Workshop Welcomes 2019’s Teenage Prodigies

Meet two students training in this week’s intensive 2019 Vail Jazz Workshop

The flight to Colorado to attend the Vail Jazz Workshop marked Natalie Barbieri’s first time on an airplane. However, like all of the young musicians selected for the workshop, the 17-year-old from Long Island, NY, has notched several experiences outside the range of “typical” for most teenagers. For instance, she regularly performs until 4 a.m. at a West Village bar on Monday nights (dragging her parents along, since she’s not 18) in a jam session run by Billy Joel’s former saxophonist. She’s attended Manhattan School of Music’s pre-college program for the last four years, spent the summer with Berklee College’s Women in Jazz Collective and has big plans for her future. Right now it’s the Vail Jazz Workshop, an intensive, week-long learning session featuring 12 of the nation’s top teenage musicians (selected from about 150 applicants). The week of ear-learning and focused improvisation culminates with students performing on stage for the 25th Annual Vail Jazz Party alongside their workshop mentors, Vail Jazz Party House Band pros John Clayton, Dick Oates, Terell Stafford, Lewis Nash, Wycliffe Gordon and Bill Cunliffe.

“I didn’t have much of a chance to travel when I was younger,” Barbieri says. “There’s a lot I want to accomplish. I want to be a performer, I want to release my own music. I want to see the world.”

One of Barbieri’s earliest musical memories was at a family event in which a big band was performing and she climbed on stage to join them.

Natalie Barbieri. ABOVE: Anton Kot – photo by Todd Rosenberg.

“My parents were busy having a conversation and when they turned around, I was dancing on stage with the big band. I don’t know what it was … there was something I was drawn to,” the teenager recalls.

Growing up with a music teacher mother, it wasn’t much longer before Barbieri, at barely 3 years old, sat down at the piano.

“I came and sat down at my mom’s piano and I started figuring it out … one note and then two,” she says. “Then my mom called my father and said, ‘we have a problem … because she’s playing ‘Brick House.’”

Learning by ear from this tender age, it wasn’t until Barbieri was about 13 that she took up the alto saxophone after also learning the clarinet and focusing on classical music. It was the sax that allowed her to truly connect the music with her emotions.

“With jazz and saxophone, I could put my own feeling into it,” she says. “I think it was the spontaneity of it, the fact that people could put their emotions in it and create something on the spot.”

Now when Barbieri plays, whether it’s on stage performing or practicing at home – glancing at the clock to see that it’s 1 p.m. and glancing back what feels like moments later to see that it’s somehow 6 p.m. – she gets lost in the feeling of it.

“It’s hard for me to explain for people who haven’t seen me play. When I’m performing, I go someplace else,” she says. “My mother tries to record me, but I hate watching myself on the playback. You can see that I’m somewhere else. It’s very spiritual sounding … but I close my eyes and leave my body.”

Growing up in Brooklyn, Anton Kot also began developing his innate passion and talent for music at an incredibly young age … specifically, in his high chair as a baby. He was drawn, quite literally, to a different beat.

“I repeated two notes when hungry as an infant and extended those notes as a way of helping myself go to sleep,” he says, adding that he has photos of himself playing chopsticks in a family favorite Asian restaurant as a 1-year-old. “I played anything in sight…bread loaves, tin cans and cellar doors. I could mimic sounds so closely that they confused people in the subway. I was able to re-present the sounds of the L Train moving, yet it was standing still. I have always been very drawn to sound.”

As a child, this tractor beam pulled Kot into musical experiences all around New York City. Latin artist Louie Miranda noticed a 4-year-old Kot drumming along in the audience at a botanical garden performance and called him up to the stage. Kot continued to perform with Miranda’s band for thousands of people around the city throughout his childhood. He’d also attend Brazilian percussion performances in local parks, build instruments with artist Ken Butler at his SOHO studio, stop for Peruvian panpipe and plastic bucket drum performances in the subways. Eventually, Kot and his family moved to Connecticut, where the young musician joined the Neighborhood Music School in New Haven, studying with Jesse Hameen II, Rina Kinber and Istvan B’Racz. In sixth grade, he joined Thelonious Monk III on stage at Woolsey Hall.

Today, at age 17, he attends Manhattan School of Music and not a second of his waking life –and not many when asleep – go by when he’s not working out a beat.

“I will awake and play the piano before going to school. If I am late, it may be because I needed to record some new ideas that happened in my sleep,” he says. “Sometimes I awake in the middle of the night and will record something new.”

He uses the hour and a half-long drive to Manhattan School of Music to do homework. He does the same on the way home, unless he’s practicing something he learned that day. Some evenings, he plays gigs around the city. Others, he travels to Wesleyan University to participate in the Advanced Gamelan Ensemble. On Sundays, he returns to NYC to practice in an ensemble at Jazz at Lincoln Center. On Mondays, he plays a gig at Dizzy’s Club. He comes to Vail on the heels of a jazz tour in Asia with famed trumpeter Sean Jones and Grammy winner Kurt Elling and sharing the stage at Carnegie Hall with Vail Jazz favorite Wycliffe Gordon.

Studying under Gordon and the other ace instructors at the Vail Jazz Workshop, Kot hopes to learn something new and ultimately, to impart something himself down the line to young musicians and audiences everywhere.

“I would like for my music to be useful to others in positive ways,” he says. “I like the idea of offering something that can reduce the stress of people’s daily responsibilities, to take people out of this pattern of habit and let go and enjoy themselves. I have a true sense of myself when playing. When performing, I can feel that no one can disturb me. I am in a place that is inside-out. At the same time, I always depend on the environment, the space, the people in the audience, the bass player, the pianist, the horn section and so-on. I love when everyone is making a connection, and the moment when you can feel that connection taking place.”

In addition to Anton Kot on drums and Natalie Barbieri on alto sax, the 2019 Vail Jazz Workshop features teenage musical prodigies Ethan Avery and Max Nierlich on trumpet, Joey Ranieri and Gavin Gray on bass, Seth Finch and Vittorio Stropoli on piano, Jett Lim and Benny Conn on trombone, Miguel Russell on drums and Nico Colucci on tenor saxophone.

Vail Jazz All-Stars Aug. 29 at Vail Square

Catch the Vail Jazz Workshop students after their transformation into the Vail Jazz All-Stars, kicking off the 25th Annual Vail Jazz Party and a triple header performance beginning at 6 p.m. Aug. 29 at the all-weather Jazz Tent at Vail Square in Lionshead. Their performance will be followed by workshop graduates turned professionals, the Vail Jazz Alumni Quintet and then the masters themselves, the Vail Jazz Party House Band: John Clayton on bass, Dick Oates on alto sax, Bill Cunliffe on piano, Lewis Nash on drums, Terell Stafford on trumpet and Wycliffe Gordon on trombone. Tickets are $55.

The Gospel of Gospel: Embracing the Good

Niki Haris’ Vail Jazz Party performance is all about finding one’s goodness

Those unversed in gospel music might view it as a purely Christian genre … a style of music geared toward praising the lord and clapping for Jesus. But really, gospel is a music that speaks to everyone, regardless of religion, faith or belief system. Witnessing a performance like Niki Haris’ Gospel Prayer Meetin’ delivers an individual experience for each person, an experience that involves tapping into one’s deepest, glowing core.

“Everybody has a spirit and that’s what gospel speaks to, the individual spirit … the goodness of an individual,” says Denver KUVO radio’s “Gospel Train” presenter Deborah Walker, who also hosts Niki Haris’ Vail performance, which takes place Sept. 1 at Gerald Ford Amphitheater as part of the 25th Anniversary edition of the Vail Jazz Party.

“Some people don’t call it God or Jesus. It’s that individual goodness you’re speaking to,” Walker says. “The music is bringing them into the oneness of what that goodness is.”

Haris herself refers to this simply as “the light.”

“That’s what’s so great about [the Vail Jazz Party gospel performance]. It’s the one moment when people let their guard down and open their arms up. People might say, ‘I’m Jewish.’ They might say, ‘I don’t go to church.’ I say, whatever gets you to the light,” Haris says.

Haris has long been a favorite among Vail Jazz audiences. Her Gospel Prayer Meetin’ is typically the first performance to sell out every Labor Day weekend, hence its transfer this year to the big stage at Ford Amphitheater.

A back-up vocalist for Madonna for a number of years, Haris’ 15-year solo career has brought her to still more global stages and her recordings, ranging in genre from gospel to pop, R&B to funk, have topped Billboard charts.

“I’m really lucky after doing the celebrity, award-driven pop show stuff, I get to go all over the world and reach people in a deep place,” Haris says. “I get to go to India, Cambodia, Vietnam and do concerts to build non-violent centers. I get to do music that tends to change people ‘s lives in a way that’s more than just coming to a concert. My music is not just soulful, it’s soul-filled.”

Walker, whose mother was a gospel singer and who herself sang in a church choir, has lived and breathe various forms of gospel music all of her life. Of all the performances she’s hosted or witnessed, she says that Haris possesses a unique ability to reach audiences on an individual level.

“It’s her ability to be who she is and connect with the audience. She gives so much of herself,” Walker says. “I’m not saying that other artists don’t do that, but the way she connects is special. She’s not preach-y. She’s not church-y. She’s spirit-filled. She’s speaking to individual people. Even though they might not go to church, their beliefs might be different, everybody loves that good-feel music. Everybody loves to feel good. That’s what Niki brings. That’s what gospel Sunday does. It gives you that feel good spirit.”

Walker says that every year she’s hosted Haris’ Vail show, before the singer steps on stage, she collects all of her band members, which includes a musical army of the Mile Hi Gospel Choir plus nine of the Vail Jazz Party’s top musicians, into a huddle.

“I could be out there talking, talking, talking and they will be back there in a unity of oneness, of prayer, bringing it all together,” Walker says. “Niki always has that moment of holding hands, uniting the musicians together. I think a lot of artists do that. That’s what I was saying … about what gospel is. They might perform or perfect their performance in other genres of music – jazz or R & B – but when they were developing, when they first knew they had talent, it’s because they were able to tap into their inner spirit.”

In general terms, gospel can be described as musicians tapping into this spirit and sendig it outward. The experience, according to Haris, is one of both shining and absorbing light.

“It’s so important that everyone be in their own light. People forget they have a light. If we can tap into our light, we can change the world,” Haris says. “If someone wants to be in the light, they’re welcome it. If they don’t want to be in my light, they’d better put some sunglasses on.”

Sept. 1 Niki Haris’ Gospel Prayer Meetin’

Join vocalist Niki Haris, The Mile Hi Gospel Choir and a cast of top Vail Jazz Party musicians at 10:30 a.m. Sunday, Sept. 1 at Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater for a stomping, clapping, feel-good live music experience. Tickets start at $50 ($5 for students and audience members 18 years and younger).

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.

Not-To-Miss Vail Jazz Party Shows For All Music Fans

As usual, the Vail summer is flying by at mach speed, but the season’s crowning event – the Vail Jazz Party over Labor Day weekend – is geared up to be summer’s grand finale like never before.

Celebrating its 25th anniversary, the 2019 Vail Jazz Party is pulling out all of the stops and you don’t have to be a staunch jazz fan to catch a dose of the thrill ride. There are only a handful of such parties across the globe, in which a collection of the world’s most acclaimed jazz artists descend on the same place for several days of multimedia performances and one-of-a-kind jam sessions that will never again be recreated.

Because the blowout event is comprised of more than 45 hours of performances over five days, picking and choosing which shows to hit can be challenging. If you are new to the party or not necessarily a jazz connoisseur, there are plenty of performances that appeal to a broad audience and will be sure to blow your hair back no matter what kind of music you love. Here are five to consider:

  • A tribute to Ray Brown –1 p.m. Friday, Aug. 30

Growing up in Pittsburgh in the 1930s, Ray Brown was barely a teenager when his fast-fingered, unique ability to play the upright bass put him on the national radar. He moved to New York City, joined the famous Dizzy Gillespie band, became a Grammy Award-winning composer and Downbeat Jazz Hall of Famer and is recognized as one of the most skilled bass players of all time. Brown’s talent and style can be appreciated by anyone who revels in a deep, bouncing bass line. Starring in this performance is a trio of famed musicians who actually performed and/or recorded with Brown before his death in 2002 – Vail Jazz Party House Band leader, fellow bass player and Grammy winner John Clayton, drummer Jeff Hamilton and pianist Larry Fuller.

  • Jazz & The Struggle for Freedom – 8:10 p.m. Friday, Aug. 30

Led by Byron Stripling, one of the world’s most recognizable trumpet players (he’s starred in Broadway musicals and produced theme songs for numerous TV shows and movies), this performance highlights the connection of jazz music to the Civil Rights Movement. During a time when racial inequality ruled the day, a handful of black Americans were gaining national and even global popularity as jazz musicians, becoming major influencers of pop culture, pop music and turning the tide for all black Americans.

  • The Jazzy Side of The Beatles – 9:35 p.m. Friday, Aug. 30

Nobody would promptly classify The Beatles as jazz music, but the crossover is stronger than you’d think. As it turns out, the styles of the best-selling band in history found its way under countless musical umbrellas. Jazz great Count Basie had a hey day with Beatles tunes such as “Hey Jude” and “Come Together,” and famed jazz pianist Herbie Hancock won a Grammy for his studio album The Imagine Project, in which he collaborated with artists such as P!NK and Seal in a cover of The Beatles’ “Imagine.” Vail Jazz House Band pianist Bill Cunliffe joins famed Aussie bassist Nicki Parrott and drummer Ernie Adams to show you just how jazzy The Beatles can be.

  •   Niki Haris’ Gospel Prayer Meetin’: 10 a.m. Sunday, Sept. 1

This performance is the first Vail Jazz Party event to sell out year after year, but this year, it’s moving to the wide open confines of the Gerald Ford Amphitheater. Starring soulful, soaring, charismatic vocalist Niki Haris, who performed for many years with Madonna, along with the Mile Hi Gospel Choir and nine A-list soloists, the big stage will be a party of dance-inducing, hand-clapping harmony. The audience is guaranteed to get swept up in the communal, gleeful surge of good vibes.

  •  Wycliffe Gordon’s Nu-Funk Machine Dance Party: 4:30 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 1

Clear out the chairs, people. You’re going to need space. Possibly the world’s most talented trombonist, Wycliffe Gordon would be the first to point out that the first three letters of funk spell F-U-N. The Vail Jazz Party House Band veteran is famous for getting crowds on their feet and believes that the foundation for any good time is for those both on and off the stage to “join us in the groove.” Joy will be shared all around.

2019 Vail Jazz Party Aug. 29 – Sept. 2

The 25th Annual Vail Jazz Party takes place Aug. 29 to Sept. 2. Tickets are available for individual sessions (starting at $25) HERE as well as party passes for five days of performances (starting at $375) HERE.

Following The Beat of The Conga …

Poncho Sanchez recounts his decorative path of pounding rawhide

Growing up with 10 siblings in a Mexican-American family in Los Angeles, Poncho Sanchez had to work for everything he got starting from a young age. Music drew him from the time he was a small child, but percussion was not his first calling.

Sanchez, the youngest of 11 children, recalls admiring a neighbor’s shiny Fender guitar and his prowess when practicing in a Motown band, which was fairly new at the time.

“He’d let me touch the guitar but not too much because I was just the kid across the street. He sold me a little Spanish guitar with three strings for $.50. I got that and started plucking on it. I went to join a neighborhood band. Long story short, they said, ‘we don’t need a guitar player. We need a singer.’ I didn’t think I was a singer.”

But the young Sanchez surprised everyone … including himself.

“I think I sang a James Brown song. I started dancing around like James Brown. When the song was over, they said, ‘wow, you can sing and you can really move.’”

Fast forward more than 50 years, and Sanchez is still doing exactly that … as well as inspiring audiences all over the world to get up and get themselves moving.

Sanchez can thank his seven sisters for the dance moves. He and his siblings listened to late 1950s mamba and cha cha cha records incessantly as children, but while his sisters danced around the house, Sanchez would stare at the album covers and hone in on the deep rhythms of the songs.

“What attracted me to Latin percussion is the sound of the drum itself,” he says. “It was the flavor of them, or, as we say in Spanish, el sabor. I felt it, the rhythm, the flavor, the ‘unk-cha, chik-ah, chi-ka.” My sisters would dance and I would hear their feet shuffling on the floor. I’ve loved it as far back as I can remember.”

It wasn’t until high school that Sanchez landed his first conga drum, a pawnshop gift from his father. None of his friends or neighbors could guide him in Latin jazz, so he paved his own percussion sound with the help of multi-instrumentalist Cal Tjader, considered by many to be the king of Latin and acid jazz.

“I learned the trade of how to be a front man in a band. But all this time, I always liked the conga and the timbales,” he says. “I went home, put Cal Tjader’s records on and started to play. The sound of the instrument when I laid my hand down and learned how to slap it, felt right to me. It felt good on my hands.”

Sanchez led several local bands throughout his youth in Los Angeles. Then in 1975, Cal Tjader himself invited Sanchez on stage to perform with his band. The famed musician was so taken with Sanchez that he made him the official conguero in his band until Tjader passed away in 1982. Sanchez went on to take his fiery, gritty, danceable beats to front and center, producing nearly two dozen albums and winning a Grammy award.

Leading a nine-piece ensemble, Poncho Sanchez brings his sizzling salsa, soulful vocals and maybe a few dance moves, back to Vail.

“What can we tell people who come to the show? We’ll be playing lots of Latin jazz, salsa and a little Latin soul. They’re guaranteed to have a good time,” Sanchez says.

Poncho Sanchez at Vail Jazz @ Vail Square – Aug. 22

Latin jazz and salsa leader Poncho Sanchez and his nine-piece ensemble perform at the Jazz Tent at Lionshead’s Vail Square at 6 p.m. on Thursday, Aug. 22. Tickets are $25 for general admission, $40 for preferred seat and $50 for premium seat. Beer, wine and cocktails are available for purchase. Get tickets HERE.

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.

7 Questions With Catherine Russell

The chart-topping vocalist opens up about musical childhood and singing in the car

Catherine Russell was born with music in her genes. Her father was Louis Armstrong’s long-time collaborator and her mother was a Juilliard-educated member of the storied International Sweethearts of Rhythm, the first integrated, all-female band in the U.S.

Photo by Sandrine Lee.

Growing up in New York City, Russell has always associated music with “fun.” She was David Bowie’s go-to vocalist and has performed and/or shared the stage with Steely Dan, Paul Simon, Wynton Marsalis, Jackson Browne, Cyndi Lauper and Roseanne Cash, to name just a few. She launched her solo career 15 years ago and has been soaring ever since, recording seven albums as bandleader, including Grammy-nominated Harlem on My Mind for Best Vocal Jazz Album. Her rich, hypnotizing vocals landed her a Grammy for her work on the soundtrack of the HBO Series Boardwalk Empire, and a number of her emotional interpretations of tunes dating from the 1920s to today have topped the Billboard charts. Before her much-anticipated local debut on Aug. 15, Russell took a few moments to answer some questions with Vail Jazz.

 1. Vail Jazz: What specific characteristics do you believe you inherited from your mother and father?

Catherine Russell: Both my parents were leaders. They were both very organized and cared very much about their personal appearance. They always looked good. They knew how to take care of business as well as music. Whatever they did, they did 100 percent. My mother, Carline Ray, taught me about being punctual, prepared and confident. My father, Luis Russell, made recordings that were always fun to listen to, and I model my recordings after his.

2. VJ:  As a child, how did you fall in love with music?

CR: I listened to my dad’s recordings, which were always fun to hear, because the musicians sounded like they were having fun. We had a radio in the kitchen, so every morning my mother and I listened to the “Make-Believe Ballroom,” where I heard everyone from Frank Sinatra to Louis Armstrong … all the hits of that time. The first year I remember what I heard was 1959, and Bobby Darin comes to mind. We listened to jazz station WLIB, where I first heard Herbie Hancock. We also listened to a lot of classical music and opera on the radio, because my mother knew a lot about both. So I fell in love with Ravel and Bach, as well as the wonderful German lyric baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau.

3. VJ: What are your earliest memories of singing and playing instruments?

CR: I used to harmonize to the national anthem when we sang it in school at the start of the day. And I used to figure songs out by ear and play them simply on the piano at home. We had several instruments in the house, including my grandfather’s violin and mandolin, so later on, I started fooling around on his mandolin, playing simple songs with a few chords.

4. VJ: Your interpretations of classics and standards are so rife with emotion. How do you go about selecting tunes?

CR: First, I need to be able to sing every lyric. Does the tune speak personally to me, so I can live through it every time I sing it? Nice chord changes will draw me to a tune. If it’s a blues tune with just a few chord changes, will it be fun to sing and play for the band? I like tunes that swing and ballads that ask questions about life, old blues from the 1920s as well as R&B from the 1940s and 50s.

5. VJ: What have been some of the most memorable moments sharing the stage with artists like Wynton Marsalis, David Bowie and Cyndi Lauper?

CR: Well first of all, it’s inspiring just to be on stage with iconic musicians. I can’t believe I get to do that time after time … no pun intended. Every night when David Bowie would sing “Ziggy Stardust,” I was transported, because the songs on the Ziggy Stardust album were some of my favorites as a teenager.

6. VJ: How do you hone the versatility of your vocal chords? Do you sing in the shower? The car?

CR: I have two voice teachers and I combine some of their exercises for my warm-up. The voice changes every day according to how much sleep I’ve gotten, whether I’ve traveled, etc., so I have certain exercises I do all the time and others that are specific to whatever may need more work from day to day. Sometimes I sing in the car … usually if I’m traveling and that’s the only place I have to warm up. When I get to sing in concert halls, the dressing rooms are made for musicians to practice. If we are in a club with no separate dressing room, then I’ll find a place away from everyone else to do a final warm-up before the show. Mostly I’m vocalizing in hotel rooms …my poor neighbors! I try to practice in the mid-afternoon when people may be out for the day.

7. VJ: What have been your most rewarding moments during or after a performance?

CR: Well I have to say, performers like applause. Applause means that the audience is having a good time, so that makes us feel good. I like to see people smiling during songs. Sometimes a few couples will get up and dance to a swing song. After a show when I meet people, I like meeting younger people who might be hearing the songs – and the artists’ names who originally recorded them – for the first time. I also like meeting older people who have memories attached to the songs that they share with me. I’m grateful that with all the ways people have to spend their days or evenings, they would choose to come to hear us.

Aug. 15: Vail Jazz @ Vail Square with Catherine Russell

Catherine Russell performs with Mark Shane on piano, Matt Munisteri on guitar and Tal Rohen on bass at 6 p.m. on Aug. 15 in the all-weather jazz tent at Vail Square in Lionshead. Tickets are $25 for general admission, $40 for preferred seat and $50 for premium seat. Beer, wine and cocktails are available for purchase. Get tickets here.

 

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.

Veronica Swift and Emmet Cohen Return to Vail

Young jazz stars bring spontaneity and exploration to musical storytelling

If you think it’s an exaggeration to say that a talented singer’s vocal chords can do acrobatics, you have not heard Veronica Swift. Yet, the 25-year-old rising jazz star does not describe herself as a vocal acrobat. She doesn’t even refer to herself as a singer or a musician.

“What am I? I’m a storyteller,” she says. “A jazz singer is a storyteller. I aim to put the music and lyrics in perfect marriage. I have to sing lyrics that will apply to a large range of ages and races. That’s what jazz does.”

Hailing from Charlottesville, VA and now residing in New York City, Swift returns to Vail with the Emmet Cohen Trio just before the release of her Mack Avenue Records debut album, Confessions, on which she belts forth creative interpretations of obscure gems (eg:“Gypsy in My Soul” ) with the accompaniment of the Emmet Cohen Trio as well as the acclaimed Benny Green Trio.

In her young career, Swift’s vocal skills have also landed her gigs as a featured vocalist with the likes of Wynton Marsalis, Chris Botti and Michael Feinstein. Inspired by singers and strong musical personalities ranging from Anita O’Day to Lady Gaga and Marilyn Manson, Swift’s earliest influences were her talented parents.

An only child, Swift began performing with her father, the late jazz pianist Hod O’Brien, and her mother, singer Stephanie Nakasian, before she reached double digits. Playing the piano and the trumpet from a young age, music has always been second nature to Swift.

“My first serious instrument was trumpet. I was playing trumpet before I was singing jazz. I played the piano. I marched drum corps. I was always. I played in the all-state orchestra. There wasn’t ever a certain sense of duty,” Swift says. “I was always surrounded by some of the greatest legends of jazz, getting bootleg recordings, here in this environment. It wasn’t until I guess, high school, even though I’d been touring already at that point, where I felt a purpose. Until then, it was more like speaking a language, like speaking English … something I did without thinking.”

By the time she was 10, Swift was recording with and sharing the stage with saxophonist Richie Cole and at age 11, landing a spot in the Women in Jazz series at Lincoln Center.

She attended the Frost School of Music at the University of Miami and then landed second place in the prestigious Thelonious Monk Jazz Competition. Gaining quick traction in the jazz world, Swift has also dabbled in opera and theater … which brings us back to her aforementioned identity as a storyteller above all else.

For her, expanding her musical repertoire is the same as a poet expanding her lexicon.

“The more songs you know, the more vocabulary you have. I’m always learning songs and listening,” she says. “When I’m picking tunes, I’m always asking, ‘does this make sense with the story?’ I have a concept for every show. The story has to make sense. I like to mix it up between American Songbook and obscure tunes. It’s the lyrics that draw me in. It’s like poetry.”

Swift refers to the Emmet Cohen Trio, which is comprised of Emmet Cohen on piano, Russell Hall on bass and Kyle Poole on drums, as “the best young musicians on the scene today,” rife with elegance, sophistication and most importantly, spontaneity.

“People will say to us, ‘oh you’re born in the wrong era.’ We are the culmination of our ancestors and our peers. We are constantly learning from each other. They’re all such creative people and it’s inspiring to constantly be moving forward together,” Swift says.

Cohen, who returns to Vail on the heels of winning the prestigious Cole Porter Fellowship from the American Pianists Association, describes his trio’s role in the storytelling as “explorative.”

“We follow the energy of the room, that’s part of the magic of our presentation,” Cohen says. “We play in the style of all of our favorite bands, spanning a hundred years of jazz, from Jelly Roll, Fats Waller, Duke Ellington, to beboppers and some of our favorite, modern composers. We’ve taken a lot from the history of jazz and our own take on the way our music can be presented.”

Veronica Swift and the Emmet Cohen Trio

Vail Jazz Club Series

Aug. 7

Soaring vocalist Veronica Swift and The Emmet Cohen Trio (Emmet Cohen on piano, Russell Hall on bass and Kyle Poole on drums) deliver a pair of intimate solo performances at The Sonnenalp’s Ludwig’s Terrace on Wednesday, Aug. 7. Doors for the first seating open at 5 p.m. with performance beginning at 5:30 (get tickets here). Doors for the second seating are at 7:30 p.m. with music starting at 8 p.m. (get tickets here). Tickets at $40. Full dinner service is available, not included in ticket cost and a $30 per person food or beverage minimum applies.

 

Vail Jazz @ Vail Square

Aug. 8

Veronica Swift and the Emmet Cohen Trio take their musical stories up a few octaves at the Jazz Tent at Lionshead’s Vail Square at 6 p.m. on Thursday, Aug. 8. Tickets are $25 for general admission, $40 for preferred seat and $50 for premium seat. Beer, wine and cocktails are available for purchase. GET TICKETS HERE.

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.