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.

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.”

 

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.

 

 

 

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.