The Singing and Guitar Playing Miracle

Born in 1915 in Cotton Plant, Ark., Sister Rosetta Tharpe (as she became known) was the child of African American cotton pickers. Little is known about her father, but her mother, Katie Bell Nubin, was an extremely important figure in her life. Katie was a congregant of the Church of God in Christ (COGIC), a black Pentecostal church, where she sang and preached in services that encouraged rhythmic music and “dancing in praise.” At age 4, Rosetta was celebrated in her community as a music prodigy, singing and playing guitar in church alongside her mother. By age 6, Rosetta was billed as the “Singing and Guitar Playing Miracle” and mother and daughter traveled throughout the South as part of a touring gospel and sermonizing group.

They settled in Chicago in the mid-1920s and performed at the 40th Street COGIC. Rosetta’s extraordinary talent created quite a stir in gospel circles and her fame began to grow. At 19, she married a COGIC preacher and by all accounts the only thing she got out of the marriage, which only lasted a few years, was her husband’s last name, “Thorpe,” which she altered to “Tharpe” and adopted it as her stage name.

In 1938, Katie and Rosetta settled in New York City and that year Rosetta recorded for the first time. The four sides on Decca were smash hits, including “This Train,” which propelled her to instant stardom and a long-term recording contract. Unfortunately, her combination of gospel-inspired lyrics with more profane music infuriated many of her core gospel audience, black churchgoers, who refused to support her as they found the non-gospel material blasphemous and were angered that Rosetta sang gospel lyrics in nightclubs that were “dens of sin.” Her cross-over to the secular side, however, greatly enlarged her overall audience, as many of her new white fans and had never heard black gospel music. She began to play an electric guitar and her playing took on more of a blues influence. Rosetta combined a driving rhythm with guitar licks that had an “attitude” and a commanding visual presence that presaged the guitar antics of rock musicians in the 1950s, while she sang gospel lyrics. She toured with gospel singer Marie Knight during the 1940s and they were billed as “The Saint and The Sinner.” Guess who was the Sinner. She claimed that she was contractually obligated to perform the type of material she was then performing, but the truth was a little more complicated than that. While Rosetta was deeply religious, she was also someone who loved the “swinging feel” of the blues and when performing, her exuberant manner and radiant smile transmitted an aura of heavenly pleasure, whether she was performing sacred or more worldly music.   

She had an extensive performance, recording and touring career well into the late 1960s, with a few ups and downs along the way. In some ways her life was not unlike the struggles described in the bible that she sang about – between good (sacred music) and evil (jazz/blues/R & B) and during most of her career she lurched back and forth between the two musically, and some would say, the same applied to the choices she made with respect to her personal life. She had a second failed marriage and there were rumors that she was bisexual and only married for appearance sake. As a publicity stunt in 1951 she married her third husband who was her manager before 25,000 people who paid to view her wedding at Griffith Stadium in Washington D.C. and then stayed for the concert that followed.

By the late 1950s her career appeared to be coming to an end, but she was given a reprieve in the 1960s when European audiences began to embrace American blues and she toured extensively on the Continent during that decade.  Suffering a stroke in 1970, Rosetta never fully recovered, performing sporadically until her death at the age of 58 in 1973.

Tragically buried in an unmarked grave, totally forgotten by her fans who had moved on to R&B and rock ‘n’ roll, Rosetta’s legacy appeared to have been buried with her. A black female guitar playing gospel singer didn’t easily fit the narrative of what the mainstream media was focused on in the 1970s.  However, in the 1980s and 1990s when the early rockers such as Elvis, Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis began to tell the world that they had been greatly influenced by Rosetta, the media took notice. By 1998, the U.S. Post Office issued a commemorative stamp in Rosetta’s honor. NPR broadcast several segments honoring her. She was inducted posthumously into the Blues Hall of Fame. Her biography was written and a documentary film followed.  Thirty five years after her passing, a benefit concert in Rosetta’s memory was organized and funds were raised to place a headstone on her grave.  

Today Rosetta is not forgotten as she is now acknowledged as a pioneer who brought black gospel music to the masses in the 1930s and 1940s and most importantly that she was a women who broke down gender barriers as a guitarist who is now saluted as the “godmother of rock ‘n’ roll,” establishing herself as one of the most influential gospel/blues singers and guitarists of the mid-20th Century.

At 9 a.m. on Sept. 3 at Vail Square in Lionshead, Vail Jazz will once again present Niki Haris’ Gospel Prayer Meetin’. Niki will be joined by a gospel choir and an all-star band and will perform songs by Sister Rosetta Tharpe and other gospel greats in what promises to be an inspiring gospel show.

The art of the jam session

The Vail Jazz Party is a breeding ground for spontaneous and sometimes unlikely musical magic

Howard Stone likens a jazz jam session to a fantastic conversation. Sometimes you fall into a vibrant discussion that surprises you. It not only makes you feel alive with cognitive and creative power, but introduces  ideas and perspectives you’d never heard before. It causes you to walk away feeling inspired, even a better person. Such is the magic of the 23rd Annual Vail Jazz Labor Day Weekend Jazz Party.

The beauty of the Vail Jazz Party is that in addition to the fact that every session features a collection of world-class musicians, each ensemble delivers a one-off spontaneous masterpiece that never be exactly reproduced or repeated.

“It’s an opportunity for each player to express themselves in a way that leads to something else, that leaves room for self-expression from every player,” explains Stone, Vail Jazz founder. “It’s a breakthrough moment in a jam session when someone is musically communicating and the other person says, ‘wow, I never thought of that.’ It’s a very creative moment. It takes someone – everyone – to places they’ve never gone before.”

From Friday through Monday, in addition to numerous multi-media performances, the Vail Jazz Party is comprised of morning, afternoon, evening and late-night sessions fusing soloists and band members who, in some cases, have never played together before. Combining individuals is a complex jigsaw puzzle for Stone to solve year after year, placing not only the necessary instruments for a complete ensemble, but matching talent and personalities who likely to sync and, hopefully soar.

“Chemistry is chemistry,” Stone says. “One time I put a jam session together with a guy who’d slept with another’s wife. They wouldn’t look at each other. You have to understand who will make music well, also who will work well from a personality standpoint. You want to put people together who will make a great conversation and will fascinate an audience with the conversation.”

Award-winning drummer and long-time Vail Jazz Party favorite Jeff Hamilton has experienced the magic of Stone’s match-making to the point that the sessions have led to lifelong friendships, tours and recording collaborations. A couple of years ago, Stone persuaded the drummer to share the stage with Japanese-born pianist Akiko Tsuruga. Hamilton was initially reluctant because he didn’t think their styles and approaches would pair well. The two have since performed numerous times and recorded two? Albums together. A similar bond emerged last year between Hamilton clarinet sensation Adrian Cunningham, whom collaborated on Cunningham’s forthcoming record (the release part is Sept. 1 during the Vail Jazz Party).

“In Adrian’s case and Akiko’s, we’ve listened to the same recordings and have the same vocabulary musically. You’ll go into this mode of playing, making everyone sound as incredible as they possibly can,” Hamilton says. “The other thing that happened last year … I was a last minute add-in with Diego Figueiredo. He realized I knew all the material he was going to play and he made a medley. It was like a five-tune medley. Neither of us knew it was going to happen, but the mutual trust … a sixth sense …  we just knew what to do. You feel like you could play forever.”

There is indeed a type of telepathy at work at the Vail Jazz Party. Adrian Cunningham calls it intuition. Of course, there is a lot of background and know-how involved, too.

“The thing about jazz, it uses a language and framework that is pretty universal,” Cunningham says. “Jazz is inclusive, embracing all levels and cultures and I think that’s why it’s so popular around the world. Even if you don’t speak the same language, you can connect musically.”

Whether it’s an American Songbook classic or a rare tune passed down from generations in a distant land, the Vail Jazz sessions deliver numbers with volcanic energy as if each ensemble had played and practiced together for weeks.

“You can wander from there, and the further you wander, the more exciting it is, because if you trust that it’ll work out, it always does,” Cunningham says. “As a musician, that gets so exciting. It’s like, what’s gonna happen? What are these guys gonna do?”

The affect of a successful Vail Jazz session is an epiphany. The Vail Jazz Party, if all goes well, leads to one epiphany after another, not just for the musicians, but for the audiences.

“The combination of all these musicians being in the same place at the same time doesn’t happen very often. Even when these guys are playing at a typical festival, they go on stage, they play, they may hear the next act or the act before them. Then they get on a plane and go someplace else,” Stone says. “Here, there’s this sense of, ‘wow, we’re all together making music.’ They’ve mastered the art of conversation. They know a lot about a lot of topics. It’s nirvana.”

The 23rd Annual Vail Jazz Labor Day Party

From Aug. 31 to Sept. 4, the Vail Jazz Party features more than 70 musicians delivering special performances, tributes and jam sessions. Tickets to sessions (which include multiple performances) start at $55. Weekend passes are also available. For full lineup of artists, performance schedule and tickets, visit vailjazz.org or call 888-VAIL-JAM.

 

Jimmy and the Beast

Most of us associate a pipe organ with church, but well before the Ninth Century when pipe organs were first used in Western liturgical music, they were played while gladiators battled in the arenas of the Roman Empire. By the Middle Ages, large pipe organs were installed in important cathedrals in the West, but due to their size, complexity and cost it was centuries before they were commonly found in churches and even later in theaters and concert halls. That all changed in 1935, when the Hammond electric organ was invented by Laurens Hammond as a low-cost alternative to the wind-driven pipe organ.  

Initially Hammond’s company sold organs to churches and his Model A soon could also be heard at skating rinks, movie theaters, baseball parks and on the radio as the soundtrack for soap operas. Extremely popular in black churches in the South, it quickly became a mainstay of black gospel music. Over time, the Hammond organ became a staple in jazz, blues, soul, rock, reggae and even country. Although many different models of Hammond organs were produced, the B-3 model (only manufactured between 1955 and 1974) became the gold standard when an organ was called for. Today a “mint” condition B-3 sells for three to four times its original list price of $2,365 in 1955, which doesn’t sound like much now. But at the time, you could buy a new Chevy Bel Air for $2,200.  

B-3s are usually paired with a Leslie (named after its inventor, Don Leslie), which is an amplifier in a sound cabinet placed next to the organ. Ironically, Laurens Hammond opposed the combination, but it was jazz players that decided that using the Leslie was what gave the B-3 its distinctive whirling/swirling sound, known as the Doppler effect – the sound you hear as the source of a sound moves towards you and then passed you. The Leslie is able to create this unique effect by employing spinning treble horns and a stationary woofer with a spinning rotor.

B-3s have two keyboards called manuals (the upper one, the “swell” and the lower one, the “great”), each containing 61 keys, 36 drawbars and each with eight separate stops. By pulling out combinations of drawbars, the tone emitted when a key is struck can be altered. What may have sounded like a flute with one setting would then sound like a marimba with another setting. A player therefore can create millions of sounds.  Paul Shaffer of David Letterman fame succinctly said, “Within the drawbars of the B3 lies the secrets of the universe.” Many B-3 players agree and go to great lengths to conceal their drawbar settings.

There are additional keys, switches and pedals that empower the organist to add in special effects, adjust vibrato, control the volume, and employ many other sonic qualities. Finally, there is the pedalboard on the floor for playing bass notes. Containing 25 wooden keys arrayed like a keyboard, it is played by the organist’s feet. It is often joked that the pedalboard has put many bass players out of work!

Even though keyboards and synthesizers now dominate the world of music making, nothing sounds quite like a B-3, which among organ fans has taken on an aurora of an iconic symbol of a rich musical past. It’s similar to the way Harley-Davidson disciples wax poetically about their hogs. Altogether, the B-3, pedalboard, bench and Leslie weighs in at 525 pounds. Known as the Beast among organ fans who liken it to “a pipe organ on steroids,” it takes a master to tame the Beast, but in the hands (and feet) of a great player, it can be made to sound like a big band, a dozen horns, a flute, growl and squeal. And of course, it can make you feel like you are in church.

It took a while for jazz musicians to embrace the Hammond organ, but several well-known jazzmen began to play it in the 1930s. In the world of jazz organ, there is the Pre-Jimmy era and the Post-Jimmy era. The former was the period before 1955, when “organ jazz” was not that popular … with one exception. Wild Bill Davis, a jazz pianist and organist, began to explore the music possibilities of the B-3. Davis was the bridge and inspiration for James Oscar Smith, a Philadelphian pianist turned organist who burst onto the scene in 1955.  Self-taught, Jimmy explored the myriad possibilities of the B-3 and developed a technical command of the instrument and a musical approach that allowed him to combine gospel, blues and bebop and singlehandedly (actually he used both hands and feet) create a jazz genre that inspired generations of musicians that followed, whether they played jazz, blues, R&B, pop or acid jazz. Known as “God” by jazz organists, 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 the master that tamed the Beast. 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. When he died in 2005, he left behind an extensive catalog of recordings that are musical treasures.  

Jimmy inspired many players, but one in particular – Joey DeFrancesco, also from Philadelphia – was fortunate enough to meet Jimmy when he was only 7 years old and already playing the organ. Jimmy became a life-long mentor to Joey and in turn, Joey has carried on the great B-3 tradition and imparted a Post-Jimmy era of the B-3. Vail Jazz will present Joey in concert at 6 p.m. on Aug. 24 in the Jazz Tent at Vail Square in Lionshead. Come hear the B-3 in all its glory!

Not the Girl from Ipanema

Ask someone about Brazilian jazz and the likely response is bossa nova and “The Girl from Ipanema.” The 1964 recording was a smash hit for Brazilian vocalist Astrud Gilberto and American saxophonist Stan Getz and it propelled the bossa nova sound to world-wide popularity. Ipanema is a toney beach neighborhood in Rio de Janeiro and the lyrics of the song tell the story of a tall, tan, young and lovely girl who sways like a samba when she walks to the sea.  

While the song is a clearly in the bossa nova style, it refers to the samba, a music and dance traceable to the ancestors of the over four million African slaves brought to Brazil. A footnote here, it is generally not known that the number of African slaves taken to North America numbered approximately 400,000, but over 10 times that number were taken to Brazil and it was 25 years after Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 that Brazilian slaves were freed.

Overtime, the freed Brazilian slaves left the countryside seeking a better life in the cities of Brazil. Many settled in the hilly areas of Rio, creating favelas (slums) that became the epicenter of the samba earthquake. The freed slaves brought with them the musical and dance traditions of their forefathers and beginning in the late 19th century and continuing into the early 20th century, a unique music and dance evolved in the favelas that mixed African rhythms and dance with the polka, tango and other music and dance that primarily derived from Rio’s European descendants. The result was samba, not only a music style (instrumental and vocal), but also a dance with exciting rhythms, and most importantly to many poor Afro-Brazilians, it was a manifestation of their culture. Not unlike American jazz and swing dancing, the fusion of African and European music and dance traditions created something entirely new, but this time it was samba; a term that was used in the Afro-Brazilian community to denote praying and the summoning of one’s god or saint.

By the 1920s the white middle class of Rio had been exposed to samba and they fell prey to the seductive nature of the music. Samba dance schools/clubs with thousands of participants were opened in Rio as the masses wanted to dance the samba and to this day these institutions proliferate in Rio. The joyful nature of samba ultimately fused with the pageantry and merriment of Carnival, so that over time Brazil became known as the country of Carnival and samba. By government proclamation, Dec. 2 is National Samba Day.

Samba spread far beyond Brazil’s borders and reached the U.S. in 1939 when Carmen Miranda, a Portuguese-born Brazilian samba singer, dancer and actress arrived in New York City to perform on Broadway. Known for her flamboyant dress and hats adorned with faux tropical fruit, Carmen sang in Portuguese and danced the samba in many major films of the 1940s, ultimately starring in over a dozen films. By 1945, she was the highest paid women in the U.S.      

Change is inevitable in our modern world, so even in samba-crazy Brazil it was not surprising that the musical “new, new thing” would one day appear and it did. By the mid-1950s, young musicians and college kids began to adopt bossa nova (Portuguese for “new trend”) as their generation’s music. So what is bossa nova? A less exuberant form of the samba that is more melodic with less percussion, mixed with American jazz in a lyrical way with rich harmonies. Bossa nova has been popular for more than a half century, but samba is still the quintessential music and dance of Brazil. In a way bossa nova is just a beautiful branch on the samba tree. New branches continue to grow on the samba tree with each stylistic change in the popular music of the day and today there are rock and funk-infused samba bands that are part of the Brazilian music scene.  

Just as samba had entered into the consciousness of Americans years earlier, now with bossa nova adding jazz elements to the music of Brazil, it is not surprising that jazz began to be known in Brazil in the late 1950s. And so it was that in 1960, Eliane Elias was born in São Paulo, a town approximately 250 miles from Rio. Eliane was exposed to jazz by her mother and encouraged to play the piano. As it turned out, she was a child prodigy, playing straight ahead jazz piano at the age of 12 and performing professionally in Brazil at 17. In 1981, she moved to NYC and the next year she became a member of one of the top jazz fusion bands of the day, “Steps Ahead,” ultimately playing with the who’s who of jazz. During her remarkable 35-year-long international career, Eliane has garnered seven Grammy® nominations, winning one, a multitude of awards and critical praise from jazz publications, including being the first women instrumentalist to be featured on the cover of Downbeat.

Eliane has returned to her musical roots and will be in Vail Square at 6 p.m. Aug. to present “100 Years of Samba.” You won’t want to miss Eliane Elias, the Girl from Sao Paul … not Ipanema.

Chief of the Congueros

In 1917, Ramón Santamaría Rodriquez was born into poverty in a slum in Havana, Cuba. Nicknamed “Mongo” (a tribal chief in Senegal) by his father, he began to play the violin but switched to drums at an early age, settling on the conga drum as his primary instrument. As a teen, Mongo Santamaría (as he was known) dropped out of school hoping to become a professional musician and began a long journey that would take him from the slums of Havana to Mexico City and finally, in 1950, to New York City.
Fame, if it happens at all, doesn’t happen overnight. Mongo had to pay his dues.

During the 1950s, he played in the bands of Latin jazz luminaries Perez Prado, Tito Puente and Cal Tjader and in 1958 recorded his first album. The next year he wrote “Afro Blue,” a tune that eventually became a jazz standard.

As an aside, in the 1950s the audience for Latin (Afro-Cuban) jazz was relatively small in the U.S., with the early fans of the music being dancers who wanted to mambo (which has morphed into today’s salsa), a dance craze that swept the U.S. in the 1950s. For many of the dancers it was their first exposure to conga drums and it wasn’t long before conga dance lines were mandatory at weddings and Ricky Ricardo (Desi Arnaz) was on TV as the conga playing husband of Lucille Ball in “I Love Lucy.”

By late 1962, Mongo was 45 years old and was regularly fronting his own band. He had developed a unique sound and phrasing on the congas, but Mongo was still a relatively unknown conguero (conga player). But on a fateful night, his regular piano player couldn’t make a gig in the Bronx and instead a young substitute, Herbie Hancock, sat-in and the band played his new composition, “Watermelon Man.” The small audience went ballistic and Mongo sensed he had a potential hit on his hands, which he quickly recorded and the tune became a top 10 pop hit. The success of “Watermelon Man” placed Mongo in the spotlight for the first time, a position he would occupy for the next 30 years. During that period he recorded seven Grammy® nominated albums, won one, traveled the international jazz festival circuit and became an internationally famous conguero.

One of the distinguishing components of Afro-Cuban jazz, when compared to its American cousin, is best illustrated by comparing the instruments regularly employed by the percussionists in each genre. In the U.S. there is usually one drummer with a drum kit (drums, cymbals and maybe a wood block, cow bell and tambourine). In Cuban jazz there are multiple percussionists, playing not only a drum kit, but also congas, bongos, timbales, clave, guiro, maracas, shekere and many more. Since rhythm is one of the essential ingredients of jazz, whether American or Afro-Cuban, the difference in instrumentation is significant and can be explained by the fact that the slaves in Cuba were allowed to play their tribal instruments, while slaves in the South were generally denied the right to play drums and the American jazz tradition evolved with less emphasis on percussive elements.

So what is a conga drum? Known in Cuba as the tumbadora, it is a tall, narrow, conical barrel shaped drum with an open bottom and a drum head on top. The drum can be traced back to Africa where it was played in religious ceremonies by the ancestors of Cuban slaves. The drum made its way to the U.S. in the 1930s when Cuban dance music first began to be performed in NYC. In fact, the tumbadora is not just one drum, but like so many musical instruments, it comes in many different sizes and therefore different pitches. In the U.S., all of the drums are generically known as “congas,” but among the cognoscenti, each drum has a name. The five most popular sizes (from small to large and therefore higher pitch to lower pitch) are: requinto, quinto, conga, tumba and supertumba. Initially congas were played individually, but today congueros play two or more at the same time, using their fingers and palms (and sometimes their elbows) to create the polyrhythms that are fundamental to Afro-Cuban jazz.

Many jazz greats have gained fame by interpreting the music that came before them in a new and unique way, moving the music in a specific direction. Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk come to mind. And then there are innovators who fuse distinctively different styles of music into something entirely new. Mongo had one foot firmly placed in the musical soil of Cuba (and therefore the music traditions of West Africa) and the other foot was planted in the music of his adopted home, the U.S. Over the last three decades of his life he fused Afro-Cuban music with American jazz, R&B, rock and soul, creating a “Latin groove” that was the beginning of the “boogaloo” era. Always flavored with the sound of his congas playing Afro-Cuban rhythms, his music was something entirely new , a “Latin-soul” sound that has endured ever since. In the process, Mongo popularized the conga drum to the point where it is now played in many different musical genres throughout the world. He truly was Chief of the Congueros.

To celebrate Mongo’s 100th birthday, Vail Jazz joins The Vail Symposium on at 6:30 p.m. on Aug. 9 at the Sonnenalp Hotel to present Professor Michael Davison and members of the internationally famous Afro-Cuban band ¡Cubanismo! In a performance and demonstration of the fundamentals of Afro-Cuban jazz. Click here for tickets. At 6 p.m. on Aug. 10, Vail Jazz presents the entire 11-piece power of ¡Cubanismo! in concert in the Jazz Tent at Vail Square in Lionshead. Click here for tickets. Lastly, as part of the Labor Day Weekend Jazz Party, Vail Jazz presents the Tommy Igoe Sextet’s Tribute to Mongo and More on Sept. 4. Click here for tickets.

Happy Birthday, Mongo!

The Jazz Singer as a Storyteller

In the digital world we inhabit, our ability to hear songs that we love is so effortless that we forget that it wasn’t always this easy. The other night I was in the mood to hear some Billie Holiday so I simply told Alexa to play “God Bless the Child” and voila, instantaneously I was hearing one of the greatest jazz recordings of all time. WHAT A TREAT! The jukebox in the sky. Before sound recording, if you wanted to hear a chosen tune, you either sung it yourself or had to be in the presence of someone who would sing it for you. So the default setting for most was to try to sing it themselves.  

Singing by humans is a natural instinct found in all cultures and in all corners of the world; however, there is no universal way to sing and idealized sounds that are produced by the human voice vary greatly from culture to culture. Since each culture reaches its own consensus on what stylistically a singer should sound like, over time cultural stereotypes develop and singers emerge that emulate and reinforce it. If you have ever heard a Tuvan throat-singer you know what I mean. Tuva is a Russian republic near Mongolia where singers use a circular breathing technique that allows them to produce two or more notes at the same time. In the U.S. on the other hand, we expect a singer to sing one note at a time with the ability to control the pitch of the singer’s voice, while possessing a pleasing tone/timbre and an extended vocal range with an ease of maneuverability throughout.  

Think of a singer’s voice like a musical instrument that can be precisely played.  Many singers have developed remarkable vocal instruments with jaw-dropping technical prowess. But I submit that a great voice and technique are only part of the package. In jazz to be a truly great vocalist, you also need to have special gifts. It starts with song selection. Let’s face it, some songs are better than others. Choosing your material wisely is therefore mandatory. You must be able to interpret the lyrics of a song and be a great storyteller, a musical communicator. Intentionally leaving space between notes and phrases to add emphasis to the lyrics, varying the rhythm to create suspense, and where appropriate, “scatting” a chorus (singing nonsense syllables which are improvised in order to imitate an instrument) to add drama to the performance are all part of the storytelling. In fact, the ability to communicate to the audience, to sell the lyrics of a song, to make them relevant and your own, is what “closes the deal” and allows certain singers to rise above the crowd. In some cases a vocalist that is a great storyteller can even overcome technical vocal shortcomings and still rise to the top.

Take for instance, Billie Holiday. Born Eleanore Fagan, she was one of the greatest jazz singers to ever perform. Her voice had limited range and was thin, fragile and raspy, but what she did possess was an incredible ability to communicate with her audience and she had the uncanny ability to pick the right songs to perform. Billie’s greatness was based upon her storytelling ability and whether the material was sad (most of her songs) or happy, Billie could invariably elicit a physical reaction in her listeners. When Billie performed sad songs, she communicated the song’s story in an honest, deeply felt emotional manner that was raw and exposed her vulnerabilities. When she sang happy songs, she sang with an exuberance and passion that filled the listener with joy. The results were always the same. When Billie sang, the audience responded.

To accomplish the above, Billie selected the material she sang with care.  She was a curator of song, selecting material that contained music and lyrics that allowed her to communicate ideas and emotions in a persuasive manner. A case in point is the song I mentioned above, “God Bless the Child,” which she co-wrote.  Considered to be one of the greatest songs of the 20th century, the National Endowment for the Arts and the Recording Industry Association of America included it in their list of “Songs of the Century” and her recording of the song received the Grammy Hall of Fame Award. The song was written after Billie and her mother Sadie clashed over money. Sadie had previously borrowed money from Billie to open a restaurant and several years later when Billie was down on her luck, she asked Sadie for a loan. When Sadie refused to help, Billie is quoted as saying to Sadie, “God bless the child that’s got his own” and then left.  The first verse of the song is particularly poignant:

Them that’s got shall get

Them that’s not shall lose
So the Bible said and it still is news

Mama may have, Papa may have
But God bless the child that’s got his own
That’s got his own

When you hear Billie sing these lyrics for the first time, you don’t need to know the above story to feel Billie’s pain, anger, sense of betrayal and helplessness.  That is what a good storyteller can do.

At 6:30 p.m. and 9 p.m. on Aug. 2 at the Sonnenalp Hotel and at 6 p.m. on Aug. 3 in the Jazz Tent at Vail Square in Lionshead next to the Arrabelle Hotel, Vail Jazz will present René Marie, one the finest jazz vocalists performing today, in her show “Experiment in Truth.”  A remarkable storyteller, René has received two Grammy® nominations for her unique blend of jazz, R&B and blues as she tells musical stories you’ll want to hear.

 

Norman and Ella

Ella Fitzgerald, the “First Lady of Song,” recorded over 1,100 songs during a career that spanned more than half a century. She sold more than 40 million albums, won 13 Grammy® awards, and performed to adoring fans throughout the world. This year is the centennial of Ella’s birth and celebrations abound in the world of jazz and beyond, paying tribute to her and reminding us all of her contribution to not only jazz, but to popular music of the Western World. Long after her passing in 1996, her musical legacy lives on.

From the beginning of her career in the mid-1930s until the mid-1950s she was generally confined to performing in jazz clubs with segregated audiences. Concert halls and upscale venues were out of reach. The upward trajectory of her career had stalled and she was stuck in a niche with a loyal jazz audience at a time when jazz was being overtaken by the popular music of the day – rock n’ roll. Ella had all the qualities needed to succeed but lacked the vision of how she could broaden her audience and overcome the barriers facing an African American jazz singer.

That vision appeared in 1956, when the son of Russian immigrants, Norman Granz, changed the arc of Ella’s career, catapulting her to top of the music world, where she would remain for the rest of her life. Norman was a concert promoter, talent manager, record producer and record label owner. One of the most important figures in the history of jazz, he was an innovator that changed the course of jazz, all the while championing the cause of civil rights.  

Norman grew up during the Depression and fell in love with jazz. Starting out promoting nightclub shows during WWII he hit upon the idea of taking the jam sessions that regularly took place “after hours” in jazz clubs and presenting them in a concert setting, thereby exposing the brilliance of improvising jazz musicians to a much larger audience. The first concert he presented was in 1944 at the home of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, billing it “Jazz at the Philharmonic” (JATP). The concert was a remarkable success and led Norman to regularly present JATP concerts in L.A. and quickly thereafter, throughout the U.S. (but not the segregated South), and then touring  internationally. Not bad for a 25-year-old jazz fan. In addition to presenting unique programing, he understood the draw of the jam session and recorded the performances, thereby expanding the audience and building the JATP brand.  

By the 1950s, Norman’s meteoric rise as a concert promoter allowed him to build relationships with some of the most important jazz musicians of the era. Norman knew the sting of prejudice personally, having had an African American girlfriend. He was totally dedicated to not only presenting jazz but integrating the audience while elevating the genre from smoke-filled clubs to concert halls throughout the world. It is hard to believe today, but even after WWII, audiences were still segregated in the U.S. Norman vowed to change that and he did by requiring venue operators to allow an integrated audience when the musicians he managed and the concerts he promoted were presented in their venues.  

Ella toured with JATP and Norman wanted to manage her since he had a vision of how he could advance her career, not only broadening her audience but also elevating the venues she would perform in. She was hesitant, but Norman was very persistent and he offered to manage her for no fee and give her the right to terminate their relationship at any time. Ella reluctantly agreed in 1955, although she insisted that she pay his customary management fee. Years later, Norman confirmed that he never had a signed contract with Ella during their 40-year relationship, explaining that each had the right to terminate their relationship if either was unhappy.

Shortly after becoming Ella’s manager, Norman was able to extract Ella from her recording contract with Decca and signed her to his new record label, Verve. The catalog of Verve grew as jazz greats including Charlie Parker, Bill Evans, Stan Getz, Billie Holiday, Oscar Peterson, Ben Webster and Lester Young were added to the label. With Ella’s signing to Verve, Norman relaunched her career, taking her from a cult figure loved by jazz enthusiasts to the top of the world of pop music, while presenting her in a way that did not offend her hard-core jazz fans. How did he do it? Norman’s vision was for Ella to celebrate the Great American Songbook and she did in a series of eight recordings in eight years. Starting with “Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Cole Porter Songbook” in 1956, Ella followed with tributes to Rogers and Hart, Duke Ellington, Irving Berlin, the Gershwins, Harold Arlen, Jerome Kern and Johnny Mercer. These recordings were artistically brilliant and commercially a bonanza. They confirmed that Ella was indeed “the First Lady of Song.” Asked about Ella’s Songbooks, Ira Gershwin was quoted as saying: “I never knew how good our songs were until I heard Ella Fitzgerald sing them.”  The rest of the world agreed and Ella never looked back.

At 6:30 and 9 p.m. on July 26 at the Sonnenalp Hotel and at 6 p.m. on July 27 in the Jazz Tent in Lionshead, Vail Jazz presents Carmen Bradford and Byron Stripling in a tribute to Ella and Louis Armstrong, and their three great albums celebrating the American Songbook. Happy 100th birthday, Ella!

Don’t miss one of history’s most iconic pairings

Who would you say are the jazz king and queen of all time? With so many greats, it’s not easy to pin down just one pair whose names and music have transcended America’s decorated history. But there’s a good chance that Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald are at the top of most lists.

Legendary as each artist stands in his/her own right, the pairing of their talents was an unforgettable treat. To celebrate this rare and magical fusion as well as Fitzgerald’s 100th birthday, Vail Jazz presents Ella and Louis: Together Again, starring Count Basie singer Carmen Bradford and Vail Jazz favorite trumpeter Byron Stripling. The duo, both of which shares personal history with the American musical heroes, unites to deliver classics from Armstrong and Fitzgerald’s trio of albums for two intimate club shows on July 26 and a tent performance on July 27.

“These are some of the most important recordings in jazz history,” says Stripling, referring to 1956’s Ella and Louis, 1957’s Ella and Louis Again and 1959’s Porgy and Bess. “Certainly Carmen and I love the music of these two giants coming together.”

So what makes this pairing so special? Anyone can agree that Armstrong and Fitzgerald had not only two extremely different approaches to music, but highly contrastive personalities. Vail Jazz founder Howard Stone, the brainchild behind the upcoming Ella and Louis tribute concerts, understands the magic of this unique combination, as does Stripling, who actually shared the stage with Fitzgerald as part of her band in her later years.

“They are two contrasting characters, but what we have is a perfect match,” Stripling says. “The playfulness of Louis Armstrong, the humor and happiness to everything he does; combine that with Ella – there’s almost this innocence in everything she does. Everything she sings is perfectly in tune, even the most technically advanced songs. You have the innocence of Ella and the jovialness of Louis. You can see him pushing her and egging her on, because she was a little nervous sometimes.”

Stripling witnessed Fitzgerald’s nervousness first-hand before their first performance together when his band mates informed him that the famous singer needed a reassuring hug before their gig.

“We got off the bus and the guys told me, ‘when we go into the concert hall, we’ll go to her dressing room and knock. You’ll give her a hug.’ I said, ‘why? I’ve never met her. I revere this lady … I’m actually scared of her,’” Stripling recalls. “But it turns out, with each new guy, she wants to know everything is OK. She was so nervous … and I’ll add insecure. You never sense it until you’re behind the scenes. They called her ‘sis,’ for sister. She really liked that. It made her feel good.”

As for Bradford, in addition to being one of the few vocalists in history handpicked by Count Basie himself, her mother, Melba Joyce, was one of Armstrong’s backup singers and she recalls meeting the monumental musician numerous times in her childhood.

“Carmen and I met on the Count Basie Band. She was the last singer that Count Basie ever hired. He absolutely loved her,” Stripling says. “If you come to the shows, you’ll get plenty of stories from Carmen about Ella. She knew her and has several of her gowns. As a kid, she knew Louis’ voice really well. She has a picture of herself on his lap.”

Stripling tells the story of how Bradford visited Fitzgerald’s house after her passing and was overjoyed to find her own CD in Fitzgerald’s stereo. While Bradford not only owns some of Fitzgerald’s gowns and has been known to wear them at times, and Stripling has a long history of channeling Armstrong’s spirit in orchestral pops programs throughout the country, neither artist aims to embody the late jazz greats.

“Carmen and I are not impressionists. You have to go to Las Vegas for that,” Stripling says. “The spirit of jazz is in us, meaning we like to do it our own way. If I can speak for Louis Armstrong, I’d say, ‘I’m here for the cause of happiness.’ In Ella’s case, she had a lot of hard times in her love life and her audience became her true love. She could walk out every night in the most fabulous gown and she was the bride. Listening to the duets makes me feel good when I’m feeling bad. They make me feel even better when I’m feeling good.”

Ella and Louis: Together Again Vail Jazz performances

Vail Jazz presents Ella and Louis Together Again featuring Carmen Bradford and Byron Stripling, joined by pianist Eric Gunnison, bassist Ken Walker, guitarist Steve Kovalcheck and drummer Dru Heller.

Wednesday, July 26

The ensemble delivers a pair of intimate performances for the Vail Jazz Club Series at Ludwig’s Terrace in The Sonnenalp Hotel. The first show is SOLD OUT! The second show begins at 9 p.m. (doors at 8:30 p.m.). Tickets are $40. Drink and dinner service are available for purchase.

Thursday, July 27

The Ella and Louis tribute comes to the big stage for an energetic Vail Jazz @Vail Square performance at 6 p.m. General admission tickets are $25, preferred seats $40 and premium seats $50. Presented by The Jazz Cruise and Blue Note at Sea, Vail Jazz @ Vail Square takes place every Thursday evening through Aug. 24 in the all-weather Jazz Tent in The Arrabelle courtyard in Lionshead. Drinks are available for purchase.

 

To purchase tickets to Vail Jazz performances, click here:

Gypsy Jazz – Necessity is the Mother of Invention

We all know the famous proverb: necessity is the mother of invention. This is the story of how true that maxim is. We begin in Belgium in 1910 when Jean “Django” Reinhardt was born into a family of itinerant Romani (Gypsy) musicians that lived in poverty, moving their caravans back and forth between Belgium and France. Gypsies (a pejorative term that was based upon the false notion that the Romani people came from Egypt) have been viewed as outsiders in Western Europe for centuries and Django and his family were clearly outcasts.  His father and seven uncles were all musicians who eked out a living playing music. Django (“I awake” in Romani) was taught to play the violin by his father when he was 7. At 12 he was given a banjo-guitar – a banjo with six strings like a guitar, instead of four strings like a banjo. He quickly taught himself how to play it and he and his brother became buskers working the streets of Paris.  Django appeared to be a savant, capable of learning music just by hearing it once, and it was clear that he was a virtuoso on his instrument. He began to play with adults who were often intimated by the child prodigy’s musical prowess. As a teen he was exposed to jazz and began to incorporate it into his music. At 15, he switched from street musician to earning a living by playing music in the dance halls of Paris, where he performed a style of music known as musette, a combination of French folk music, polka, waltz and jazz. Hearing a recording by Louis Armstrong during this period, it had a transformative influence on him and he began to focus on playing jazz.

Married (common law) at 17, he never received a formal education. It is doubtful that he ever learned to read, books or music, although in his late 1920s he did learn to write. He played with many dance bands until he was 18, moving from band to band, while making several recordings as a member of various groups. His reputation began to grow among the musicians he played with and then beyond, and on a fateful night in late October 1928 Englishman Jack Hylton, the leader of Europe’s most well-known jazz band, traveled to France to hear Django play and offered him a job.

Django accepted the offer but within days tragedy struck when he was severely burned by a fire in his caravan. His injuries were extensive, over half of his body (the right side of his body and left hand) sustained first and second degrees burns. The doctors discussed amputating his right leg as it was paralyzed and advised him that he would never play again because his left hand was burned beyond repair. He refused to accept their prognosis, left the hospital and took up residence in a nursing home, beginning an 18-month long rehab. He ultimately regained his full mobility, but was scarred for life. Unfortunately, the two small fingers on his left hand were paralyzed and he never recovered the full use of them.

At the start of his convalescence his brother brought him a guitar and encouraged him to learn to play it. The neck of the guitar was bigger than on his banjo-guitar and with the limited use of his left hand he was not able to hold the neck of the guitar and press the strings down on the fretboard. He practiced relentlessly and in the process developed a unique way of fingering the fretboard. Not able to use all the fingers on his left to play chords in a horizontal manner, he fashioned new chords using his contorted figures where possible, while rapidly moving his two good fingers up and down the neck of the guitar forming chords in more of a vertical way, inventing a truly unique technique. A less talented musician would have given up but Django was determined to overcome his handicap and he began to play professionally again. If he had stopped there, this would be a wonderful story of inventiveness and perseverance in the face of adversity, but Django didn’t stop there.

Fortuitously, he played in an impromptu jam session with Stéphane Grappelli, a French-Italian violinist, and that encounter led him to synthesize the music of his Gypsy heritage with jazz to create a ground breaking sound that would have world-wide impact, making him the most important European jazz musician ever and a guitarist who would influence successive generations of guitar greats. By combining three guitars with a violin and bass, at a time when American jazz was dominated by the sounds of piano, drums and horns, he created what became known as Gypsy Jazz (Jazz Marouche). He and Grappelli formed a band, “Quintette du Hot Club de France,” and they both became internationally famous musicians.

Tragically, Django died of a brain hemorrhage at 43 in 1953, but his legacy lives on as Gypsy Jazz is played throughout the world with jazz festivals dedicated to Django and his music held annually in Australia, Brazil, Canada, Ireland, Scandinavia, South Africa, the UK, the U.S. and of course, Belgium and France.  

Vail Jazz celebrates the musical legacy of Django on July 19 at 6:30 p.m. and 9 p.m. at the Sonnenalp Hotel and on July 20 at 6 p.m. in the Jazz Tent at Vail Square in Lionshead when it presents the Hot Club of France Tribute Band lead by French virtuoso accordionist Julien Labro. The music will be exuberant and played in a flamboyant manner, sizzling, infectious, and swinging, just as Django performed it 80 years ago.   

Vail Today: Vail Jazz Goes to School connects kids with the history of jazz

Jazz and the history of this American gift to the world of music was alive and well at the Vilar Performing Arts Center this week. The Jazz Goes to School program concluded their school series with a concert led by local Jazz Goes to School educator, Tony Gulizia.

Gulizia was joined by the Vail Jazz Goes to School Sextet, which consists of musicians from all over the nation. They get together for four sessions at local elementary schools each school year. Many of them have been doing this gig since it began 19 years ago.

“I really wanted to reach out to 4th and 5th graders to help spark the interest at that age, especially since they can join band in the 5th grade,” said Gulizia, who has been a music instructor at Eagle County Charter Academy for the past 24 years and is a fixture on the Vail music scene.

As part of their education during the previous sessions, students were taught the 12 Bar Blues. The kids had to come up with innovative lyrics and show their ability to follow the rhythm and rhyming pattern they were taught.

This is often the highlight of each performance as Tony Gulizia sings the lyrics in a bluesy fashion, crooning about things like having to move on from elementary to middle school, or an ice cream scoop falling to the floor and mom making you clean it up.

The lyrics are priceless and so is the experience. “I have so many former participants come up to me even 10 or 15 years later and say how much they remember what they learned in our program or how they went on to play an instrument,” said Gulizia. “It’s great to hear that we’ve made an impact and are keeping jazz alive for the next generation.”

To learn more visit http://www.vailjazz.org.
12-Bar Blues

The fifth-graders who participated in Vail Jazz Goes to School were challenged to write their own lyrics in sync with the jazz chord progression they had learned known as the 12-bar blues. Compositions were judged on innovative lyrics and the ability to follow the rhythm and rhyming pattern they were taught. Here are the winning lyrics:

1. Eagle County Charter Academy

One day I looked outside, it was a pretty day
One day I looked outside, it was a pretty day
I said, I want to go swimmin’ in the bay

Yesterday, I woke up in the middle of the night
Yesterday, I woke up in the middle of the night
I had a real bad dream, that gave me quite a fright

I woke up in the hospital, realized I cracked my head
I woke up in the hospital, realized I cracked my head
Even through it was a bummer, I was happy, I wasn’t dead

2. Stone Creek Charter

One fine day, I met a tabby cat
One fine day, I met a tabby cat
He stole my watch, my wallet, and my hat

I know a bearded man, his name is Baúl
I know a bearded man, his name is Baúl
He’s my Spanish teacher, he’s very cool

There was an alien, his name was Bob
There was an alien, his name was Bob
I grabbed 2 swords, now he’s a shish kebab

3. Brush Creek Elementary

This is, the Bobcat Blues
This is, the Bobcat Blues
If you don’t understand, you lose

This song, must be sung loud & proud
This song, must be sung loud & proud
Cause it was written by Ava, Caleigh and Rylee, who are so proud