The bass groove

Once sound amplification started to take hold in jazz, the acoustic (upright) bass started losing ground to the other instruments in the band. While most instruments could be effectively amplified, not so with the bass. When amplified the bass produced sound that was distorted with undesirable “feedback” and produced “muddy” sounds without distinctive pitch. So during the 1930s and 1940s while the bass was present, establishing the beat, you really couldn’t make out what it was playing – it was being felt, but not really heard.

inventor Paul Tutmarc

In the 1930s Paul Tutmarc, a musician and inventor, tackled some of the shortcomings of the bass. Big and bulky, it had to be played in a stationary vertical position and was hard to play in tune. Voila!, the electric bass (bass guitar) was born – bigger than a guitar, but portable and easy to hold, it could be played horizontally and the player didn’t have to be stationary. By adding frets, it was easier to play in tune and with a long neck, the musical range was greatly expanded. Most importantly, with electronic pickups used to capture the sound produced by the vibrating strings, the electric bass could be plugged into an amplifier to produce sound without distortion or feedback.

Tutmarc may have invented the electric bass (and the electric guitar), but it was Clarence Lionidas “Leo” Fender who capitalized on the electrification of these instruments. Perfecting the “Telecaster” guitar in 1950, as well as the “Precision Bass” in 1951, Fender never looked back. The Precision Bass revolutionized bass playing and its sonic characteristics. Fender is arguably one of the most important people in the history of popular music in the last half of the 20th century – a rather remarkable achievement considering that he never learned to play the instruments he created.

the iconic Fender bass

Monk Montgomery (brother of jazz guitarist Wes Montgomery) is credited with being the first jazz electric bass player – playing and touring with Lionel Hampton in 1953. Around 1957 Bill Black, Elvis Presley’s bass player, switched to the electric bass and as they say, “the rest is history.” With the explosion in popularity of rock music in the 1960s, the electric bass came of age and has had an outsized impact on popular music, leading to the popularity of genres such as metal, punk, reggae, funk, gospel, blues, hip-hop and jazz fusion.

Jazz musicians reluctantly adopted the electric bass in the 1950s, but it wasn’t until the late 1960s when rock was blended with jazz to create the music known as jazz fusion that the electric bass found a home in the world of jazz. In a fusion setting, the bassist has become a prominent soloist because the electric bass is much more suited ergonomically speaking for a player to play faster and more lyrically than the upright bass. Most importantly, the bassist can lock-in with the drummer and create a “groove” that is at the heart of fusion and funk.

What is a groove? Not easily defined, it is a rhythmic feel created by variations in the timing of the beat. Playing ever so slightly ahead or behind the metronomic beat shifts the rhythmic pulse of the music in a way that connects the listener to the music and makes the listener want to MOVE to the music. Hear a marching band play, you tap your foot in time to the music, but when there is a groove established, you FEEL it and involuntarily move to the music.

Like the guitar, the electric bass can be strummed, plucked or picked, but in the hands of a virtuoso, when a groove is called for, slapping it and thumping it creates an overpowering FEELING that can make you want to sway, move your head from side to side and dance.

No discussion of the electric bass would be complete without paying homage to Jaco Pastorius. The self-proclaimed “world’s greatest bass player” was audacious, but his virtuosic command of the electric bass ultimately caused many to agree with his pronouncement and while he died prematurely at the age of 35 in 1987, his impact on the world of music and the technical approach of how to play the electric bass and integrate it into a jazz setting is beyond dispute.

Marcus Miller interviewed on TV8 Vail

When discussing the greats of the electric bass, especially fusion and funk players, the name of Marcus Miller is always mentioned. The multi-Grammy® award winner not only has mastered the electric bass, but is a multi-instrumentalist (bass, guitar, clarinet, bass clarinet, saxophone and piano), composer and producer who has played and recorded with the who’s who of the music business over the last 40 years, appearing on over 500 albums with musicians like Eric Clapton, Michael Jackson, Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, George Benson, David Sanborn, Wayne Shorter, Luther Vandross, Frank Sinatra and Elton John, to name just a few.

On June 24 Marcus will be in Vail as the headliner at Vail SummerFest, where Vail celebrates the summer season’s cultural offerings and activities, with food, drink and three bands performing. One thing is for sure, when Marcus plays in Vail there will be a groove, especially when he slaps and thumps his bass.

The event is sponsored by The Jazz Cruise, the Contemporary Jazz Cruise and the Town of Vail and produced by Vail Jazz.

Howard Stone is the founder and artistic director of Vail Jazz, which produces the annual Vail Jazz Festival. Celebrating its 22nd year, the Vail Jazz Festival is a summer-long celebration of jazz music, culminating with the Labor Day weekend Vail Jazz Party. Visit vailjazz.org for more information.

Jazz Ghosts and Yellowjackets

Jazz is truly a unique form of music, the hallmark of which is improvisation. But this article is not about what sets jazz apart from other forms of popular music. Instead, we focus on what it has in common with all popular music.

No, it is not melody, harmony and rhythm; it is the need for an audience. Yes, many musicians play music for the love of it, but let’s face it, if you are going to dedicate your life to making music, you need an audience. You can be a virtuoso and possess a compelling stage presence, but for better or worse, you need to have an audience, and they better dig what you do, so you can have a career, or you need a back-up plan, usually a day job.

Ah, the commercial side of things. How mundane and disappointing, but so important! In the 18th century, Franz Joseph Haydn was fortunate to connect with the wealthy royal Esterhazy family; he found patrons that provided him lifetime employment as a composer. Today, you need loyal (not royal) support — an audience that sticks with you.

FINDING AN AUDIENCE

So how do dedicated, talented musicians find and keep their audience? If you Google “finding your audience music,” you will get more than 19,000,000 entries of sure-fire, can’t-miss self-help guides and advice. Let’s say you are one of the fortuitous ones: You have the talent and perseverance to succeed, and you connect with like-minded, great musicians to form a band that rises to the top. Long odds, but doable, right?

Every day new names and faces, playing “new and old” music, enter our consciousness and vie for our attention in the hyper-competitive world of music. We marvel at their talent as they entertain us, and if they are truly special, they can have more than 15 minutes of fame, but it is extremely hard to stay at the top.

And yet for graying audiences, nostalgia is a powerful emotion and the number of bands that have lived off the glory of their past is testament to the powerful desire to reconnect with our youth. But to live off the past, you first need to have been very successful at building an audience — no past, no future.

In jazz, there are the “ghost bands” — the leader is deceased, but the band carries on in his name. Glen Miller went missing more than 70 years ago, but the band plays on. So, too, for the Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Harry James ghost bands and many, many more. And, of course, there are the innumerable tribute bands that play the music of (insert the name of your favorite deceased jazz musician).

But we live in the here and now, and the question is: How does a successful jazz band keep its audience?

YELLOWJACKETS KEEP EVOLVING

For the answer we turn our attention to the Yellowjackets, the iconic, multiple Grammy Award-winning jazz quartet that has flourished over a 35-year period, recording 22 albums, while successfully touring the world and enjoying unparalleled critical acclaim — quite a run for a band, jazz or otherwise.

Founding member Russell Ferrante on piano and keys anchors the band. Bob Mintzer is on saxophone and joined the band 25 years ago. William “Will” Kennedy holds down the drum and percussion throne, having had two stints with the band — 1987 to 1999 and 2010 to present. And the newest addition is Australian bass player Dane Alderson, who joined the band in 2015.

So how have the Yellowjackets been able to stay on top all these years? By combining extraordinary musicianship with superb new compositions, while performing music that spans the worlds of jazz — straight ahead and smooth, R&B, funk, fusion and more — the band has continued to successfully reinvent itself, thereby staying connected to its fan base while continuously attracting new fans. Quite a feat!

As for the band’s name: Pressed to come up with a catchy name during the band’s first recording session, Russell Ferrante recalls being presented with a list of “just awful” names. Forced to pick one, the band members agreed upon Yellowjackets since it seemed to communicate “something lively, energetic and something with a ‘sting.’ That’s really about as deep as it went. Once you choose a name, you’re stuck with it.”

While the name has stayed the same for 35 years, the music keeps on evolving, allowing the Yellowjackets the opportunity to take their audience to new and compelling musical places. The Yellowjackets will appear at the Vilar Performing Arts Center on Wednesday at 7:30 pm. You won’t want to miss this opportunity to be part of the audience to see and hear this great band!

Howard Stone is the founder and artistic director of the Vail Jazz Foundation, which is partnering with the Vilar Performing Arts Center to present the Yellowjackets in concert.

Remembering Mezz, the Muggles King

Early this year I was in New York and dropped by Mezzrow, a new jazz club in Greenwich Village. It is the sister club to the very hip Smalls Jazz Club, located less than a block away. When I am in New York, Smalls is one of my go-to spots for great jazz with an appreciative audience that comes to listen. Mezzrow bills itself as a listening room and “a place for music lovers to have an intimate experience, … a musical environment run by musicians for musicians.” I thoroughly enjoyed the experience at the club and it got me thinking about the name “Mezzrow.”

I knew there was a musician by the name of Mezz Mezzrow who had played the clarinet, and my curiosity got the better of me, so I spent some wonderful time learning about one of the more fascinating characters in jazz who epitomized the early years of the genre and the legendary hipster image of long ago.

Milton “Mezz” Mezzrow was born into a middle class (some say impoverished) Jewish immigrant family in Chicago before the turn of the last century and died in 1972. His teen years were marked by brushes with the law and he was in and out of reform schools and prisons, where he first was exposed to jazz and blues. Inspired to take up the clarinet (he also played the alto and tenor saxophone), Mezz immersed himself in the jazz scene of Chicago in the ’20s.

Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, Mezz Mezzrow and others at jam session

Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, Mezz Mezzrow and others at jam session (photo Gjon Mili)

Hanging out with many of the giants of jazz, his circle of musician friends included King Oliver, Sidney Bechet, Louis Armstrong and many other people of color. Embracing the culture of his African-American friends, he married an African-American woman and moved to Harlem. He explained later in his autobiography, “Really The Blues” (1946), that when he first heard jazz he knew what his calling in life would be. He “was going to be a Negro musician, hipping (teaching) the world about the blues the way only Negroes can.” He declared himself to be a “voluntary Negro.” Mezz can also be heard on six recordings with the legendary Fats Waller and many others greats.

THE MUGGLES KING

In a career that was probably more noted for off-the-band-stand activities than accomplishments with his horn, his friendship with Louis Armstrong led him to become Armstrong’s assistant and for a time his manager.

He organized, played in and financed many historic recording sessions with the black titans of jazz in the 1930s and 1940s and helped reignite an interest in New Orleans-style jazz. Ultimately, Mezz founded King Jazz Records in the mid-’40s, recording multiple “sides” with his friend Sidney Bechet, who is considered to be one of the greatest soprano sax players of all time.

Mezz can also be heard on six recordings with the legendary Fats Waller and many others greats. Notwithstanding the company he kept and recorded with, the consensus is that he wasn’t one of the top clarinetist of the day, but it was his devotion to the music and generosity with his musician friends that earned him their respect.

I would be leaving out an important detail of this story if I didn’t tell you about Mezz’s activities as a marijuana dealer. He was an advocate of marijuana as an alternative to alcohol and other drugs and he was a reliable supplier to many musicians. In fact, “mezz,” “the mighty mezz” and “mess-rolls” all became slang for marijuana in the jazz community. Mezz himself was known as the “Muggles King,” another slang term for marijuana at the time. In 1940, he was busted for his drug selling activities and sentenced to jail. When he was about to be placed in a cell block with other white prisoners he protested that he was black and was ultimately placed in the prison’s segregated black section.

Mezz was an outspoken critic of segregation and a proponent of equal rights for all, well before the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. Mezz was truly a complex one-of-a-kind character who lived at a time when the values and mores of the U.S. were undergoing a dramatic change and he was right in the forefront of it all.

After appearing at the 1948 Nice Jazz Festival, he joined many other ex-pat American jazz musicians living in France, making Paris his home during the last 20 years of his life, playing jazz and being Mezz.

Four in one … the story of how drummers came to be

Lowering your cost per unit of output is the goal of the savvy businessman. Why pay four people to do a job when with some equipment, one can do all the work? So this is the story of how one musician ended up doing the work of four and changed jazz forever.

After the Civil War, freed slaves in New Orleans organized marching bands to play at funerals and other events. Inspired by the marching bands of the Civil War era, they used brass instruments, a bass drum, often with a cymbal attached, and a snare drum. By the early 20th century, the bands had moved indoors and were playing for parties and dances and so-called “Dixieland” jazz was in its infancy. No longer marching, band members were seated and because of indoor space constraints, bands had fewer musicians. It is unknown whether someone had the “eureka” moment and said, “since our drummer is seated, let’s cut our payroll and have him play two drums at once,” but that’s what happened. The snare drum was placed on a chair or stand and the bass drum put on the floor with a cymbal attached, allowing one musician to play all of them.

Drumming techniques had to change because striking a bass drum is nothing like playing a roll on a snare drum and these new techniques began to influence the way the band played. It wasn’t too long until drummers were trying to figure out how to use one of their feet to play the bass drum and ultimately the bass drum pedal was perfected. Next came the “snowshoe cymbal beater” – two small cymbals each attached to a board and hinged together so that they could be compressed (clashed) by a downward foot motion to make the desired sound. Ultimately, the “beater” was enhanced by adding a pedal device to work the cymbals (the “low-boy”). By the 1920s, drummers were searching for new ways to express themselves and the modern “hi-hat” became (and has remained) one of the staples of a drum kit.  By raising the level of the cymbals on the low-boy, the drummer could strike the cymbals of a hi-hat with his sticks, while his foot caused the cymbals to clash or held the cymbals together or apart, thereby creating a whole new series of sounds that pushed jazz forward.

The result of all these innovations was the simple fact that the drummer was now capable of simultaneously using both of his feet and hands to play the kit.  Bingo – one musician instead of four! As drummers were gaining the ability to in essence, play four instruments at once, they began switching from being a simple time-keeper for the band to a more integral part of the music making. The musical possibilities were greatly expanded by adding to their drum sets other drums, notably various sized tom-toms (round drums without snares) and percussion instruments, including multiple cymbals (see below), as well as woodblocks, tambourines, slapsticks, cow bells and other “contraptions” (as these sound-effect instruments were known) and in fact, the word “contraptions” ultimately morphed into “traps” and today many people refer to a drum set as a “trap set.”

Along with the hi-hat, drummers added combinations of cymbals – crash, ride, splash, swish, sizzle, Spanish and Chinese – to create their own sound. Each cymbal had a distinctive sound and by varying its size (diameter), thickness, alloys used, appendages attached and where it was struck, a drummer could create a signature sound.

As jazz has evolved, drummers have been ready. With additional drums arrayed before the seated drummer (it is interesting to note that the drummer sits on a “throne,” which may be an insight into the personalities of many drummers) and many contraptions in the drummers arsenal within easy reach, the drummer has become a central interactive part of a small jazz ensemble, supporting the improvising soloist and in turn soloing and improvising.

But it isn’t the equipment that makes the music, it is the drummer of course and many drummers, including “Baby” Dodds, “Papa Jo” Jones, Max Roach, Art Blakey, “Philly Joe” Jones, Roy Haynes and Elvin Jones, to name a few, have made important contributions along the way as jazz moved forward through the 20th Century and the new millennium has seen a new generation of drummers advancing the music with new and exciting sounds and rhythms.

On the evening of Sept. 5 at the Marriott Hotel, as part of the 21st Annual Vail Jazz Festival, the incomparable drummer Lewis Nash will present his Multi-Media Tribute to His Drum Influences, exploring the contributions that some of the greatest drummers have made to jazz. To read more about this performance, view pg. 63 of the Vail Jazz Festival Program online. Tickets are $75, to buy click here.

French vocalist returns to Vail in dynamic new duo

Cyrille Aimée and Michael Valeanu are poised to hypnotize Vail Jazz audiences with one-of-a-kind stage magic

Genetically speaking, Cyrille Aimée is not a gypsy. But she always has been at heart. The 30-year-old grew up in the small town of Samois-sur-Seine in northern France and was constantly intrigued by the caravans of musicians and gypsies that would plant themselves in her neighborhood every summer for the annual Django Reinhardt festival.

“The Django festival was part of my life even before I wanted to be a musician. I’d go run around in the street for the festival. It was free for little kids … all the other kids were running around. But little by little I started to be interested in the music part of it,” she says.

Stemming from a spontaneous but circus-like episode when Aimée found herself pedaling down the street on her bike with three gypsy girls packed on it, it wasn’t long before she became an honorary member of the visiting clan.

“A couple of gypsies came over and said I had a nice bike. Three of them hopped on the bike with me, riding down a hill – one on the handlebars, one on the seat, one on the back. They became my friends. I started going into the campsite. The guys were always there playing the guitar. My friend’s brother would teach me how to play and I would teach him how to read.”

Aimée started sneaking out of the house late at night to join the gypsies around their musical campfire and developed a love for singing. By the time she was 18, she was invited to perform on Star Academy, the French equivalent of American Idol. At that point however, she had already decided to head to New York to study Jazz At Purchase College. She did not, however, grow out of her affinity for the gypsy lifestyle. Between semesters, she would bring Jazz Studies friends back to Europe and they toured around performing on street corners for cash.

“We did a tour through Europe, slept on benches for a whole summer,” she says. “We really didn’t have anything. We’d have to play so we could buy food. We had two guitars. My sister was playing the shakers. There was a sax player playing duets with me.”

In Italy, the crew performed at a club during a jam session. The manager was impressed.

“The guy from the club said, ‘If you play for the lunchtime crowd we’ll feed you. Play for dinner and we’ll feed you.’” Aimée ventured to Montreux, Switzerland on her own as her friends waited in Italy to try her vocal chords in a vocal competition at the Montreuz Jazz Festival. She won.

After this adventurous summer, Aimée and her friends returned to Purchase, where she graduated and relocated to Brooklyn, her new base, from which she travels the world performing with orchestras, ensembles and guitar quartets. One of her favorite stage appearance setups is performing as a duet.

“I do love the duo setting,” she says. “It’s kind of like a dance. There’s just the one other person. I like when you never know what’s going to happen. I don’t know if mind-reading is the correct word … it’s more like a connection. It’s not trying to know what the person is thinking, but what the person is feeling.”

Aimée discovered compatriot and fellow NYC transplant Michael Valeanu at a rehearsal in the city and the two immediately connected.

“The first time I ever heard Michael was at a little club in Paris. He was playing in an organ trio, playing a Michael Jackson tune. I loved it. I thought, ‘I have to play with this guy.’”

Aimée had a vision of creating a collection of songs with three guitars and all original material. Thus her collaboration with Valeanu began, and the two released “It’s a Good Day,” a collection of dazzling arrangements featuring Aimée’s gypsy guitar roots as well as hypnotizing accompaniments of Brazilian island string guitar. When Aimée and Valeanu perform, it’s an eclectic, energetic blend of every flavor the French couple has come to know and love.

“We do a lot of standards, but also songs we wrote together – French songs, Spanish songs, we do a little mix. When it’s just the two of us, there’s a lot of freedom to choose whatever we want. Whatever we feel.”

Don’t miss Cyrille Aimée and Michael Valeanu at 9 p.m. July 15 in the intimate lounge dinner setting of Cucina at the Lodge at Vail for the Vail Jazz Club Series. The duo then takes to the big stage from 6 to 8 p.m. for Vail Jazz @ Vail Square on Thursday, July 16 in the Vail Jazz Tent in Lionshead. For tickets or more information, visit vailjazz.org or call 888-VAIL-JAM.

 

Brownie: A trumpet king uncrowned

The quickest way to fame today is to be outrageous. With social media and 24-7 news cycles, everyone has a shot at their 15 minutes of fame and the possibility that they can “cash in” on their celebrity status. What passes for “news” is yesteryear’s gossip. When I was a kid, drug addiction, infidelity and divorce didn’t make you famous, it made you infamous. The path to notoriety today is simple: do or say something stupid and make sure there is video of your antics and hope it goes viral. The more shocking your conduct, the more likely it will be noticed and you will be projected into the limelight (actually limelights were replaced by electric lights in theaters in the late 19th century).

In the 1940s to the 1960s many jazz musicians did a lot of stupid things, especially taking drugs, but their goal was to get high, not get caught. The last thing a jazz musician wanted was to get busted or be known as a drug user since drug use could lead to unemployment in NYC because of the revocation of your “cabaret card.” Many musicians did get busted and the public’s perception of the world of jazz, which was never very high due to its earthy origins and the early venues it was performed in (whorehouses and later speakeasies), suffered even more. It is true that many of the jazz musicians who became famous were drug addicts, but they didn’t become famous because they took drugs, they were great jazz artists. But just like today, shocking behavior got you noticed.

One of the greatest jazz musicians of all time, altoist Charlie “Bird” Parker, and his inner circle of jazz musicians, were drug addicts. Many of Bird’s followers wrongly believed that they had to get high so they could play like Bird. Bird would be dead at the age of 34 because of his drug abuse. Fats Navarro, one of the greatest jazz trumpeters, died at the age of 26 from tuberculosis and complications from his heroin addiction.

Bird and Fats are mentioned because they played a central role in the artistic life of Clifford Brown, fondly known as “Brownie,” one of the greatest jazz trumpeters that ever lived. Who you say? Yes, Brownie stands alongside the trumpet kings Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie in the pantheon of the greatest jazz trumpeters of all time. If you are mildly aware of jazz history, you probably at least have heard about the first three trumpeters, but unfortunately it is doubtful that you know who Brownie was.

From late 1951, before Brownie was 21, to mid-1956 Brownie played with the who’s who of jazz, many of whom were drug addicts. By 1953 he had extensively toured and recorded in the US and Europe and his reputation and fame were beginning to spread.

By early 1954 he was co-leader of one of the most respected groups in jazz, being hailed as the next Dizzy Gillespie and winning the “New Star Award” in the Down Beat Critics Poll. After a whirlwind courtship he married in 1954 and before the end of 1955 Clifford Brown Jr. was born.

By 1956 Brownie had it all, having ascended to the pinnacle of the world of jazz. Known as a caring, kind and warm person, both on and off the band stand, he was respected and admired by his peers and fans. He composed a number of tunes, two of which, “Joy Spring” and “Daahoud,” have become jazz standards, played and recorded by legions of great jazz musicians over the past 60 years.

Brownie has been described as a brilliant and profound musician who never played a wrong note. He emerged over a four and half year period as a complete musician who had a virtuosic command of the trumpet, with a warm and pure tone, whether playing in the lowest or highest register of his horn. His technical prowess was remarkable, as he could play in an understated lyrical way or a “burning” way, articulating every note.

He escaped the culture of drugs that surrounded him and that killed so many of his jazz contemporaries and always kept his focus on the music. So why don’t most people know who he was? Why didn’t he join Louis, Miles and Dizzy as a Trumpet King? He tragically died in a car accident before he was 26 and since there were no drugs, no scandals, no shameful or shocking behavior, he quickly disappeared from the front pages of the newspapers. His life was sadly cut short, but fortunately his music can still be heard and on the evening of Sept. 6, Vail Jazz will present Byron Stripling in his Multi-Media Tribute to Brownie at the Marriott Hotel as part of the 21st Annual Vail Jazz Festival.

Howard.mugShotHoward Stone is the founder and artistic director of The Vail Jazz Foundation, which produces the annual Vail Jazz Festival. Celebrating its 21st year, the Vail Jazz Festival is a summer-long celebration of jazz music, culminating with the Labor Day weekend Vail Jazz Party. Visit vailjazz.org for more information.

 

Swingin’ Affair celebrates Sinatra’s 100th birthday

The material form of Frank Sinatra isn’t around to celebrate his 100th birthday this year, but his legacy is embodied in a force that will impact the music and entertainment industry for centuries to come.

Revered by many as the most popular entertainer in history, Sinatra kicked off his career as a big band singer in the 1930s with the Tommy Dorsey and Harry James bands. His hypnotizing voice first won its way into the world’s hearts crooning classics like “New York, New York” and “I’ve Got You Under My Skin.” His unmistakable, swinging vocal style has become gospel for these hits. Sinatra was quickly appointed a master of song and, among other nicknames, The Chairman of the Board. He went solo in 1942 and broke ground for a steady, nonstop string of solo artists that continues today.

The Voice

Sinatra was the first to draw attention to the fact that the voice is a complex and specialized instrument. (Another of his nicknames, after all, is The Voice). He used it in a way that crossed musical genres, strategically creating a catalogue that not only dominated the musical charts (“Only the Lonely,” “My Way” and “Strangers in the Night,”) but also resonated with pop fans, big band purists and even classical music lovers. Of course, the man could also act, and he won an Academy Award and a Golden Globe for his role in “From Here to Eternity” and landed leads and much acclaim in classics like “The Man with the Golden Arm” and “The Manchurian Candidate.”

Even into old age, Sinatra swooned audiences before passing away in 1998 at the age of 82. This December, The Sultan of Swoon would be 100 years old, but his legacy is eternal.

Sinatra’s influence and inspiration lives on, which is why the world will celebrate his 100th. Several documentaries and historical exhibits have popped up throughout the country, sports teams have been acknowledging Ol’ Blue Eyes with a tribute night, Jack Daniels has made a select Sinatra whiskey blend and, yes, there is even a free mobile app (search for “Frank Sinatra 100” in the App Store). This spring, dozens of musicians gathered in New York City for a tribute at Carnegie Hall. In one form or other, his style has influenced every musician.

Curtis Stigers on Frank Sinatra

One artist unquestionably inspired by Sinatra is Curtis Stigers, who will star in the Vail Jazz Festival’s A Swingin’ Affair on July 13, Frank Sinatra’s 100th birthday celebration, in which he will perform a rare lineup of Nelson Riddle arrangements written expressly for Sinatra. While Stigers cites a variety of artists as inspiration — Ray Charles, Nat King Cole, Willie Nelson and Bob Dylan — he said “Frank wins out as my favorite.”

“Sinatra’s ability to tell a story with a song’s lyrics is second to none,” Stigers said. “He also had an incredible ability to swing and to move in and out of a song’s time with ease and mastery. I’ve studied his records like textbooks, trying to absorb his technique and style and put it into my music.”

Stigers’ goal in the upcoming Vail performance is not to channel Sinatra but to pay homage to The Chairman’s talent with his own flare.

“The trick to singing Sinatra arrangements for me is to find a way to be true to what Frank did and still sing in my own voice,” he said. “I want to celebrate Sinatra without doing an impression of him. These arrangements are so much fun to sing.”

More than etching his one-of-a-kind sound and style into the world, Sinatra’s incomparable ability to continuously rise to the top over a career that spanned a whopping six decades resonates with other artists.

“Every time it looked like he was washed up as a pop star, he managed to evolve and grow, make a great album or series of albums, and suddenly he was back on top again,” Stigers said. “Frank Sinatra is the best pop singer in the history of recorded music. He combined pop and jazz and show music to create a way of singing that has influenced several generations of singers.”

Hazel Scott: To thy own self be true

This year as part of the 21st Annual Vail Jazz Festival, we pay tribute to the contributions that women have made to jazz, presenting some of the top performers in jazz today. The festival culminates with the screening of the wonderful documentary film “The Girls in the Band” and a special performance of a “Multi-Media Tribute to Women in Jazz” over Labor Day Weekend. Much has been written about the plight of women in jazz and how difficult their journey has been in the male dominated genre. While focusing on this issue in an upcoming article, today I want to pay tribute to Hazel Dorothy Scott, a jazz pianist, singer and entertainer, not because of her prodigious musical talents (she was a remarkably gifted and dedicated musician), but because of her dedication to her ideals that epitomized her strength of character and a commitment to honesty and integrity that we all too often pay lip-service to: “to thy own self be true.” Her story has rarely been told, but it deserves to be known by all as she was a remarkable person.

A music prodigy, Scott was born in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago in 1920, and was brought to New York City at the age of 4. By the time she was 8, she was attending the Juilliard School on scholarship and by her teens she was an accomplished pianist performing in a jazz band and on the radio. Among her early credits were performances at the Roseland Dance Hall with the Count Basie Orchestra, Café Society’s “ From Bach to Boogie-Woogie” in Carnegie Hall and theater appearances in the “Cotton Club Revue of 1938.” Scott was equally comfortable performing classical and jazz (including blues and boogie-woogie) repertoire on the piano and singing ballads and Broadway tunes.

Scott felt strongly about civil rights and as her star power grew she had the opportunity to become more of an activist. In the early 1940s Scott began making films in Hollywood and together with Lena Horne was the first African American woman to successfully demand that she not be cast as a singing maid or in other demeaning roles. Instead Scott played roles where she was cast as herself. Her film career with Columbia Pictures ended abruptly when she clashed with the studio over a costume which she felt “stereotyped blacks.”

By the mid-1940s she was a major star earning $75,000 per year – equivalent to $1,000,000 per annum today – and her commitment to her ideals and civil rights were even more at the forefront of her ambition. While touring in Texas, Scott refused to perform before a segregated audience and had to be escorted by Texas Rangers from the venue. After the incident she asked: “Why would anyone come to hear me, a Negro, and refuse to sit beside someone just like me?”

 

When she and a companion were refused service in a restaurant in Washington in 1949, Scott brought suit and inspired civil rights organizations to successfully pressure the state of Washington to pass legislation outlawing discrimination in public accommodations.

By 1950 she was the star of “The Hazel Scott Show,” becoming the first African American woman to have her own television show. By all accounts, she was sitting on top of the world, having conquered stage, screen, nightclubs and finally television, but storm clouds were gathering in the U.S. and Scott was one of many caught up by the Red Scare of Joseph McCarthy.

Called before the infamous House Un-American Activities Committee to testify, Scott’s lifetime of hard work was destroyed in one afternoon. The week following her testimony, Scott’s television show was cancelled and her career began to decline and work became harder and harder to get.

By the late 1950s with her career in shambles, Scott left the U.S. for Paris and for the next decade she struggled to maintain her career, appearing in French films and touring periodically in Europe. In 1967 with the Civil Rights movement well underway, she returned home but never regained the career she once had. Playing occasional nightclub gigs, Scott began appearing in daytime television soap operas until 1981, when she died of cancer at the age of 61.

Hazel Dorothy Scott paid a dreadful price for having the courage to stand up and fight for what she knew was right, but her commitment to her principles inspired countless others to defend their rights and paved the way for successive generations of people of color to have an equal opportunity in the film and entertainment industry and beyond.

Howard.mugShot Howard Stone is the founder and artistic director of The Vail Jazz Foundation,   which produces the annual Vail Jazz Festival. Celebrating its 21st year, the Vail Jazz Festival is a summer-long celebration of jazz music, culminating with the Labor Day weekend Vail Jazz Party. Visit vailjazz.org for more information.

 

Was Sinatra a jazz singer?

On July 13, Vail Jazz celebrates the centennial of the birth of Francis Albert Sinatra in a special show entitled “A Swingin’ Affair,” featuring Curtis Stigers and the H2 Big Band. Sinatra, variously known as “The Voice,” “Ol’ Blue Eyes,” “The Chairman of the Board,” “Frankie” and “The Sultan of Swoon,” was by most accounts the greatest entertainer in the history of American pop culture, with a career that spanned more than five decades from the late 1930s to the 1990s. Dropping out of high school with no formal music training, he couldn’t read music, but he went from a teen idol to a living legend. His first hit, “All or Nothing at All,” foretold his future and summed up his philosophy and the arc of his career.

Much has been written about him as a cultural icon and the public has had an insatiable appetite for the salacious details of his personal life and all his exploits, womanizing, connections to the mob, leader of the Rat Pack and much more. It should not be forgotten that he was the winner of nine Grammy Awards, three Academy Awards, a Presidential Medal of Freedom and a Congressional Gold Medal. In addition, he spoke out against anti-Semitism and was involved in the civil rights movement as well as being very philanthropic.

DEFINING JAZZ

Sinatra was no doubt a great pop singer, but I focus here on a simple question: Was he a jazz singer? I’ll answer that with another question: Does it snow in Vail? The unequivocal answer is YES!

Dropping out of high school with no formal music training, he couldn’t read music, but he went from a teen idol to a living legend.

So what is a “jazz singer”? While there is no rigid definition, the hallmark of jazz and therefore a jazz vocalist is to swing and improvise. Swing is hard to define, but according to jazzinamerica.org, a performance swings when it uses “a rhythmically coordinated way … to command a visceral response from the listener (to cause feet to tap and heads to nod).” If you still don’t get what swing is, listen to “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” from “Songs for Swingin’ Lovers,” one of Sinatra’s greatest recorded tunes. If you still don’t get it, I suggest that you focus your listening on polka music!

To improvise in the world of jazz is to compose on the spot. Techniques such as singing behind the beat, accenting words and changing the phrasing (grouping lyrics in a way that is different than the composer wrote them, but suits the vocalist’s sensibility of how the lyrics should be interpreted), altering (and substituting) lyrics, all allow a vocalist to make a song his own. In essence, by using these techniques (not just as techniques, but as a way of communicating with the listener), the vocalist becomes the composer of a new song (based of course on the original one) and if the vocalist can make the listener tap his feet, click his figures or nod his head, you have a jazz vocalist.

Sinatra had swagger, and his half-cocked hat said that he was a jazz musician, but attitude and attire are not enough. He sang and recorded with many jazz greats. His phrasing and music sensibility were admired by great jazz musicians such as Count Basie, Miles Davis and Lester “Prez” Young and many more, but it is not the company you keep or the admirers that you have, but how you sing that determines your bon fides as a jazz singer. He recorded albums with the great Nelson Riddle with titles such as “Swing Easy,” “Songs for Swingin’ Lovers” and “A Swingin’ Affair,” but branding is one thing and really swinging is another.

AN ‘HONEST’ SINGER

Ultimately, you have to be able to deliver the goods and The Chairman of the Board could. Learning early in his career how to sustain long unbroken phrases without pausing to catch his breath allowed him to be adventurous with the phrases of a song. Sinatra listened to the jazz instrumental soloists he admired and used similar phrasing in his performances. Students of Sinatra’s catalog can point to numerous renditions of Cole Porter and Johnny Mercer lyrics that Sinatra “tweaked,” remaking these standards into his own. His diction was impeccable but yet had a conversational quality. It has been said that he had an incredible sense of time which allowed him to alter a phrase so the beat didn’t always coincide with the ending of a rhyme, but created a sense of sincerity making the lyrics more personal and causing the listener to believe the story that was being told. In fact he was quoted as saying: “When I sing, I believe. I’m honest.”

How ‘Gypsy Jazz’ moved from India to France to Vail

Our story begins in northern India more than 1,500 years ago when a small group of Hindi people began migrating from their homeland. Over centuries they made their way through the Balkans to Eastern Europe and ultimately throughout the world. They are the Roma or Romani people, known as Gypsies, a term many feel is used pejoratively against a people who have been persecuted wherever they have settled. Being predominately dark skinned, they have not been welcomed in their host countries and have continuously been on the move with a nomadic lifestyle. Originally thought to have come from Egypt, the term “Gypsy” was derived from the mistaken belief that this was their country of origin, but geneticists using the DNA of the Romani have conclusively traced their origins to the Punjab region of India.

The critically-acclaimed Django Festival All-Stars, who will play at Vail Jazz @ Vail Square on July 2

Blessed with a rich musical tradition, many earned their living by being nomadic entertainers and wherever they took refuge, they greatly influenced the music traditions of their hosts. This outsized impact can be heard in the flamenco music of Spain, derived directly from Romani music. Turkish, Russian and Eastern European music has been greatly influenced by Romani music (e.g., Liszt’s famous “Hungarian Rhapsodies”) and there is now a well-established technique of violin playing known as Gypsy Violin.

Jean Baptiste “Django” Reinhardt, the son of a traveling entertainer, was born in Belgium in 1910 but grew up in France in a Gypsy settlement outside of Paris. Django began to play music at an early age, but his left hand was severely burned in a campfire when he was 18. He overcame the disability by inventing a unique fingering technique on the guitar, and by the ’30s, he was touring internationally, becoming one of the most important jazz guitarists of all time. As a founding member of the Quintette du Hot Club de France, he invented a style of jazz known as “Gypsy Jazz” that has been played for more than 80 years throughout the world. Django could not read music, but that didn’t matter. By using a guitar as a rhythm instrument (the player strums it in a distinctive percussive manner), Django was able to dispense with the drums and was able to combine two guitars (one rhythm and one melody), a violin, an accordion and a bass to create the classic “hot club” sound. With the emphasis on the second and fourth beat of each measure, Gypsy Jazz has a “swinging” toe-tapping feel that never fails to entertain.

The vocal sensation Cyrille Aimée, who will play at Vail Jazz Club Series on July 15 and Vail Jazz @ Vail Square on July 16

Branding is everything today, and in the world of Gypsy Jazz, there is no shortage of “Hot Club” bands here in the U.S. — the Hot Club of Detroit, San Francisco, New York, Los Angeles and even Cowtown, to name a few. In addition, there are many Django festivals in cities throughout the U.S. and Europe, with some straying from the authentic into a more commercialized form of the music, which is sometimes jokingly referred to as “Gadjo Jazz” (Romani for “non-Romani jazz”).

Carrying on the true tradition of Django is the Festival de Jazz Django Reinhardt presented annually in Samois-sur-Seine, France (the town where Django lived at the end of his life — he died tragically of a brain hemorrhage at the age of 43). This lovely town is venerated by the Gypsy Jazz community as being the place where authentic Django music is presented each year. With devotees (listeners and performers alike) from throughout the world descending on this beautiful village not far from Fontainebleau, it becomes the center of Gypsy Jazz for one week each year in late June.

So now you know the part of the story of how a unique music made its way from India to France, but where does Vail fit into the story? This year, Vail Jazz is pleased to celebrate the music of Django in Vail during our 21st annual Vail Jazz Festival by presenting two of the most compelling internationally known interpreters of Gypsy Jazz: The Django Festival All-Stars (6 p.m. July 2 at Vail Jazz at Vail Square in Lionshead); and vocalist Cyrille Aimee (9 p.m. July 15 at Cucina at the Lodge at Vail and at 6 p.m. July 16 at Vail Jazz at Vail Square in Lionshead). The All-Stars are a quintet with classic instrumentation and a commitment to swing hard and faithfully play the music of Django. Aimee is a Vail Jazz Festival favorite who grew up in Samois-sur-Seine and fell in love with Gypsy Jazz as a young girl. She is now entertaining audiences with a wide range of vocal stylings, including Gypsy Jazz, that have propelled her to the top of the world of jazz.