Howard Stone: The Party

When Vail Jazz presents its 25th annual Vail Jazz Party over the Labor Day Weekend, it will continue a Colorado jazz tradition that is 56 years-old and was nurtured right here in Vail. The story begins in 1963 when Dick Gibson, a Denver investment banker, and his wife Maddie, gathered 10 jazz musicians and 200-plus friends to have a party in an Aspen hotel over the three-day Labor Day weekend. Without intending to, they created the first “Jazz Party,” a presentation format that combined jazz musicians and fans in an intimate atmosphere with various combinations of musicians performing in jam sessions all weekend long.

Howard Stone (above: Diego Figueiredo and Jeff Hamilton).

When Dick returned to work after the holiday weekend, the word had spread throughout Denver about his party and people were clamoring for him to present an encore. Dick was friends with Vail locals Marge and Larry Burdick (then owners of The Red Lion) and Billy Whiteford and Bettan Laughlin, Billy’s future wife. Billy was the owner of Casino Vail, the original “nightclub” in the heart of Vail Village. In 1964, they all joined together to successfully present the next edition of what became known as the “Dick Gibson Jazz Party” at Casino Vail.

The annual event was ultimately moved out of the mountains and down to the Front Range and during its 30-year run, the annual Dick Gibson Jazz Party presented all-star lineups that featured some of the greatest jazz musicians in the world. The fame of “The Party” spread. Attendees traveled to Colorado each year from all around the world, causing the demand for tickets to grow dramatically, which outstripped the limited seating capacity at the Party. Therefore, it wasn’t long before other Jazz Parties were organized and by the 1970s, there were as many as 150 annual Jazz Parties throughout the United States. By the 1990s, Jazz Parties were being presented at sea, as the cruise industry began filling their ships with jazz fans.

I was one of the lucky ones that attended many of Dick’s legendary Jazz Parties. After Dick retired, I was inspired to present the first Vail Jazz Party in 1995. Twenty-five years later, the Vail Jazz Party has grown from three days of jazz over the Labor Day Weekend into the Vail Jazz Festival, a summer-long celebration of jazz and the longest summer festival in Vail. When the last note will have been played on Labor Day of this year, Vail Jazz will have presented 100 performances in the Vail Valley as part of its silver anniversary celebration.

For the past 24 years, Vail Jazz has presented innovative educational programs to the children of Eagle County and beyond, as well as professional level training for some of the most dedicated high school jazz musicians in North America. In 2017, in recognition of the positive impact that our programs have had on the tens of thousands of children we have reached, DownBeat magazine bestowed upon Vail Jazz its coveted Jazz Education Achievement Award.

Beginning on Thursday, Aug. 29 and continuing through Labor Day, Sept. 2, Vail Jazz will celebrate the culmination of its 25th season by presenting over 70 musicians and vocalists performing over 40 hours of jazz. Of special note will be the screening (10:30 a.m. Aug. 30) of the documentary film, The Great Rocky Mountain Jazz Party, which captures the magic of Dick’s 1976 Jazz Party. The weekend will be filled with unique shows, including tributes to George Shearing, Ray Brown, Oscar Peterson and The Beatles. Also, Vail Jazz will produce its first ever live recording of the great Brazilian guitarist Diego Figueiredo and friends, plus Wycliffe Gordon will present his acclaimed Nu-Funk Machine Dance Party on Sunday afternoon. In addition, the perennially popular Niki Haris’ Gospel Prayer Meetin’ will be expanded with the addition of the 22-member Mile High Gospel Ensemble and presented at Ford Amphitheater at 10:30 a.m. Sunday.

Don’t miss the opportunity to see and hear some of the greatest musicians in the world performing in Vail over this Labor Day weekend and join with us in celebrating 25 years of world class jazz in Vail. Go here for more information about and tickets to the 2019 Vail Jazz Party.

Howard Stone is the Founder and Artistic Director of Vail Jazz, the presenter of the annual Vail Jazz Festival. This summer Vail Jazz is celebrating its 25th Anniversary Season with performances by internationally renowned artists in multiple venues throughout the Vail Valley. In addition, Vail Jazz presents throughout the year jazz educational programs with a special focus on young musicians and young audiences. Many of Vail Jazz’s performances and educational programs are presented free of charge.

Howard Stone: Afro-Cuban Jazz and Politics

Previously I have written about the differences between Afro-Cuban jazz and American jazz and examined the reasons why the descendants of the same African ancestors, living only 90 miles apart in the New World, created two distinctively different forms of jazz. I concluded that that the outcome was predictable considering that each group’s music evolved in distinctly different cultural environments. Yet a society’s culture does not exist in a vacuum and in most instances, it is the handmaiden of the politics of the realm. Politics have had a lot to do with the shaping of Cuba’s music in the recent past.

Howard Stone (above: Poncho Sanchez).

In the late 19th and early 20th century, musicians (and many others) moved freely between Havana and New Orleans, soaking up the rich musical traditions of their neighbors. The U.S. invasion of Cuba in 1898 at the beginning of the Spanish American War changed the course of Cuban history with the U.S. military occupying Cuba three separate times, ending in 1922. By that time, Havana was the “Vegas” of the Prohibition Era. “Rum, sun, sin and fun” was the mantra of the day and “Latin” music became familiar to many Americans. Many Cuban musicians arrived in New York in the 1930s and 1940s, igniting the mambo and cha-cha dance crazes. At the same time, the rich polyrhythms and unique percussion instruments from Cuba began to influence American jazz, and Afro-Cuban jazz evolved in the 1940s and 50s.

However, things changed course in 1959 as the Cuban Revolution began. Fidel Castro seized power, followed by the Cuban missile crisis and then the U.S. embargo of Cuba. It wasn’t long before the flow of junket-bound tourists from the U.S. looking for a good time in Havana came to an abrupt halt and Vegas took over as the new “sin city” in North America. Neighbors had become enemies and 60 years later this sad state of affairs remains.

The result was that Cuba fell into the waiting arms of the Russians, as Castro was in desperate need of economic assistance. The popular revolution that began with the goal of removing a tyrant led to a new tyrant leading a repressive communist regime. Politics then eclipsed culture in Cuba and anti-Americanism became the credo of the masses. Jazz, the music of the Yankee enemy, was declared anti-revolutionary and no one dared play the music of the imperialist Americans.

As Cuba grew closer to Russia, the ideology of communism began to conflict with the roots of Cuban music. The African rhythmic tradition of native Cuban music, traceable to religious practices, conflicted with the “party line.” Hand drumming, which is at the heart of much Cuban music (conga, bongos), was perceived as primitive and was looked upon as undignified and vulgar. The use of cymbals on a drum set was criticized as being “too American.” Politics overshadowed music. Gonzalo Rubalcaba, the great Cuban jazz pianist who lived in post-revolution Cuba, is quoted as saying, “to play jazz music in Cuba between the ‘60s and the beginning of the ‘80s had the meaning to be playing the music of the enemy.”

Many famous Cuban jazz musicians left the island – Rubalcaba, Arturo Sandoval, Paquito D’Rivera, Bebo Valdés and later his son, Chucho Valdés, to name just a few. But not all Cuban jazz musicians left and many young musicians continued to play jazz surreptitiously. By the late 1970s, the Cuban authorities concluded they couldn’t suppress the music any longer and decided to sponsor an annual jazz festival. Most saw it as a cynical propaganda move by the government to establish its support of the country’s youth, even if it meant they were playing the music of the enemy. Others believed it was a disparate way of bolstering the economy, as jazz fans from throughout the world attended. Whatever the motivation, there has been an annual jazz festival in Havana ever since. However, Cuban musicians must always take into consideration whether their music will potentially offend the government, which controls all aspects of the economy. In addition, the freedom of Cuban and American jazz musicians to travel between the two countries has ebbed and flowed as the political winds have shifted in this country. So unfortunately, when it comes to Afro-Cuban jazz, politics eclipse the music.

This Thursday at 6 p.m. at the Jazz Tent in Lionshead, Vail Jazz will celebrate the great Afro-Cuban jazz tradition by presenting Grammy Award-winning conguero (conga player) Poncho Sanchez and his Latin Jazz Band in a concert that is guaranteed to get everyone up and moving. Get tickets here.

Howard Stone is the Founder and Artistic Director of Vail Jazz, the presenter of the annual Vail Jazz Festival. This summer Vail Jazz is celebrating its 25th Anniversary Season with performances by internationally renowned artists in multiple venues throughout the Vail Valley. In addition, Vail Jazz presents throughout the year jazz educational programs with a special focus on young musicians and young audiences. Many of Vail Jazz’s performances and educational programs are presented free of charge.

Howard Stone: I Did It My Way

The Academy Award-winning documentary film, Twenty Feet from Stardom (2013) explores the careers and lives of a number of rock/pop “backup” singers. These very talented women backed up Bruce Springsteen, Mick Jagger, Sting, Stevie Wonder and other iconic rock/pop performers, but while the public may have known their voices, they were largely anonymous, performing while standing in the shadows, as the spotlight shone brightly on some of the legendary pop vocalists of the 21st century. Their value was their ability to blend and harmonize with the “front person,” enabling the group effort to create an overall sound that propelled the leader to fame and fortune. The film examines the hurdles, some self-imposed, that prevented these great vocalists from solo careers and stardom. There have been, of course, many male backup singers in rock/pop, as well, and many of both gender have gone on to great careers. Cher, Elton John, Luther Vandross, Mariah Carey, Michael McDonald, Sheryl Crow, Whitney Houston, Katy Perry, Pink, Mary J. Blige, Phil Collins and John Legend, to name just a few, all sang backup before becoming huge commercial successes.

Howard Stone (above: Catherine Russell).

What about jazz backup singers transitioning to the limelight? The simple answer is there haven’t been any, because there haven’t been any jazz backup singers. While there have been several instances where members of a jazz vocal ensemble (Lambert, Hendricks & Ross and the Manhattan Transfer come to mind) have vocally supported a solo by one of its members, the jazz vocal tradition relies more on the interaction between the vocalist, who is seen as another one of the instrumentalists, and the remaining members of the band. In jazz, everyone is responsible for the group sound or you are a soloist and everyone else in the band supports you. Scatting, the vocal technique of singing non-sense syllables, is a perfect example of how a jazz singer and the band work together for a group sound. So in jazz there is a totally different approach to the music.

Interestingly enough, there have been only a few rock/pop backup singers that have become top draw jazz vocalists. Catherine Russell and Niki Haris are two of them. Each started out singing backup for legendary pop artists. In the case of Catherine, she spent over two decades singing backup for the who’s who of pop music – Steely Dan, Al Green, Cyndi Lauper, Paul Simon, Jackson Browne, Rosanne Cash, and many others. Catherine toured extensively with David Bowie and is a multi-instrumentalist, not only singing backup, but also playing mandolin, guitar and percussion. It was only as she approached her fifth decade that she decided to take a stab at a solo career, not as a pop vocalist, but as a jazz singer.

Niki Haris began singing pop and R&B music in the early 1980s after college and from 1987 to 2001 she toured the world singing backup for Madonna. During the same period, her vocal work could be heard on the soundtracks of a number of films and she appeared in the documentary film about Madonna, Truth or Dare. She also worked as a choreographer for Madonna and others. By 2003, Niki decided to focus on family life and gave birth to her daughter, and when she returned to work as a vocalist several years later, she began to sing jazz and gospel.

So how is it that these two very successful rock backup singers suddenly discovered jazz and decided that in the later part of their careers they wanted to be a soloist singing jazz? Well, I guess the old proverb, “an apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,” and the lyrics of the Frank Sinatra hit, “My Way,” may explain it. Catherine and Niki have several things in common that I believe led them to jazz. Both are the daughters of jazz greats, but they both chose a career path outside the world of jazz. While their musical journeys may have started with jazz, both established their own identities and didn’t initially follow in the footsteps of their fathers.

In Catherine’s case, her father was Luis Russell, the legendary jazz pianist, bandleader, composer, arranger and long-time music director for Louis Armstrong. In Niki’s case, her father was Gene Harris (Niki uses one “r” in her last name), who was one of the most soulful pianists to ever play jazz, with a career that spanned over four decades.

So now you can see why the metaphor and song lyrics above are so appropriate. The daughters of two jazz greats grow up and develop into remarkably talented vocalists, but the world they grow up in is not the world of their fathers. Instead, they come of age in a world dominated by rock. My view is that as gifted, independent young women, they didn’t want to follow in the footsteps of their famous fathers, but instead, they did it their way.

Catherine Russell makes her Vail debut as part of the 25th Annual Vail Jazz Festival on Aug. 15 at the Jazz Tent in Lionshead (Get tickets HERE). Niki will once again return to Vail to lead the perennial Vail Jazz Party favorite, The Gospel Prayer Meetin,’ which will make its inaugural appearance on the big stage in the Ford Amphitheater on Sunday morning, September 1 (Get tickets HERE).

Howard Stone is the Founder and Artistic Director of Vail Jazz, the presenter of the annual Vail Jazz Festival. This summer Vail Jazz is celebrating its 25th Anniversary Season with performances by internationally renowned artists in multiple venues throughout the Vail Valley. In addition, Vail Jazz presents throughout the year jazz educational programs with a special focus on young musicians and young audiences. Many of Vail Jazz’s performances and educational programs are presented free of charge.

Howard Stone: The Jezebel of Jazz

This year is the centennial of the birth of Anita O’Day (Anita Belle Colton), a daring jazz vocalist who developed her own style and created a vast body of innovative vocals while being tagged “The Jezebel of Jazz,” for her nonconformist ways. At mid-20th century, she was considered to be one of the top female jazz singers along with Ella, Billie and Sarah. In a career spanning seven decades, Anita rode the proverbial elevator of fame to the top, only to descend to the depths of hell on earth on more than one occasion. Somehow, she was always able to rise again.

Raised in an impoverished, broken home in Chicago, Anita left at age 14 in order to make a living competing in the marathon dance contests that were popular during the Depression. At 16, while dancing with a partner, she was asked if she could sing and responded by breaking out in song. The crowd showered her with money … and her destiny was revealed.

Howard Stone (above: Anita O’Day).

Anita returned to Chicago determined to be a singer and adopted her stage name. She sang wherever she could find a gig, developing unique timing and phrasing, mastering scat singing and trying new interpretations of the established repertoire. By 1941, the 21-year-old was hailed as the “New Star of the Year” by DownBeat magazine and joined Gene Krupa’s big band.

Bands weren’t integrated then, but Gene’s band featured the great African-American trumpeter Roy Eldridge. When Anita and Roy performed in a duet, the mixed racial pairing was considered scandalous. However, their “Let Me Off Uptown,” was a hit, making Anita a star. (See the video here)

Other hits followed and for the better part of the 1940s, Anita would sing with prominent big bands, including Woody Herman’s and Stan Kenton’s. This was the big band era and each band had a “girl singer,” conspicuously seated in front of the band, projecting a glamorous image dressed in a strapless gown, while she waited for her turn to perform. Anita rebelled against the stereotype and wore a band jacket and a skirt to show that she was one of the band. Her attire was considered shocking and she was once again judged guilty of outrageous conduct.

By the end of the decade, she left the world of big band singing and went out on her own. She began performing at major venues with many jazz greats, culminating with her appearance at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival. The epitome of cool, flamboyantly attired in a black dress, white gloves and a wide brimmed hat with ostrich feathers, Anita projected a stunning visual appearance that appeared on the covers of national magazines, catapulting her to international fame.

From 1955 to the mid-60s, she recorded 17 LPs that confirmed her reputation as a unique song stylist, using an inventive technique fueled by the freedom to improvise, to sing before and after the beat. She combined a great wit with a fearlessness that led her to places others dared not go. “Given a choice, I wanted to be where the action was,” is the way she explained it. While this approach paid dividends musically, she paid dearly for it in her personal life, as there were failed marriages and affairs, no children and numerous abortions. After her triumph at Newport, the elevator ride up continued a while longer, but the seeds had been sown for a change in direction. Starting in the late 1940s, Anita had begun smoking marijuana and became addicted to heroin. She was jailed for possession and use of both marijuana and heroin on several occasions and regularly abused alcohol. She nearly died from an overdose in 1967, but she quit cold turkey in 1968 and made a miraculous comeback in 1970. She continued to perform and record into the 1990s, but in 1996, she had a terrible accident, suffering life-threatening injuries. Once again, at the age of 80 in 1999, Anita resumed her career, performing sporadically, but died in her sleep at the age of 87 in 2006. Her life story was brilliantly told in her autobiography, High Times, Hard Times, as well as in a compelling documentary film, Anita O’Day: The Life of a Jazz Singer.

It is clear when reflecting on Anita’s life, that well before the #MeToo era, she was an extraordinarily talented, independent woman who was unwilling to be just “the girl singer in the band.” In the process, she inspired many young women jazz singers to do it their way. Veronica Swift, the remarkably talented 25-year-old, is one of the next generation jazz singers inspired by Anita. Veronica possesses perfect pitch, a stylish sense of phrasing and timing and can scat with the best of them. Whether she is interpreting the Great American Songbook or bebop classics, she says “I try not to imitate, but to emulate.” Vail Jazz is pleased to present Veronica Swift and the Emmet Cohen Trio on Aug. 7 in two shows at the Sonnenalp Hotel (Get Sonnenalp tickets here) and at 6 p.m. Aug. 8 in the Jazz Tent in Lionshead (Get tickets here).

Howard Stone is the Founder and Artistic Director of Vail Jazz, the presenter of the annual Vail Jazz Festival. This summer Vail Jazz is celebrating its 25th Anniversary Season with performances by internationally renowned artists in multiple venues throughout the Vail Valley. In addition, Vail Jazz presents throughout the year jazz educational programs with a special focus on young musicians and young audiences. Many of Vail Jazz’s performances and educational programs are presented free of charge.

 

 

 

Howard Stone: New Orleans Piano

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

Howard Stone. (above: Jelly Roll Morton).

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

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

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

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

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

Howard Stone is the Founder and Artistic Director of Vail Jazz, the presenter of the annual Vail Jazz Festival. This summer Vail Jazz is celebrating its 25th Anniversary Season with performances by internationally renowned artists in multiple venues throughout the Vail Valley. In addition, Vail Jazz presents throughout the year jazz educational programs with a special focus on young musicians and young audiences. Many of Vail Jazz’s performances and educational programs are presented free of charge.

Howard Stone: Jazz and The Movies

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

Howard Stone.

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

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

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

Howard Stone is the Founder and Artistic Director of Vail Jazz, the presenter of the annual Vail Jazz Festival. This summer Vail Jazz is celebrating its 25th Anniversary Season with performances by internationally renowned artists in multiple venues throughout the Vail Valley. In addition, Vail Jazz presents throughout the year jazz educational programs with a special focus on young musicians and young audiences. Many of Vail Jazz’s performances and educational programs are presented free of charge.

Preview of the 25th Annual Vail Jazz Festival: Unforgettable

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

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

Howard Stone.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Howard Stone is the Founder and Artistic Director of Vail Jazz, the presenter of the annual Vail Jazz Festival. This summer Vail Jazz is celebrating its 25th Anniversary Season with performances by internationally renowned artists in multiple venues throughout the Vail Valley. In addition, Vail Jazz presents throughout the year jazz educational programs with a special focus on young musicians and young audiences. Many of Vail Jazz’s performances and educational programs are presented free of charge.

Howard Stone: The DNA of Jazz

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

Howard Stone.

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

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

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

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

Howard Stone is the Founder and Artistic Director of Vail Jazz, the presenter of the annual Vail Jazz Festival. This summer Vail Jazz is celebrating its 25th Anniversary Season with performances by internationally renowned artists in multiple venues throughout the Vail Valley. In addition, Vail Jazz presents throughout the year jazz educational programs with a special focus on young musicians and young audiences. Many of Vail Jazz’s performances and educational programs are presented free of charge.

Howard Stone: Jazz and Freedom

With July 4th rapidly approaching, I thought I would write an article about the connection between jazz and Independence Day. While I was inspired by the subject matter, I drew a blank and I was about to give up, when just like fireworks exploding in the sky over Vail Mountain, it came to me. What do jazz and the Fourth have in common? Freedom.

The Declaration of Independence was signed on July 4, 1776 in Philadelphia, but it would take the Revolutionary War and another 27 years before the U.S. would complete the Louisiana Purchase, thereby acquiring what would become the “birthplace” of jazz: New Orleans. And it would be another century until jazz was “born” in the Crescent City, brought into existence by African-American musicians whose grandparents and parents had been freed from slavery only 50 years before. So jazz’s first connection with freedom was a direct result of the Emancipation Proclamation and the Civil War. What followed musically speaking was the creation of a new form of music that has flourished over the next 100 years because of a fundamental difference between jazz and other music – the freedom to improvise and to evolve. Yes, in the world of classical music, a soloist like Mozart could improvise when playing the cadenza to a concerto, but in jazz, everyone gets to improvise. So, just as the colonists had wanted freedom from the tyranny of King George, and just as the slaves had wanted freedom from their slave masters, so too did the early jazz musicians want the freedom to create their own music, and they did.

However, in jazz nothing lasts forever, and by the 1930s, the brass bands and New Orleans style of jazz were toppled by a revolutionary approach to the music. The Swing Era began with big bands playing jazz to dance to and it became the most popular music of the day, rapidly spreading throughout the country. And yet, the story doesn’t end here, because with the freedom to improvise and to innovate, jazz musicians have always been pushing the envelope. By the mid-1940s, a group of musicians led by Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk began to play in a completely different manner that became known as bebop. The groups they played in were no longer big bands, but instead small combos. The structure of the music was much freer with all the musicians allowed to improvise simultaneously. Tempos were generally much faster than in swing music and melody gave way to harmonic complexity and rhythm changes. The music was for listening, not dancing. The Swing Era was over. Long live Bebop! Moreover, in the decades that followed there have been many more revolutions in jazz.

The journalist J.A. Rogers may have summed it up best when he observed, “the true spirit of jazz is a joyous revolt from convention, custom, authority, boredom, even sorrow…” Jazz was a musical revolution that set it apart from other genres of music. The fact that a musician could spontaneously express himself while being a member of a group was a remarkable idea and a technical feat, but also had implications far beyond the music itself.

The great Duke Ellington said it best: “…. jazz is a good barometer of freedom… In its beginnings, the United States of America spawned certain ideals of freedom and independence through which, eventually, jazz was evolved, and the music is so free that many people say it is the only unhampered, unhindered expression of complete freedom yet produced in this country.”

July 4 performances

For a number of years, beginning in 1999, Vail Jazz brought a high school jazz and marching band from Los Angeles to celebrate the Fourth with our community and this year to celebrate our nation’s birth and the 25th anniversary of Vail Jazz, we will once again bring L.A.-based Fernando Pullum and his award-winning jazz band to play in the Vail America’s Day Parade on July 4th and to perform a free concert in Lionshead at 1 p.m. Since this is a very special year for Vail Jazz, we are in a particularly celebratory mood and we will cap our Independence Day celebration by presenting one of Vail’s favorite performers, Marcia Ball, in a show entitled, “Vail Jazz Celebrates the Red, White and the Blues,” at 6 p.m. in the Jazz Tent in Lionshead (Get tickets here).

So, as we all celebrate the birth of our country this Fourth of July and the freedom that has been bestowed upon us, please join us as we enjoy the uniquely American music that is the epitome of freedom: jazz. Happy Fourth of July!

Howard Stone is the Founder and Artistic Director of Vail Jazz, the presenter of the annual Vail Jazz Festival. This summer Vail Jazz is celebrating its 25th Anniversary Season with performances by internationally renowned artists in multiple venues throughout the Vail Valley. In addition, Vail Jazz presents throughout the year jazz educational programs with a special focus on young musicians and young audiences. Many of Vail Jazz’s performances and educational programs are presented free of charge. 

The Night Jazz Became Legit

Historians tell us that many major turning points in history can be traced to a decisive victory in a single military battle; for example, Nelson’s victory in the Battle of Trafalgar. Changes in musical preferences and specific events signaling those changes, while culturally important, certainly do not alter the course of history, although I am sure there are some who feel that Elvis Presley’s 1956 appearance on the Ed Sullivan TV show signaled the decline of the Western World. While the world didn’t really change after that performance, the fortunes of Elvis certainly did.

Howard Stone

The difference between a cataclysmic defeat on a battlefield and a rock performance on TV doesn’t really merit an analysis. However, somewhere between these extremes are events that change peoples’ perceptions and therefore, the course of events thereafter. And so it was that a jazz performance in New York City on Jan. 16, 1938 forever altered the course of jazz history. The location was Carnegie Hall, the Mecca of classical music at that time, and some say the most important concert hall in the world. This was the citadel of high American culture – classical music.

To place the performance in the proper perspective, one has to remember that jazz was considered to be the stepchild of popular music. In the early 1920s, jazz was seen by many as the devil’s music, played by black musicians in bordellos and honky-tonk bars; it was perceived to be vulgar and low-class by the white establishment, but slowly it began making its way into the main stream of American life and culture. By the early 1930s, it had arrived with the Swing Era; young white kids were dancing to the music of the Big Band Era. Americans were beginning to take notice of the music, but no one would dare compare jazz to classical music. Jazz was PLAYED in clubs and in dance halls. Classical music was PERFORMED at concerts.

Today, many would agree that jazz is the American classical music of the 20th Century, but in 1938, to even mention jazz in the same breath as classical music was frowned upon by the purveyors of cultural correctness.

On that fateful night, Benny Goodman (the “King of Swing,” at the height of his popularity), his orchestra and some guests (Count Basie and members of Duke Ellington’s orchestra) made their Carnegie Hall debut. Tickets sold out weeks before the show ($.85 to $2.75) and the show was broadcast live nationally. The performers were racially integrated (not a first by any means, Goodman had hired Teddy Wilson, an African American in 1935), but this was a very important venue for a public display of integration. In the coming years, jazz would go on to continuously shine a light on the sad reality of the separation of the races and by example, establish that the creative process of making music could rise above bigotry.

The result of the concert was astonishing. Jazz was elevated to the upper reaches of American music, acknowledged as an art form that deserved to be given recognition with the improvisational skills and virtuosity of its players to be admired and respected. The performance has now come to be regarded as the single most important public performance of jazz in the history of the music – legitimizing it and celebrating it. It was jazz’s coming out party, not in a club or a dance hall, but at Carnegie Hall. And it was presented as a CONCERT.

Howard Stone is the Founder and Artistic Director of Vail Jazz, the presenter of the annual Vail Jazz Festival each summer and an annual Winter Jazz Series, both of which feature internationally renowned artists. In addition, Vail Jazz presents educational programs throughout the year with a special focus on young musicians and young audiences. Many of Vail Jazz’s performances and educational programs are presented free of charge. This column is readapted from the original archived edition, republished to commemorate Vail Jazz’s 25th Anniversary season in 2019.