At Vail, Stellar Jazz Faculty Fosters Exceptional Young Talent (Downbeat Magazine)

By Paul de Barros for DownBeat Magazine, 9/25/17

“It’s something you hear about a lot,” said Georgia-based pianist Clay Eshleman of the Vail Jazz Workshop, standing beside the white tent in Vail Square, where he and the other 11 Vail Jazz All-Stars had delivered a crisp performance to a cheering crowd. “It is so special to be here.”

Indeed. Eshleman joins the ranks of pianist Robert Glasper, saxophonist Grace Kelly and trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire as an alumnus of a workshop festival that stands out for its superior musical quality, extraordinary level of intimacy—six instructors for 12 students (a pair of sextets)—and for the way students are generously integrated into performances. Student groups played almost every day this year and also sat in at nightly jams with the likes of guest artists Ken Peplowski and Dick Oatts on reeds and Butch Miles and Jeff Hamilton on drums.

The culmination of a weeklong workshop, the Vail Jazz Party runs over Labor Day Weekend (Aug. 31–Sept. 4). Inspired by Colorado’s intimate Gibson’s jazz gatherings of yore, where artists and audience would mix and mingle, the Jazz Party is part of the area’s summer-long Vail Jazz Festival, produced by founder Howard Stone, the recipient of this year’s DownBeat Jazz Education Achievement Award. Performances took place in the grand ballroom of the Vail Marriott and at the outdoor tent in Vail Square, in the area called Lionshead, surrounded by the gigantic, evergreen- and aspen-painted shoulders of the Rocky Mountains, where ski runs serve as a summer magnet for mountain bikers and hikers.

The stellar faculty—workshop leader John Clayton (bass), Lewis Nash (drums) Terell Stafford (trumpet), Jeff Clayton (alto saxophone), Wycliffe Gordon (trombone) and Bill Cunliffe (piano)—served as the party house band and was abetted by guests that included, among others, the captivating Danish vocalist Sinne Eeg and by a quintet of workshop alums that included the remarkable, 22-year-old pianist James Francies.

Francies (thunderous, fearless, outside-the-lines) and  Peplowski (artful, fleet and dulcet-toned) were often at the center of the party’s many musical highlights, which hewed to the mainstream.

On a Sunday session devoted to Latin and Brazilian rhythms, Peplowski and Australian reedist Adrian Cunningham gamboled through a dazzling clarinet-flute duo by Pixinguinha. It was also a pleasure to watch how Peplowski warmly welcomed young Denver-area reed player Chris Ferrari to one of the late-night jams.

Houston native Francies, a 2012 alum who recently signed with Blue Note, took the crowd’s breath away as his cascades of substitute chords and machine-gun runs illuminated Charles Mingus’ “Nostalgia In Times Square.”  Other delights included the outsized organ trio of the diminutive Akiko Tsuruga, powered by Hamilton, who, along with Miles, gave textbook demonstrations in big band drumming as they took turns anchoring Denver’s H2 Big Band in a tribute to Buddy Rich.

The Rich program was accompanied by vivid film excerpts of the drummer, including closeups of his incredible left hand, and concluded with a Q&A in which Hamilton talked about Rich’s extraordinary prowess. This was one of three audience-education programs—others focused on Cole Porter and Mongo Santamaria—that dovetailed nicely with the jazz party’s instructional mission.

It was a privilege to see that mission accomplished in real time. At a debriefing session one morning, Clayton delivered a stirring, no-nonsense sermon to his young charges about how to navigate the jazz life, after which Nash, during a rehearsal of a New Orleans-style medley arranged by Gordon, called out one of the drummers for not giving his all. You can bet that during the performance the next day, everyone on stage was “all in.”

As Clayton said, only semi-facetiously, on stage one afternoon, teachers spent the week putting their “foot on the necks” of the students. It was a grueling workout, and no one seemed to mind.

“Just to hang out all week with these masters gives you an amazing amount of energy,” said drummer Kofi Shepsu, of Richmond, Virginia.

Alexandria, Virginia, trumpeter Geoffrey Gallante, the most musically mature player, agreed that the collective wisdom of the instructors delivered a message of “humility.”

In addition to Gallante, Shepsu, Ferrari and Eshleman, the 2017 class included Seattle bassist Ben Feldman, Brooklyn alto saxophonist Marvin Carter, Israeli-born pianist Ari Chais, New Jersey drummer Peter Glynn, Colorado bassist Anthony Golden, Las Vegas trombonist Zach Guzman Mejia, Brooklyn trumpet James Haddad and Colorado trombonist Sam Keedy.

Make a note of those names. And put the 2018 Vail Jazz Party on your calendar. It’s going to be around a while. A record 3,500 seats were filled this year by the predominantly older crowd, which contributed $87,000 to the festival’s fundraising drive. And don’t be put off by the exclusive-sounding locale. Summer hotel rates are surprisingly low and reasonable restaurants can be found. As student Eshleman said, Vail is a very special occasion. DB

From the 2017 Vail Jazz Party… A fly on the wall

A review of Friday’s performances by Shauna Farnell

The 23rd Annual Vail Jazz Party is off and running, the first two nights of performances thundering forth one barrage of talent and energy after another.

The highlights thus far have twinkled in a blinding array of sparkles too numerous to name.

Among them though, the unblinking, rapt attention of the 12 teenage musical prodigies while watching their mentors – the Vail Jazz Party House Band – perform for the first time, was a spectacle to behold. The teens are mainstays among the packed audiences at the evening and late night Vail Marriott sessions along with majority of nationally acclaimed professional musicians – more than 70 performing throughout the weekend. Many of the artists have been friends for decades and the Vail Jazz Party presents a happy reunion and rare opportunity for musicians to soak up one another’s power when not on stage.

The glow sticks handed out at Adrian Cunningham’s CD Release Party Friday night were a fun touch, as the Australian called upon the audience for a mass color wave at the end of his set, following an amusing lesson in “speaking Australian.” Cunningham’s set featured a lively demonstration of “bluegrass clarinet” in his original tune, “Appalachia,” which was accompanied by some impressive walking bass from the imitable John Clayton as Bill Cunliffe added light flourishes on the piano and Jeff Hamilton kept a steady, lightning fast beat.

Vail Jazz founder Howard Stone brought out a birthday cake for Danish vocalist Sinne Eeg, whose set hypnotized the full crowd with some cleverly shifted lyrics on Cole Porter’s “Anything Goes” and a powerful rendition of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “It Might as Well Be Spring.” She elicited a round of affirmative (and ironic) laughter from the audience in pointing out that “heartache is a gift for a musician.” Indeed.

The fusion of forces was show-stopping as Akiko Tsuruga, Jeff Hamilton, Graham Dechter and Terell Stafford took the stage, each rolling their combined magic into perfectly timed halts to let one another carry the light via solos.

Friday’s evening session, with set after set of powerhouse artists and world-class musicianship,  is just the beginning of a jam-packed weekend. If you haven’t checked it out yet, get to the Jazz Tent at Vail Square for an afternoon session or to the Vail Marriott . The Party goes all weekend.

To purchase tickets to the Vail Jazz Party click here, call 888.VAIL.JAM, or find us on-site at Vail Square in the afternoons and the Vail Marriott in the evenings.

The Singing and Guitar Playing Miracle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The art of the jam session

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The 23rd Annual Vail Jazz Labor Day Party

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

 

Young musical talent is about to be amplified

Meet members of the 2017 Vail Jazz Workshop

Growing up listening to his Caribbean mother’s Calypso music, Marvin Carter knew that music was his calling. The high school senior spends five to six hours a day playing the alto saxophone, and it never feels like a chore.

“It’s a way of life, me playing the saxophone,” says the teenager from Brooklyn, New York, who is one of 12 students selected nationwide from a sea of 150 incredibly qualified applicants for the 2017 Vail Jazz Workshop. “I play as much as I can. It’s something I wake up to do.”

Over the last 22 years, the teenage musical prodigies that comprise the Workshop arrive in Vail with resumes more stacked than most adults at the end of their careers. Carter, for example, began playing the sax in fourth grade and performs with the Performance Music Workshop Big Band, the Jazz at Lincoln Center Youth Band, Arturo O’Farrill’s Fat Cat Band, the LaGuardia New Music Ensemble and the Brooklyn College Big Band.

He is himself an instructor to young musicians and has also taught the occasional adult. Before he was 12 years old, Carter began playing in a community band and met a retired police officer whom he began teaching.

“I was fortunate to meet David Coleman when he was working at perfecting his craft,” Carter says. “I helped him out with rhythms. For my 12th birthday he surprised me and gave me my saxophone that I’m using to this day. He’s still pretty much my best friend.”

Friendships certainly abound from the Vail Jazz Workshop, but first and foremost come the skills that the young musicians often don’t realize they possess. The Workshop hones in on intensive play-by-ear training with a team of award-winning musician mentors – John Clayton, who has led the program since its inception 22 years ago, Jeff Clayton, Bill Cunliffe, Wycliffe Gordon, Terell Stafford and Lewis Nash.

“It’s about balance,” John Clayton says of the Workshop, which has cultivated more than 200 young musicians since its inception, many of whom have gone on to become Grammy winners and successful professional musicians. “The person who can play by ear and read music and understand theory has more choices.”

Chris Ferrari, a tenor sax player in the 2017 Vail Jazz Workshop group, is eager to expand the choices of his repertoire. About to start his junior year at Denver School of the Arts, Ferrari has won multiple Downbeat Student Music Awards and was turned onto Vail after watching his friend, 2016 Vail Jazz Workshop alumni Gabe Rupe perform last year.

“Gabe was always one of those people to blow me away. Just seeing the level of talent that came out of the program, I was like, this is no joke. It’s ridiculous to be able to work with John Clayton and all the mentors with such intensity. There is no doubt it will change your outlook and ability as a musician,” Ferrari says.

Ferrari believes that the most important aspect of performing and particularly of improvising on stage is “creating a beautiful story.”

“A lot of times there’s so much vocabulary, patterns and scales … technical aspects to incorporate into our playing, far too often it gets overplayed,” the teen says.

Ferrari anticipates that the Vail Jazz Workshop will serve as a springboard for a flourishing profession of Lincoln Center and Blue Note performances.

“I think it’s always good to dream big. I’ve always had goals of playing on big stages,” he says. “I’ve been able to see people not much older than me doing that. You have to dedicate yourself. If you’re into music and it’s something you want to do, you should be able to share that with the world.”

In addition to Carter and Ferrari, the 2017 Vail Jazz Workshop is comprised of bass players Ben Feldman from Seattle and Colorado native Anthony Golden. Drummers include Kofi Shepsu from Richmond, VA and Peter Glynn from Maplewood, NJ. Clay Eshleman from Marietta, GA and Ari Chais from Tel Aviv, Israel are the group’s pianists, Geoffrey Gallante from Alexandria, VA and James Haddad from Brooklyn the trumpeters and Zach Guzman Mejia of Las Vegas and Sam Keedy of Greeley on trombone.

 

“On that first day at the Workshop when we get a feel for their level, through the years, our eyebrows go up higher and higher,” John Clayton says. “We look at each other and say, ‘Wow. Not only are they doing stuff we could never do at their age, but they’re doing stuff we can’t even do now.’”

 

Vail Jazz @ Vail Square Aug. 31

To kick off the 2017 Vail Jazz Labor Day Weekend Party, it’s a triple bill grand finale of Vail Jazz @ Vail Square begins at 6 p.m. on Aug. 31 with the Vail Jazz Workshop All-Stars followed by the Vail Jazz Workshop Alumni Quintet (?). The extravaganza wraps up with the mentors themselves, the star-studded Vail Jazz Party House Band – John Clayton, Jeff Clayton, Terell Stafford, Bill Cunliffe, Wycliffe Gordon and Lewis Nash. For tickets, visit vailjazz.org or call 888-VAIL-JAM.

The left hand knows what the right hand is doing

From gigging with his father at age 5 to touring with Miles Davis as a teen, Joey DeFrancesco is maintaining his breakneck pace

This is a story of love at first sight.

From the moment Joey DeFrancesco first laid eyes on the Hammond B3 organ, he had hearts in his pupils.

A Philadelphia native raised in a musical family that included his father, Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Famer John DeFrancesco, Joey remembers those days as a toddler vividly.

“I remember like it just happened,” he says. “My dad was gigging a lot locally. The organ was never in the house. I remember going to a gig and wondering, man, what’s that big box up there making all that noise? Then the organ came home. I remember it moving into the house. I remember turning it on and sitting down. It was an instant love affair. I was 4.”

A year or two later, Joey was joining his father at gigs.

“He was very helpful guiding me along, showing me how to set it up, but he let me do my thing,” Joey says. “I had no pressure at all. My first time playing live, I’d sit in with his bands. There would be a tune and he’d show me a couple chords, but he let me be free. If he thought I wasn’t doing something right, he’d pull my coat. It was my favorite toy. It still is.”

Now at the age of 46, Francesco has 30 albums under his belt and is widely recognized as one of the world’s pre-eminent masters of the B3 organ. He has of course, picked up other skills – and loves – along the way.

“I started tinkering around as a trumpet player as a result of playing with Miles Davis and hearing him play,” DeFrancesco says. “When you hear that sound in front of you one day after another, you get inspired.”

Miles Davis handpicked DeFrancesco to share the stage with him when DeFrancesco was only 17, among the youngest musicians to ever perform with the late, great bandleader.

“It was a TV show in Philly. He heard me on there and he asked for my number. The rest was history,” DeFrancesco says. “It doesn’t feel like that long ago, but it’s 29 years ago and here we are today. When I look back on those things, they’re great. They’re wonderful, great memories, but all that is part of what I’m doing now. The sound of my bands, of the music I write, you just grow and grow and grow.”

DeFrancesco’s latest release, “Project Freedom,” is exemplary of said growth. Featuring soulful covers such as John Lennon’s “Imagine” and Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come,” it’s the record’s jazzy original tracks that truly propel the upbeat theme of togetherness.

“It’s pretty self-explanatory,” he says of the record. “It’s unifying. There’s a song called ‘Unifier,’ but that’s what the whole thing is about … unifying all of us through freedom of music.”

In addition to playing the B3 organ and keyboards throughout the record, DeFrancesco’s trumpet-playing prowess is featured on the song, “One,” and frequently on stage, when every one of his limbs is deftly keeping its own rhythm.

“When you’re playing the organ, you’re basically playing two instruments,” he says. “We don’t have a bass player. I’m playing the bass lines with one foot, then I’m playing single note solos. If my right hand is playing the trumpet, it’s not that different than what my right hand is already doing. Once you’re doing that for a while with your left hand and foot going, luckily they all hit the right notes.”

Even as all of his digits are tirelessly engaged on the organ and/or trumpet and keyboard, DeFrancesco’s head is on a swivel as he performs, most often smiling and laughing with his band mates, drummer Jason Brown, guitarist Dan Wilson and tenor saxophone player Troy Roberts.

“These guys are such wonderful players,” DeFrancesco says. “Everyone has their own music they listen to and bring in to the sound. The camaraderie is great. We have fun, which is really important. On the bandstand, we’re creating. It’s a natural thing to enjoy it. We’re not having fun because we’re entertaining an audience. It’s because we love the sounds we’re making.”

Vail Jazz @ Vail Square: Joey DeFrancesco + The People

Don’t miss two-time Grammy nominee and B3 master Joey DeFrancesco and The People at 6 p.m. Aug. 24 in Vail Square. General admission tickets are $25, preferred seats $40 and premium seats $50. Presented by The Jazz Cruise and Blue Note at Sea, Vail Jazz @ Vail Square takes place every Thursday evening through Aug. 24 in the all-weather Jazz Tent in The Arrabelle courtyard in Lionshead. Drinks are available for purchase.

For tickets or more information call 888-VAIL-JAM or click here:

 

Jimmy and the Beast

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

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

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

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

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

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

It took a while for jazz musicians to embrace the Hammond organ, but several well-known jazzmen began to play it in the 1930s. In the world of jazz organ, there is the Pre-Jimmy era and the Post-Jimmy era. The former was the period before 1955, when “organ jazz” was not that popular … with one exception. Wild Bill Davis, a jazz pianist and organist, began to explore the music possibilities of the B-3. Davis was the bridge and inspiration for James Oscar Smith, a Philadelphian pianist turned organist who burst onto the scene in 1955.  Self-taught, Jimmy explored the myriad possibilities of the B-3 and developed a technical command of the instrument and a musical approach that allowed him to combine gospel, blues and bebop and singlehandedly (actually he used both hands and feet) create a jazz genre that inspired generations of musicians that followed, whether they played jazz, blues, R&B, pop or acid jazz. Known as “God” by jazz organists, Miles Davis called Jimmy “the eighth wonder of the world.” Some called his music “soul jazz” and others called it “grits and gravy,” but it didn’t matter what it was called. It had an unmistakable groove and for the next five decades, Jimmy was the master that tamed the Beast. A true innovator, Jimmy received the NEA Jazz Master Award, the highest honor that an American jazz musician can be bestowed. He was a prolific performer, who played with most of the jazz greats of the last half of the 20th century. When he died in 2005, he left behind an extensive catalog of recordings that are musical treasures.  

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

Grammy winner Eliane Elias lands in Vail this Thursday

Grammy winner Eliane Elias shares song-inspired stories from fans

Eliane Elias has been living out of a suitcase for nearly 40 years. Starting her career as a teenager in her native São Paulo, the Brazilian singer/pianist has been on a trajectory that’s ranged from steadily to steeply upward.

“I work very hard at what I do and I feel blessed when I feel things don’t stay in the same place. They keep getting better,” she says.

With 35 albums under her belt, seven Grammy nominations – including a win in 2015 –and nearly constant Billboard chart-topping status (2017’s “Dance of Time” landed at Billboard No. 1 in not one but two categories – Traditional Jazz and World Music), the world tours have basically been nonstop for Elias since she can remember.

“I was raised in a home where I heard jazz as much as I heard Brazilian,” she says. “The Brazilian music was always all around me – great and eclectic. I was very lucky. My mother loved music so much and was always hip and always informed. I was accepted into music school at age 13. I haven’t stopped since age 17. I don’t know a life without a suitcase.”

Luckily, Elias loves her life with a suitcase … at least the performance part of it.

Every time she’s on stage, her hands are working in a mile-a-minute blur on the piano, yet the rest of her is always dancing. As her twinkling eyes scan the audience, her expression moves from brow-raised passion during the delivery of an emotional line (sometimes in English, sometimes Portuguese) to an enormous smile.

“The performance is the fun part,” she says. “What’s hard is the traveling.”

The Brazilian always makes time to chat with audience members when on tour. Upon  being asked to share some of the most memorable feedback she’s received, she says she’s been blown away by the tales of joy and romance. She’s heard from fans that have named their babies Eliane. Couples have told her about how her music led them to fall in love, get married, conceive children and patch up struggling relationships. She’s had women tell her she’s been with them for decades, accompanying them like a best friend on every long drive. She’s heard from numerous fans about how her songs speak to them directly. But that’s just the beginning.

“About three months ago, I met this man who said he’d had a stroke. He’s in his early 50s – not old – and he was in a coma. He told me his wife was dead and they had teenagers. There was nothing medically that anyone could do. There was a doctor that loved my music and started playing my music for him. Somehow he came back. He was looking at me like I was performing a miracle. He was crying telling me this. Then I ended up crying,” Elias recalls.

The Brazilian shares another recent story she heard from a couple who attended a New York City performance at Birdland Jazz Club. Their son had terminal brain cancer and in spite of all medical likelihood, continues to survive. They told Elias, “what’s keeping my son alive is your music.”

Another fan opened up to the artist about his chronic depression, for which he’d received all kinds of intensive treatment over many years. He told her he eventually found himself  in a state in which it was impossible to feed himself or even to leave his bedroom. Then he began listening to her song, “An Up Dawn.” He took a shower. He went outside. He listened to the song over and over. It literally lifted him out of bed and back into life.

“People feel the music in different ways,” Elias says. “When I heard those testimonies, I took it very seriously. The reaction every time I play for people makes me feel it’s a fantastic mission. I love what I do. It’s for them. It’s for everybody. I’d travel every day of my life for it.”

Vail Jazz @ Vail Square

Grammy-winning pianist and vocalist Eliane Elias performs “Samba Brazil” at 6 p.m. Aug. 17 at Vail Square with bassist Marc Johnson, guitarist Rubens de La Corte and drummer Tiago Michelin and percussionist Marivaldo Dos Santos. General admission tickets are $25, preferred seats $40 and premium seats $50. Presented by The Jazz Cruise and Blue Note at Sea, Vail Jazz @ Vail Square takes place every Thursday evening through Aug. 24 in the all-weather Jazz Tent in The Arrabelle courtyard in Lionshead. Drinks are available for purchase.

Not the Girl from Ipanema

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here comes ¡Cubanismo!

The famed, 14-piece Cuban ensemble performs in Vail this Thursday

Dr. Michael Davison has been to Cuba 40 times. Like Cubanismo frontman Jesús Alemañy, he is a mastermind on the trumpet and has played for decades. Professor of Music and Director of Jazz Ensemble at the University of Richmond, Davison can emulate just about any of history’s trumpet-playing heroes. But there’s something about Alemañy’s style that he simply can’t nail.

“I’ve got a doctorate in trumpet. I’ve been teaching Cuban music for 20, 30 years. It’s the same as if you really study a language. You know from whence something came. You know each rule and inflection. You can speak and understand proficiently. I can hear the Cuban in Jesús. And I can’t play some of that phrasing. If you’re a trumpeter, you just sit back and go, ‘wow,’” Davison says.

Alemañy is the leader of ¡Cubanismo!, a 14-piece Cuban jazz ensemble that has been producing and recording music since 1996, when its first album immediately landed in the top 10 of the worldwide Latin Billboard charts and the ensemble has since gone on to establish a global reputation as one of Cuba’s pre-eminent jazz groups of all time. Davison and members of ¡Cubanismo! will conduct an educational presentation on Cuban jazz during an already sold out Vail Jazz and Vail Symposium partnership workshop in Vail Wednesday evening and ¡Cubanismo! then takes the stage Thursday evening for a blow out Vail Jazz @ Vail Square performance.

Alemañy began playing the trumpet at the age of 11 and by the time he was 15, was performing in the popular carnival parades in his home city of Guanabacoa and then touring the world as a member of Sierra Maestra, another famous Cuban export exemplifying the nation’s notorious Son genre, fusing elements of African and Spanish rhythms.

“Son is the most important music to come out of this hemisphere,” Davison says. “It’s all Cuban. You can trace ragtime, jazz … all the indigenous American music genres to Cuban trade routes and slave rhythms. Cuban instruments are very diverse. The front line is the percussion – the congos, bongos and timbales. The language of jazz comes through the horn players,” Davison says, adding that ¡Cubanismo! is among his favorite bands of all-time and Alemañy perhaps his most beloved trumpeter.

“¡Cubanismo! has the right amount of Cuban sounds. They make it more listenable for contemporary ears. They’ve taken New Orleans tunes and made them Cuban. They have the right combination of that real Cuban sound on the bottom and that real contemporary jazz sound on the top,” he says.

Davison has been working much of his career to explain and convey the wonder that is Cuban jazz.

“The way we listen to music is not the way we should listen to Cuban music. You’ll be confused,” he says. “You won’t know where the beat is. You have a pianist that is a drummer. You have congos that are doing this, ‘duka, duka, duka’ sound. They all interlock. It’s like looking at an impressionist painting and not knowing what you’re looking at. You back up and it makes sense.”

When asked to explain what sets Cuban jazz apart from other forms of the genre, Alemañy says it is the quintessential fusion of numerous musical styles.

“It is knowing the harmonies and melodies of the beginning of Cuban music and being able to combine the freedom of jazz,” he says. “It takes the most important parts of the mambo, the cha cha cha – the solos, arrangements and melodies – and make it into Latin jazz. It becomes contagious.”

Alemañy equates his 44-year relationship with the trumpet to “a way of life.” Playing a few notes upon waking up every morning is as necessary to him as stretching or sipping coffee is to many of us.

“Emotionally, it is my own life,” he says. “Every day getting up and blowing a couple of notes. It is like breathing.”

Vail Jazz @ Vail Square: ¡Cubanismo!

The 14-piece wall of sound that is ¡Cubanismo! perfoms at 6 p.m. Aug. 10 at Vail Square. In addition to bandleader Jesús Alemañy on trumpet, the ensemble features three vocalists – Alina Vila, Evelio Galan and José Gil, guitarist Pablosky Rosalez and bassist Cristobal Verdecia. The percussion section includes Pacha Portuondo on timbales, Aris Montenegro on bongos and Papiosco on congas. The horn section is rounded out by Daniel Ortiz on trombone, Alexis Baro on trumpet, Osmany Collado on saxophone and Jorge Maza on sax and flute. General admission tickets are $25, preferred seats $40 and premium seats $50. Presented by The Jazz Cruise and Blue Note at Sea, Vail Jazz @ Vail Square takes place every Thursday evening through Aug. 24 in the all-weather Jazz Tent in The Arrabelle courtyard in Lionshead. Drinks are available for purchase.

For tickets or more information click here or call 888-VAIL-JAM.