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.

Chief of the Congueros

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy Birthday, Mongo!

The Jazz Singer as a Storyteller

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

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

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

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

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

Them that’s got shall get

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

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

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

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

 

‘It’s not the where; it’s the what’

Jazz vocalist recounts belated arrival into career destiny

René Marie’s very first memory is a musical one. But unlike so many musicians – jazz musicians in particular – her professional career did not begin soon thereafter.

Before the Virginia native was a Grammy-nominated singer, she was a wife; married at age 18. Then she was a mother, a janitor, a McDonald’s employee, a grocery store clerk and a banker.

Her musical career did not begin until the tender age of 42.

“I swear it’s not lost on me … any of that experience,” she says. “I used to think it was a liability that I didn’t start earlier. But the longer I continue to sing, I think of it as an asset.”

About that first memory … Marie recalls when she was around 3 years old and her dad was listening to Maurice Ravel’s “Boléro” in the living room.

“My dad loved music. He sang in the chorus at his college – Virginia State. He played all kinds of music in the house – classical, calypso, folk, bluegrass, opera … he would just burst out into song all the time. But as he was playing ‘Boléro’ he was acting out the role of this African hunter. He picked up a broom handle and made like he was throwing it at his prey. He was, without saying a word, showing me how music tells a story.”

Growing up as well as raising her own children, Marie was inclined to frequently burst into song herself. She sang in an R & B band as a teen (where she met her first husband) but most of her singing took place in the privacy of her home. Then, more than 20 years ago as she held a steady job at a bank, her son (Michael Croan, now a successful singer himself) sat her down and insisted she had what it takes to become a professional singer.

“He called me from a restaurant and said, ‘mom, I’m listening to this female jazz vocalist. She’s singing all the songs you sing, mom. And she’s terrible. You have to come and hear her.’ I dropped what I was doing, drove to the restaurant and listened to her singing the songs I sang around the house. I said, ‘I can’t believe she’s getting paid for this,’” Marie recalls. “I think she was bored with the songs, bored with the music. I thought it was a travesty, these beautiful jazz standards and people in the restaurant  talking over top of her, not listening at all. My son said, ‘you could be doing that, mom. And people would be listening.’”

Marie began singing with a friend’s group a couple nights a week at the local Ramada Inn, playing for tips that the band split six ways. The night-time performances were getting tiring following a full work day, however. Marie’s brother talked her into quitting her job.

“I was just getting established financially. But my brother kept saying, ‘jump.’ He said, ‘jump and the net will appear.’ So I did it. I turned in my two-week notice. The people at the bank who knew I was singing thought I’d gotten a record label contract, thought I was going on tour. But when I quit my job, I didn’t have any musical financial prospects.”

But “sure enough,” a net did appear. Marie got a call from a theater in Richmond that had an immediate vacancy for a singer.

“They had scraped the bottom of the barrel looking for someone who could come in right away. I had no problem with being at the bottom of the barrel,” Marie says.

The vocalist did not stay at the bottom for long. She was placed in the title role of the theater’s world premiere of “Ella and Her Fella, Frank,” and signed onto the MaxJazz label, producing her first CD, Renaissance, in 1999. As her musical career began to skyrocket, however, she encountered push back from her first husband (now referred to as “was-been”). It was push back of the vocal, emotional and physical variety. She filed for divorce.

Over the years Marie has documented both her struggles and triumphs in her songwriting, which to date has led to 13 albums, world tours and numerous awards, including a second Jazz Vocal Grammy nomination for 2016’s Sound of Red, Marie’s first album of all original songs.

“I do believe that I was meant to sing,” she says. “Music is my primary language. I’ve been to wonderful places. I have a wonderful husband now. I’m doing exactly what I’m supposed to be doing. I do have to say this. The enjoyment I get from singing, recording and traveling is not any greater than the enjoyment I had singing at home with my boys. It’s not the where. It’s the what. And the being honest and true to myself.”

Vail Jazz performances

Wednesday Aug. 2

Réne Marie makes her Vail debut with Experiment in Truth (John Chin on piano, Elias Bailey on bass and Quentin Baxter on drums) at Ludwig’s Terrace in The Sonnenalp Hotel. The first show begins at 6:30 p.m. (doors at 6 p.m.) and the second show begins at 9 p.m. (doors at 8:30 p.m.). Tickets are $40. Drink and dinner service are available for purchase.

Thursday Aug. 3

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

 

Norman and Ella

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ella and Louis: Together Again Vail Jazz performances

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

Wednesday, July 26

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

Thursday, July 27

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

 

To purchase tickets to Vail Jazz performances, click here:

Gypsy Jazz – Necessity is the Mother of Invention

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hot Club of France Tribute heats up Vail

French-born accordionist channels the high energy of the Django Reinhardt tradition

It’s hard to say what resurrects the popularity of certain musical styles, but for whatever reason, the nearly 90-year- old Hot Club of France sound has become hotter than ever in 2017. Just ask French-born musician Julien Labro, who will lead the Hot Club of France Tribute Band that swings into Vail this week.

“Over the past 15 years or so, the Hot Club style has had some sort of resurgence, especially in North America,” says Labro, who’s won numerous international awards for his arrangements and compositions, has collaborated with everyone from Grammy winning pianist Fernando Otero to American jazz guitar icon Bucky Pizzarelli and has released 10 of his own studio albums.

Historically, the Hot Club de France was founded in 1930 by a group of student jazz enthusiasts who essentially put jazz music on the map in France and gave rise to international icon Django Reinhardt.

Labro believes the re-launched mainstream status of the Hot Club sound, particularly in the U.S., is likely due to its current use in numerous film and T.V. series soundtracks and commercials.

“Its acoustic instrumentation, European flavor and rhythmic drive make it very recognizable,” Labro says. “The strong presence of guitar pyrotechnics is compelling and can sometimes hint [at] ‘Americana’ with bluegrass, folk, and country-ish elements. The tunes are usually [played] at neck-breaking tempos – showy and virtuosic, which make for a very exciting performance. Of course, since it's part of our culture, I heard this type of music, but it’s not until I came to America that I really dug into it.”

Guitarist and Vail Jazz favorite Frank Vignola put the Hot Club of France Tribute band together, featuring his six-string partner in crime Vinny Raniolo and bassist Gary Mazzaroppi, who together with Vignola performed for a number of years with guitar legend Les Paul.

“Through his touring, Frank crosses paths with a lot of different musicians and he’s always up for playing and sharing the stage,” Labro says. “This is how he recruited guitarist Olli Soikkeli, violinist Jason Anick and myself on accordion to complete the rest of this tribute band.”

Recovering from a car accident this spring, Vignola will sadly not accompany his Hot Club of France Tribute on its tour through Vail. Labro will take the reins as bandleader.

As for Labro’s part, he has been playing the accordion since he was a small boy. He explains how the instrument’s allure instantly drew him in like a tractor beam.

“I grew up in France where the accordion is very much present in the culture and musical landscape. At age 9, I saw a TV program that featured an accordion player backing up a singer. I was really mesmerized at the sights and sounds of the instrument … all the shining buttons reflecting the light and the swaying back and forth of the bellows. I immediately wanted to get my hands on one to simulate what I saw,” he recalls.

Labro’s parents found their son a teacher who helped launch the young artist into what he refers to as his “life’s calling.”

He explains how the accordion etched its role in France in the 1920s and 30s as the centerpiece of the ‘Musette’ sound, in which it served as the centerpiece of a tune as the guitar, bass, drums and banjo carried the rhythm. According to Labro, the genre was most popular with blue-collar crowds in Parisian bars and dance halls. Then, Django Reinhardt entered the mix.

“Django Reinhardt, looking for work at the time, quickly became the favorite of the accordion bandleaders. His incredible abilities and formidable ear and technique allowed him to match the tricky accordion riffs,” Labro explains, adding that after Reinhardt and violinist Stéphane Grappelli were discovered by the Hot Club of France, they formed their famous quintet.

“While the quintet did not have an accordion in its instrumentation, you can clearly hear Django’s musical vocabulary influenced by his early years playing with accordion players,” Labro says.

The Hot Club of France Tribute quintet presents a retrospective of Django Reinhardt and Stéphane Grappelli’s music as well as jazz standards in Hot Club style during two intimate club performances on Wednesday in Vail and then in energetic, breakneck fashion in Vail Square in Lionshead on Thursday.

Vail Jazz Hot Club of France Tribute performances

Wednesday, July 19

The Hot Club of France Tribute brings its intricate, intimate ballads to Ludwig’s Terrace in The Sonnenalp Hotel. The first show begins at 6:30 p.m. (doors at 6 p.m.) and the second show begins at 9 p.m. (doors at 8:30 p.m.). Tickets are $40. Drink and dinner service are available for purchase.

Thursday, July 20

The Hot Club of France Tribute ramps up to the Django Reinhardt tradition of high- speed rhythms for an energetic performance for Vail Jazz @Vail Square at 6 p.m. General admission tickets are $25, preferred seats $40 and premium seats $50. Presented by The Jazz Cruise and Blue Note at Sea, Vail Jazz @ Vail Square takes place every Thursday evening through Aug. 24 in the all-weather Jazz Tent in The Arrabelle courtyard in Lionshead. Drinks are available for purchase.

For tickets or more information visit vailjazz.org/tickets or call 888-VAIL- JAM.

$10 Jass and Technology

The world of jazz is in a very festive mood as it celebrates a seminal year in the history of jazz: 1917. Four of the greatest masters of the art form were born that year – Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk and Buddy Rich.  It was also the year that the Original Dixieland Jass Band (ODJB) recorded what is generally considered to be the first jazz recording. “Livery Stable Blues” was the hit side of the record (you remember records, you actually turned them over to hear the music that was on the other side) and on the “flip” side was “Dixieland Jass Band One-Step.” The record became an instantaneous hit and sold over one million copies, setting off a craze for jazz that ushered in the Jazz Age (the 1920s).

Recording of music on cylinders was well established in the 1880s, so why was jazz not recorded before then? Because there wasn’t any jazz to record.  While musicologists like to debate when jazz was first performed and by whom, it should be understood that even the use of the term “jazz” to describe the music was not generally agreed upon until the early 1920s, when jazz became the preferred spelling.

Whatever the origins of its name, it is clear that for at least a decade prior to the recording, jazz was evolving, but it can’t be pinpointed with accuracy when the music was first performed. This is for a number of reasons, the most important of which is that jazz is an art form that has evolved (and continues to evolve) from a combination of musical traditions and there is no one point at which all the ingredients were first fused together in a “jazzy way.”  Some of the most important ingredients include: the music of the brass and marching bands from the post-civil war era; ragtime and boogie woogie music from the late 19th century; and the blues. So when were these and other musical traditions joined together to produce jazz? No one can be sure.

Today anyone can make a recording, and of course, music is easily notated and preserved in writing. In the early 20th Century, the recording industry was concentrated in NYC and jazz was centered in New Orleans and the South, although it had begun to spread to several other urban areas. The musicians were not conservatory trained and most couldn’t read music. The widespread availability of the radio was still more than five years away and the first talkie movie was over a decade away, so the best technology of the day was a two-sided disc that when turned at 78 rotations per minute (rpm), could spread jazz throughout the globe.  

But it took the ODJB, composed of five white men traveling from New Orleans to NYC, to light the fuse that set off the jazz explosion. It should be remembered that jazz was performed for dancing and therefore jazz bands were dance bands. While the ODJB claimed to be the “creators of jazz,” it is clear that jazz was generally created by blacks and creoles in New Orleans. For many jazz historians it is a sad fact that blacks weren’t the first to record a jazz record and that the band that did had copied the music of successful black musicians in New Orleans. There was of course no one creator of the music.  The fact is that early jazz greats such as Buddy Bolden and King Oliver stayed in New Orleans and were just some of the “chefs de cuisine” that prepared the musical gumbo that became jazz, along with many others, known and unknown, that added to the jazz recipe.  

The quality of the playing on the record, with its limited improvisation and its repetitive choruses, was not the best example of jazz at the time and there was a corny aspect to the music with instruments imitating the sounds of barnyard animals, but the record displayed a lively danceable beat and the importance of the record cannot be denied. In essence, the technology of sound recording gave a large number of Americans, who had never heard jazz, their first chance to hear the music and allowed for the rapid dissemination of a regional sound, which was then embraced in the four corners of the U.S. and then globally.

The famous bandleader Paul Whiteman explained it best: “One moment jazz was unknown, a low noise in a low dive. The next, it became a serious pastime of a hundred million people, the diversion of princes and millionaires.”

The ODJB was the first band to use “Dixieland” as part of its name. While there is no doubt “Dixieland” was regularly used to describe the Southern states that seceded from the Union, the origin of Dixie as the descriptor of the South is clouded in mystery. The most accepted explanation is that “Dixie” is the corruption of the French word for 10, “dix,” and when banks in the French Quarter of New Orleans (and ultimately in the surrounding areas) first issued their own $10 bank notes with Dix on the reverse side, English-speaking southerners starting calling the bills “Dixies.” Eventually all of the South became known as Dixieland. The fact that the ODJB adopted this name also created another first, the music of New Orleans became known as Dixieland Jass and finally Dixieland Jazz.

Vail Jazz will celebrate the rich history of the music of New Orleans on July 12 at 6:30 pm and 9 p.m. when it presents the legendary Henry Butler, New Orleans blues vocalist and pianist at the Sonnenalp Hotel. In addition, Vail Jazz will present Butler, Bernstein and the Hot 9 in concert on July 13 at 6 p.m. in the Jazz Tent at Vail Square in Lionshead. You won’t want to miss that authentic ‘Nawlins vibe.

The sounds of New Orleans soar through Vail this week

In addition to tonight’s Vail Jazz Gala starring singer John Boutté, iconic pianist/vocalist Henry Butler throws down sizzling solo club shows Wednesday, then Butler, Bernstein & The Hot 9 light up Vail Square Thursday

Henry Butler compares his audience connection to making love. For the 67-year-old blind pianist, connections are all about communicating without words.

“The thing that I really like about performing, regardless of what kind of performance it is, is those energies going back and forth all the time,” he says. “It’s the same energy involved in loving somebody, the same energy involved in love making. It just manifests differently.”

Growing up in New Orleans, La., Henry Butler has been playing music since he was a small boy. Blinded by glaucoma in his infancy, his studies began at Louisiana State School for the Blind and continued at Southern University in Baton Rouge and Michigan State University. Since then, he’s recorded 12 full-length albums, performed in every large festival throughout the country and toured the world many times. He’s come to be regarded as one of the great pianists and vocalists of the ages, revered in both his hometown of New Orleans and his new town of New York City. But Butler says the learning never stops.

When asked what have been some of the more memorable compliments he’s been paid over the years, Butler says, “I’ve gotten all kinds of positive comments and I let people know I appreciate their sentiments. But I always say to myself, ‘hopefully the next time you hear me, I’ll be better.’”

He typically practices twice a day in his small apartment in Brooklyn.

“Part of it is an exercise regime, but that’s the base part. Within the exercise, you decide you have an idea of what you want to accomplish. That concept could be negotiating certain types of harmonic progressions. It could be working on a certain technical thing, or work on scales. It could be on working on proficiency,” he says. “Living in a place like New York, you have to portion your time. Once you get to a place where you know yourself pretty well, you can get a lot done in an hour or an hour and a half.”

Butler’s home was one of the many destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. He lost nearly all of his possessions, including his most treasured piano. Following the disaster, he relocated to Colorado and then New York, but has yet to feel settled.

“I don’t know that I’ve completely gotten over Katrina,” he says. “I just haven’t felt home since. I haven’t felt I lived in a community that felt like home since Katrina. I may go back to New Orleans or I may go to California. I could live anywhere at this point. I might come back to Colorado… but it got a little quiet for me. I needed to hear a few more sirens.”

Bellowing out vocal notes that sound almost operatic against his racketing piano, Butler is a force in and of himself. Still, he has shared the stage and recording studio with everyone from Jeff Golub to Cyndi Lauper, James Carter to B.B. King. His latest collaboration has him fusing cosmic musical powers with famed trumpeter Steven Bernstein & The Hot 9, a boisterous crew including a six-piece horn section: Curtis Fowlkes, Doug Wieselman, Peter Apfelbaum and Eric Lawrence, as well as guitarist Matt Munisteri, bassist Brandi Disterheft, violinist Sam Bardfeld and drummer Donald Edwards.

The result is a hypnotic explosion of  delightful harmony and improvisation, each musician taking turns to launch ahead of the rhythm, catapulting it with fiery solos as the entire band will occasionally pause in awe of Butler’s escalating individual masterpieces, which wander a gamut of emotions from melancholy to ecstasy.

“Every time I go out and sit on stage in front of an audience my goal is to inspire, to uplift, to encourage, to inform. If in some way we can heal a little bit together, that’s great,” Butler says. “The audience usually lets you know if you’re on the way to achieving any of that.”

The message Butler gets from his audience transcends words or applause or anything that can be measured.

“It happens all the time in what we call nanoseconds, when the audience energy comes back to me,” Butler says. “I get more inspired. I realize more ideas to share. As that stuff goes back to the audience, the audience perhaps moves to a different place of different understanding. Maybe it lifts them a little bit.”

To Butler, this type of communication is the deepest type of human connection.

“I’ll tell you what it’s like,” he says. “You’re in a relationship and you’re sitting with that partner and you feel what you’re thinking is something special. And maybe even before the partner says anything, before you utter anything to the partner, before either one of you pronounces love, you’re feeling what you think is love. Wherever an audience is after receiving the music and receiving more and more music, they send that back to me. You feel it. I’m always feeling it.”

Vail Jazz performances

Wednesday, July 12

Henry Butler kicks off the summer’s Vail Jazz Club Series with his rich solo performances at Ludwig’s Terrace in The Sonnenalp Hotel. The first show begins at 6:30 p.m. (doors at 6 p.m.) and the second show begins at 9 p.m.(doors at 8:30 p.m.). Tickets are $40. Drink and dinner service are available for purchase.

Thursday, July 12

Butler, Bernstein & The Hot 9 bring their bouncing, New Orleans-inspired glee symphony to Vail Jazz @Vail Square at 6 p.m. General admission tickets are $25, preferred seats $40 and premium seats $50. Presented by The Jazz Cruise and Blue Note at Sea, Vail Jazz @ Vail Square takes place every Thursday evening throughAug. 24 in the all-weather Jazz Tent in The Arrabelle courtyard in Lionshead. Drinks are available for purchase.