewis Nash, for a week of intense learning. Songs and arrangements are taught by ear—no sheet music is allowed. Each morning, one of the pros speaks to the students about his life in music, the ups and downs and what to expect if they follow this path. By its very nature, the Workshop takes place out of public view. But at its conclusion, the young musicians present two public concerts during the Vail Jazz Party, held until this year on Labor Day weekend. This year’s Workshop will take place virtually, over the internet.

Broder remembers the Workshop as a full-immersion experience. “There were moments of tough love that pushed me out of my comfort zone,” he told Vail Jazz board member JoAnn Hickey. “I was motivated to pursue my weaknesses and develop those areas. To be honest, I felt a little bit out of place. There were students who were the faces of young jazz at that time. I was honored to be there working with these people who at age 16 had grabbed the nation’s attention in some ways.”

Two faculty members made a lasting impression on the teenager. Bassist John Clayton, director of the Workshop, “defined for me how to run an ensemble with care and empathy. I like to pass this on to ensembles I work with today.” Clayton’s brother Jeff became Broder’s saxophone instructor. “My sound was one aspect of my playing that leaped forward that summer. Jeff pushed me to make my sound bigger and fuller. That was apparent when I got home. He instilled in me diligence and attention to the weaker aspects of my playing.”

Among the scores of music camps that beckon to aspiring musicians, Broder feels that the Vail Jazz Workshop has unique elements. One is that it is limited to only 12 students. As Broder puts it: “You are able to get close to people who are so invested in music. Very quickly you develop a really strong sense of an ensemble.” Another is John Clayton’s teaching style—“the way he would teach us by ear. He would come up with these arrangements and we would learn them without sheet music, which was a bonding experience.”

Broder went on to earn a bachelor’s degree from the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y., and a master’s degree from the Manhattan School of Music. His current quintet, Cowboys & Frenchmen, co-led with fellow alto saxist Ethan Helm, has recorded two albums, most recently “Bluer Than You Think.” Its name inspired by a short film by David Lynch, the band describes itself as having one foot firmly planted in the jazz genre “while the other one is busy trying to kick down the genre’s door.”

Until the coronavirus is beaten back, the band’s in-person performances are on hold. But through it all, Broder says he remains grateful for the opportunity\ to grow musically in Vail: “I feel very lucky to have been a part of it and to benefit from the education that took place there.”

To learn more about Vail Jazz and the Workshop, visit www.vailjazz.org. To learn more about the Creative Summit July 1-12, go to www.livefromourlivingrooms.com.

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.”