Learning by Listening

Something extraordinary has occurred in Barcelona, Spain that is proving that the old adage, “don’t fix it if it ain’t broke,” is applicable when applied to teaching jazz. Over the past 12 years the Sant Andreu Jazz Band (SABJ), comprised of boys and girls aged 7 to 20 years old, has been organized and led by Joan Chamorro, a Spanish jazz multi-instrumentalist and educator. During this period, 60 youngsters have played in the SABJ and have demonstrated a remarkable level of musicianship and an incredible ability to improvise, well beyond their years, playing together like seasoned pros with a joy and energy that has captivated their audiences. Before we explore why this amazing ensemble has had so much success, let us explore how jazz has been taught in the past and then we can compare Joan’s teaching techniques with the current approach in the U.S.

In the first two decades of the last century, as jazz evolved into a recognizable form of music, it did so without the use of written music … because most of the players couldn’t read music. Also, with improvisation at the heart of jazz, written music wasn’t relevant. Instead of studying written music, jazz was learned by “ear,” also known as “aurally,” from the Latin word that refers to the ear or hearing. Learning music aurally enables a player to develop the capacity to hear pitches, chords, melodies, rhythms and intervals without reference to written music. This ability to recognize and internalize sound, very much like how an infant hears words spoken and learns to speak them back, was how jazz was passed on from player to player and generation to generation.

Howard Stone

Listening to music is a passive activity. Many of us listen to music, but never really hear it. You drive along in your car listening to music, but do you really hear it? This is the key; you must actively stay focused to train you ear to hear the music. You then hear the music in an entirely different way.

When a jazz musician takes a solo and begins to improvise, he is akin to a storyteller, only he uses musical notes and phrases instead of words to tell his story. Simultaneously, he has to play his instrument and compose his story and his ability to know what the notes will sound like before he plays them is crucial, if he is to successfully improvise. Choosing the right notes, harmonies, rhythms and more is what separates the pros from the amateurs in jazz and the pros can do it because they have great “ears.”

As the formalization of jazz education began to take place in the latter half of the last century, reliance on reading music and understanding the theory of the music, pushed ear training aside, as it was judged not a very intellectual approach to music. Today, young musicians are taught scales and to learn to read music as a starting point. Practice books abound and the focus is to learn to faithfully play the notes that are on the page. Jazz musicians today are educated at conservatories where the technical side of the music is emphasized and virtuosity is prized. This is now the “approved” approach to teaching kids and aspiring professional musicians all types of music, not just jazz.

So what teaching methodology does Joan use to create such astounding results? Joan is “old school” and believes that starting a youngster’s musical education by teaching scales and to read music is too mechanical. He believes that it is more important for a novice to learn what a given note will sound like, than to know how to read the note. He therefore focuses on connecting his students to the music by having them listen to the music they will play, so they can hear what it sounds like. He encourages the students to sing the notes of a tune so that they can internalize the melody. In short, this is the early jazz tradition of playing by ear and 100 years later, the SABJ is proof positive that it works.

As an aside, Vail Jazz annually brings 12 of the most talented high school jazz musicians in North America to Vail to participate in our award-winning Workshop and for the past 23 years our teaching staff has exclusively relied on ear training with no written music allowed during the students’ 10-day residency. I can attest to its effectiveness, as many of our alumni are now professional jazz musicians.

At 5 and 7:30 p.m. on Aug. 1 at the Sonnenalp Hotel and at 6 p.m. on Aug. 2 in the Jazz Tent in Lionshead, Vail Jazz is very pleased to present from Spain, Joan Chamorro and 23-year-old Andrea Motis, a vocalist, trumpet player and former member of SABJ, who is now an internationally touring professional. They will be joined by the marvelously talented American tenor saxophonist Joe Frahm and other Spanish musicians rounding out a sextet. Come listen … and hear.

Howard Stone is the founder and artistic director of the Vail Jazz Foundation, which produces the annual Vail Jazz Festival. Celebrating its 24th year, the Vail Jazz Festival is a summer-long celebration of jazz.

Tony DeSare sets his own definition of jazz

Singer and pianist Tony DeSare has often been regarded as a young Frank Sinatra. Although he can swing with the best of them on all the classic jazz numbers, the 42-year-old New York native puts his bright and totally unique stamp on pretty much everything he produces. Take, for example, the Justin Bieber pop hit, “Despacito.” In an effort to raise funds for last year’s Puerto Rico hurricane victims, DeSare teamed up with Hamilton star Mandy Gonzalez and Postmodern Jukebox for a hypnotizing rendition of the pop tune that has to date yielded well over 4 million views on YouTube. Also last year, DeSare created the entire score for the Lifetime movie, Hush Little Baby and released his sixth full-length album, One For My Baby.

Before returning to Vail this week for a pair of intimate solo performances Wednesday at The Sonnenalp and “Vegas-style swing” with the H2 Big Band Thursday at Vail Square, DeSare took a stab at the definition of “jazz.” Here’s what he had to say about why the genre, especially his own version of it, might surprise people.

1) It has transcended generations

“I think jazz has become a kind of all encompassing term for hard-to- classify types of music that tend to use more sophisticated harmony and have some element of improvisation. For Baby Boomers and Millennials, jazz seems to have become somewhat of a four-letter word, at least in the mainstream culture.” 

2) Jazz has no borders

“As far what the boundaries of jazz are today, there don’t seem to be any, as jazz festivals commonly include even rock, blues and pop acts among more traditional jazz acts. There still certainly exists a culture of people who have followed and stay up to date on the art form of jazz and its history. In that culture, the definition of jazz is definitely more narrow. I would say what I do has usually been on the outskirts of that niche, though I certainly appreciate it myself.”

3) Pop music and jazz share some of the same genes

“I fell in love with pop music and love classic pop, which was truly was all about a great melody and lyric. Those songwriters and artists drew from the vocabulary of jazz music and I consider myself part of that tradition.”

4) The magic all comes down to each song

“I present songs that swing, have sophisticated melodies and jazz chords and will improvise solos here and there, but for me, the most important thing is the feeling and content of the song itself. A more ‘purist’ view of jazz would favor the improvisation as the selling point of the performance with the song being more the vehicle through which it’s delivered. In other words, if I sing a song like ‘All the Things You Are’ by Kern and Hammerstein, my goal would be to deliver the tender emotion of the song and present it more like the songwriters intended whereas a modern jazz group will use the melody and chord changes more as a jumping off point to make a new statement that often is an interesting contrast to the original standard.”

5) It’s all about what’s real and in the moment

“All in all, I think the definition of what encompasses jazz is ever widening and more and more people are understanding that the label of jazz is not really specifically pointing to any one style in particular. I feel like the term jazz suggests the idea that the music is organic, real and of the moment, not that it necessarily has to swing, have lots of solos, feel serious, etc.”

See Tony DeSare live in Vail

Vail Jazz Club Series

July 25 – 2ND SET SOLD OUT!

Tony DeSare returns to Vail with a pair of intimate solo performances at The Sonnenalp’s Ludwig’s Terrace on Wednesday, July 25. In his words, it’s going to be a “spontaneous and intimate night where the set will vary depending on the audience and how I’m feeling. We’ll cover a lot of musical ground.” Doors for the first seating open at 5 p.m. with performance beginning at 5:30. Doors for the second seating are at 7:30 p.m. with music starting at 8 p.m. Tickets at $40 or $136 for a subscription to the remaining Club Series performances through Aug. 8. Full dinner service is available, not included in ticket cost and a $30 per person food or beverage minimum applies. Find tickets here.

Vail Jazz @ Vail Square

July 26 – SOLD OUT!

DeSare is joined by H2 Big Band in the Jazz Tent at Lionshead’s Vail Square at 6 p.m. on Thursday, July 26. He says to expect “that one and only feeling you can get hearing a live big band with a singer. I’ll be performing everything from Sinatra, Khachaturian, Bruce Springsteen, The Beatles and Prince as well as a few originals. The whole night, though, would feel right at home at the Sands Hotel in Vegas in 1966.” Tickets are $25 for general admission, $40 for preferred seat and $50 for premium seat. Subscriptions are also available for multiple performances. Beer, wine and cocktails are available for purchase.

Inside the Vail Jazz Festival: The Vegas Strip

There have been many famous streets in the U.S. that have been synonymous with a style of music. In New Orleans it was Basin Street for the nascent sounds of jazz, Beale Street in Memphis for the blues, 18th and Vine for swinging jazz in Kansas City, Central Avenue in L.A. and 52nd Street in New York City for bebop, and of course, Broadway in NYC for what else but “Broadway music.”

Howard Stone

In Las Vegas, N.V. there is the Strip, a 4-plus-mile-long desert road, not associated with a particular style of music, but instead the entertainment capital of the world. Nevada was the first state to legalize gambling in 1931, but with the Depression underway, Vegas had to wait for better economic times and the end of World War II before it could become Sin City. By the early 1950s, the mob controlled the hotels with their extremely profitable casinos and much of the vice in the city as well, and Vegas took off. Gambling, bookmaking, prostitution (ultimately banned from Clark County where Vegas is located), 24-hour entertainment, food and booze, easy marriages and divorces, strip shows and much more, all of which ultimately led to the famous slogan: “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.”

With gambling at the heart of the economy, entertainment became the “hook” to bring in the “losers” and the best way to attract them was to present the greatest entertainment of the day. Beginning in the 1950s the competition among hotels to feature the biggest draws in their respective “showrooms” was fierce and headliners that could draw a full house were handsomely rewarded. With Hollywood nearby, Vegas developed a connection to the world of celebrities and they were frequent visitors and performers on the Strip. Initially, the entertainment offerings were centered on lavish floorshows and reviews, comedians and vocalists. Whether singing pop, country, rock, or jazz, the greatest singers of the past 70 years have appeared on the Strip and in the 1950s and 60s many of my then favorites regularly appeared: Frank Sinatra, Nate “King” Cole, Ella Fitzgerald, Sammy Davis, Jr., Louis Armstrong, Lena HorneTony Bennett and Peggy Lee, to name just a few. In 1956, a 21-year old Elvis had a two-week engagement in Vegas and bombed, but ultimately returned for many successful engagements and the filming of “Viva Las Vegas.” Today, Elvis impersonators can still be seen wandering on the Strip.

Many observers believe the golden age of the Strip was a period roughly half a decade long in the 60s when “The Rat Pack” held court in the Copa Room (400 seats) in the Sands Hotel. The iconic leader of the quintet was Frank Sinatra, joined by Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Joey Bishop and Peter Lawford, all donning tuxedos with drinks in their hands, smoking on stage and generally projecting the image of being cool, ’60s style. The combination of great vocal talent (Frank, Dean and Sammy) with off-color humor, dancing (Sammy) and a swagger that was the personification of hipness, made their performances the “main event” and the biggest draw in Vegas. Backed by top bands, vocalists reigned supreme during this period and there was a magical atmosphere in the Copa Room where audiences were able to see the best perform in an intimate environment that defined the era. In 1966, Sinatra appeared in the Copa as a solo act and recorded his first ever live album, “Sinatra at the Sands,” with Count Basie and his 20-member band, conducted by Quincy Jones. The album is the definitive recording of this epoch and it captures what a night on the Strip was all about, with some of the swingiest music ever recorded, including Sinatra classics “Come Fly with Me” and “One for My Baby (And One More for the Road)” and a comedy monologue by Sinatra, known as the “tea break.”

As the 60s unfolded, rock musicians began to eclipse the jazz/pop stars of the day – the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Elvis, the Who, Simon and Garfunkel and many others took center stage. In 1964, The Beatles made their only appearance in Vegas. Originally planned as a one-off concert on the Strip in the 700-seat Conga Room in the Sahara Hotel, the overwhelming demand for tickets ($2, $3, $4 and $5) caused the promoters to move the show to the Las Vegas Convention Center with a second show added. Approximately 17,000 screaming fans attended and it changed the Strip forever. Rock concerts came of age and it became clear that Vegas would have to compete for the best talent with the promoters of arena/stadium shows, something that a 500-1,000-seat venue on the Strip couldn’t do.

The Strip had to change to meet the new competition and it did. Public corporations began to take over the hotel/gaming industry, replacing the mob, and a new economic model was developed. The “old” hotels were replaced with megaresorts (of the 25 largest hotels in the world, 23 are in Vegas) themed as ancient Egypt, Rome and Greece, as well as NY, Paris, Venice and Hollywood, and of course the Old West. These hotel/gambling palaces contained arena-like performance venues requiring much more variety in entertainment to draw larger crowds, including the new generation of entertainers, lavish spectacles, Broadway shows, impersonators, magicians and animal and circus acts (at one point, seven productions of Cirque Du Soleil were running on the Strip).

The Copa Room and the Vegas Strip of old are now just memories, but Sinatra’s album remains a testament to an era when great vocalists and great musicians could always be seen and heard on the Strip in an intimate showroom.

At 5 and 7:30 p.m. on July 25 at the Sonnenalp Hotel and at 6 p.m. on July 2 in the Jazz Tent at Vail Square in Lionshead, the great pianist and vocalist Tony DeSare will pay tribute to Frank, Sammy, Elton John and many other crooners who helped establish the Vegas Strip as the entertainment capital of the world.

Howard Stone is the founder and artistic director of the Vail Jazz Foundation, which produces the annual Vail Jazz Festival. Celebrating its 24th year, the Vail Jazz Festival is a summer-long celebration of jazz.

The infectious draw of gypsy jazz

Samson Schmitt was playing guitar before most toddlers knew how to bounce a ball. Hailing from the Moselle region of eastern France, Schmitt’s father, Dorado Schmitt, introduced his son to the music of Django Reinhardt and had him noodling on the neck of a guitar when he was just 3 years old. Schmitt names his father as the “master” of his musical education. He concedes that Dorado taught him “the necessary basics to play gypsy jazz” but “then later told me that I had to find my style of music with a personal touch.”

Today, the refined embodiment of gypsy jazz with a personal touch – not just Schmitt’s but each of his band mate’s – is the Django Festival All-Stars.

Comprised of Schmitt and DouDou Cuillerier on guitar, Antonio Licusati on bass, Pierre Blanchard on violin and Ludovic Beier on accordion, the All-Stars deliver a romping, high-energy blast of gypsy jazz. They play Django Reinhart classics as well as original compositions and countless surprises with what Schmitt describes as a “chemistry” that “has grown over the years to be fantastic.”

Beier, who grew up in Paris among a family of musicians and gravitated to the accordion after first learning the keyboard and drums, insists that the All-Stars’ chemistry is “not a rational fact.”

“Sometimes the magic appears without explanation,” he says. “The alchemy sometimes between musicians can create extraordinary things, and that’s the case in our group. But one of the keys of that is the listening. Everyone has a role and a precise function that blends the music without interfering with ego. When all those facts are put together, it works. And of course the friendship and common passion for this music is very important.”

The passion is tangible. During an All-Stars performance, each musician attacks his instrument with a ravenous but precise force that Schmitt claims is possible only by understanding three key ingredients – “heart, sensitivity and energy.”

That said, playing music in the Django tradition is not something just anyone can do.

“Besides virtuosity, harmony and swing, which are the ‘technical’ skills to master, I can clearly identify the most challenging aspect as the respect of the tradition with a kind of ‘opening’ on something from our modern times. Tradition is so inclusive that you cannot change the basics of this music, but adding new influences from the years after Django, you can make a creative answer to Django’s legacy.”

According to the accordionist, this is why gypsy jazz is so popular not only in France but throughout the world, among people of all ages who love every genre of music. But the genre wasn’t so popular when he first discovered it in the 1980s, when new music was largely electronic-based pop.

“But in the late ‘90s the appeal for world music revealed the Django legacy to the public and became popular among all kinds of people from young heavy-metal fans to white-collars businessmen,” Beier says, adding that in France today, Gypsy jazz is one of “the strongest” forms of music.

Beier began playing with Schmitt when the guitarist was still performing with his father and the two bonded immediately when it was clear that they both relished what Beier calls “the new side of Django’s music.” They have been playing together as the Django Festival All-Stars for 16 years.

“We have plenty of music to share from fast tempos to lyric ballads,” Beier says. “I need to keep the surprises for the concert, but our music is easy to understand and brings a lot of happiness.”

Django Festival All-Stars live in Vail

Vail Jazz Club Series: July 18

The quintet returns to Vail with a pair of intimate performances at The Sonnenalp’s Ludwig’s Terrace on Wednesday, July 18. Doors for the first seating open at 5 p.m. with performance beginning at 5:30. Doors for the second seating are at 7:30 p.m. with music starting at 8 p.m. Tickets at $40 or $136 for a subscription to the remaining Club Series performances through Aug. 8. Full dinner service is available, not included in ticket cost and a $30 per person food or beverage minimum applies. Get tickets here.

Vail Jazz @ Vail Square: July 19

The All-Stars deliver a fiery big stage performance in the Jazz Tent at Lionshead’s Vail Square at 6 p.m. on Thursday, July 19. Tickets are $25 for general admission, $40 for preferred seat and $50 for premium seat. Subscriptions are also available for multiple performances. Beer, wine and cocktails are available for purchase. Also, don’t miss the after party with local pianist Kathy Morrow at the Vail Chophouse from 8 to 10 p.m. Get tickets here.

 

 

 

Inside the Vail Jazz Festival: Django Style

At latest count on a worldwide basis there are close to five billion videos watched every day. A YouTube video can go viral and propel an unknown entertainer from total obscurity to literally world fame in a matter of days. A case in point is the Korean pop singer/rapper PSY (Park Jae-Sang). His 2012 music video “Gangnam Style” rocketed around the world with over one billion views in less than five months (now at three billion and counting), propelling him to world fame with President Obama flashing his Gangnam Style dance moves on TV within months of the first viewings of the music video. Of course, PSY has been pushed aside to make way for the next YouTube phenome, and then the next, and then the next … and the question arises whether this type of fame can ever be sustained? Apparently, Andy Warhol understood this issue in 1968, well before YouTube existed, when he famously predicted that culturally speaking, fame would be limited to 15 minutes.

Contrast this viewpoint with the career and music of Jean “Django” Reinhardt. A Belgian-born (1910) Gypsy musician who was largely self-taught, Django would go on to become the most important European jazz musician ever and a guitarist who would influence successive generations of guitar-greats. Django moved to Paris as a child and earned a living as a teenager playing on the streets of the City of Lights before playing in dance halls, where he performed a style of music known as musette, a combination of French folk music, polka, waltz and jazz. Never receiving a formal education, it is doubtful that Django ever learned to read, books or music. In 1928 at the age of 18, he was severely burned by a fire in his caravan and after a prolonged period of recovery, he returned to making music, but unfortunately the fourth and fifth fingers on his left hand were paralyzed and he never recovered the full use of them. Not able to use all the fingers on his left hand to play chords on his guitar, he created new chords using his contorted figures where possible, while rapidly moves his good fingers up and down the neck of the guitar, inventing a truly unique technique. In 1934, he joined forces with Stéphane Grappelli, a French-Italian violinist, and they formed the “Quintette du Hot Club de France,” that synthesized the music of Django’s Gypsy heritage with jazz to create a ground breaking sound that would have worldwide impact, making both of them internationally famous. 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, Django created what became known as Gypsy Jazz (Jazz Marouche) and is now known as Django Jazz. Tragically, Django died of a brain hemorrhage in 1953 at the age of 43, having had only a short time to make his musical mark.

Howard Stone

The passage of time fades our memories and fashions change, especially in music, and once Django passed, his music was forgotten, as bebop jazz took hold and the tsunami of rock washed over the world of music. However, nostalgia is a remarkable emotion driven by the strong desire to regain our youth, so music revivals are commonplace today. In some cases, it leads to a replay that generally doesn’t last very long. A decade after Django’s passing, his music began to be revived, but here is where the story gets interesting. Instead of a short-term revival based upon reminiscence, the music of Django began to take hold and build momentum and for the past five decades there has been a phenomenon aptly described as “Djangomania,” with Django Jazz played and enjoyed throughout the world and with jazz festivals dedicated to Django and his music held annually in the U.S. and Europe.

There was, of course, no Internet, so Django Jazz couldn’t go viral, but that really didn’t matter, because ultimately, Django and his music have passed the “test of time.” Greatness is not based upon a viral video, no matter how many views, but instead the creation of something of lasting value – a musical legacy – something that will be handed down to future generations. “Gangnam Style,” on the other hand, will be, at best, a historic footnote about the first video to have more than a billion views. Django and his music have entered the pantheon of popular music of the Western world and Django Style (contrasted with “Gangnam Style”) is now part of the classical music of the last century. Much like Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, Django Style has something special that will endure.

Vail Jazz will celebrate the musical legacy of Django at 5 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. on July 18 at the Sonnenalp Hotel and at 6 p.m. on July 19 in the Jazz Tent at Vail Square in Lionshead when it presents the Django Festival All-Stars. The music will be exuberant and played in a flamboyant manner, sizzling, infectious, and swinging, just as Django performed it over 85 years ago.

Howard Stone is the founder and artistic director of the Vail Jazz Foundation, which produces the annual Vail Jazz Festival. Celebrating its 24th year, the Vail Jazz Festival is a summer-long celebration of jazz.

Putting Spice in Jazz, Afro-Cuban Style

Jazz is very much like a tree with many roots (musical influences) and numerous branches (styles). Without doubt, the jazz tree took root in the fertile musical soil of New Orleans in the late 19th and early 20th century, but 90 miles away, another musical tree had began to grow in the very rich musical soil of Cuba and it spread its branches in a very different way.

Let’s start with the tree growing in New Orleans. The Crescent City was initially ruled by France, then Spain. Then France reacquired it, before selling it (and a lot more – all or parts of 15 future states) to the U.S., as Napoleon was short on cash for his military adventures. The Louisiana Purchase (the second of the “big three real estate deals” in American history (Manhattan and Alaska being the other two) was completed in 1803. As a result, New Orleans was then conjoined with the U.S. and became the largest port in the South and its largest and most important city. With a rich music tradition tied to its French and Spanish roots, it was an important transportation hub, thus allowing many additional musical traditions to be brought to this very cosmopolitan city. In contrast, Havana (and Cuba) had a culture almost exclusively informed by Spanish customs with formal and well-defined forms of music and dance traditions.

Howard Stone

This is the European part of the musical equation, but of course, there was an African component as well. While we tend to think about slavery as a uniquely American enterprise, less than 10 percent of all the slaves brought to the new world landed in what is now the southern U.S. In fact, many more slaves were taken to Cuba to work the sugar plantations. Therefore, while each colonial power brought a distinct European musical tradition to it colonies in the new world, because of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, they also brought the polyrhythmic (two or more rhythms played simultaneously) music of the West Africa slaves to each locale where they ruled. Because of the politics, commerce, climate, geography, access to musical instruments and formal music education, and many other influences in each locale, the European and African musical roots combined in different ways creating new and locally divergent musical styles. In New Orleans, this symbiosis led to jazz, and in Cuba, it led to an Afro-Cuban popular dance music – the rhumba, mambo and cha-cha-cha, with a major emphasis on the polyrhythmic traditions of West African music at its core.

With two distinctive musical styles only 90 miles apart, it was only a matter of time before the two were connected. Fostering this musical exchange were among other factors, the U.S. Army’s three separate occupations of Cuba in the first part of the last century, and the free movement of Cuban and American musicians by ferry between Havana and New Orleans during this period. It therefore wasn’t very long until the jazz tree in the U.S. had tapped into Afro-Cuban music. “Jelly Roll” Morton, one of the early New Orleans jazz innovators, famously noted that with the addition of what he called the “Spanish tinge,” you could spice up the then prevailing 4/4 rhythm of jazz and add “the right seasoning…for jazz.”

Jelly Roll wasn’t referring to Spanish music, but in fact the dance music of Cuba, with an essence that was pure pulsating rhythm, that made the listener want to move to the music. The Afro-Cuban beat wasn’t the predictable four beats to the bar of jazz, but a delightful exotic seasoning that added a unique flavor to the musical stew. This new rhythm that was the foundation of the music is known as the clave (2/3 and 3/2 alternating beats), and really wasn’t new at all, but could be traced to religious ceremonies in Africa centuries before. This was the “secret sauce” that spiced up the music with a zest of exotic percussion instruments added. The musical menu called for the rhythm to be played by Cuban percussion instruments: congas, timbales, güiros (gourds played with a stick), bongos, and two hardwood sticks, also called claves, with each assigned a distinctive rhythmic pattern to play. The combination of all of the ingredients provided an intoxicating rhythmic experience differentiating it from American jazz that instead evolved into a music of improvisation.

So what happens when you combine jazz and Afro-Cuban music, you end up with Afro-Cuban jazz. Take the polyrhythms and rhythm-centric nature of Afro-Cuban music out of Afro-Cuban jazz and you are left with jazz, which is not a problem, but I like to spice things up every now and then.

On July 11 at the Sonnenalp Hotel and on July 12 in the Jazz Tent in Lionshead, Vail Jazz will present the great Cuban pianist Nachito Herrera and his band in a pair of club shows and concert, respectively. Add a little spice to your life and join us for what promises to be explosive evenings of Afro-Cuban jazz.

Howard Stone is the founder and artistic director of the Vail Jazz Foundation, which produces the annual Vail Jazz Festival. Celebrating its 24th year, the Vail Jazz Festival is a summer-long celebration of jazz. 

Cuban pianist committed to cachet of musical styles

If you can imagine what kind of dedication it takes for a 12-year-old to develop the musical talent required to perform Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 with the Havana Symphony Orchestra, you can only guess what sort of skill that kid possesses several decades later after devoting every day in the meantime to his keyboard.

Nachito Herrera’s resume reads like a list of headlines. He’s won a Grammy, an American Heritage Award, an Immigrants of Distinction Award and has even been nominated for an Emmy. He’s directed, conducted and performed in numerous high-caliber symphonies and orchestras all over the globe, composed scores and tunes for Hollywood films and led a variety of his own bands, composing and performing everything from classical to Afro-Cuban jazz.

His first memory of the piano was his father – also a professional pianist – practicing with his big band in the family’s garage in Cuba. He began playing at the age of 4. By age 7, his classical piano career was already in motion.

“I remember when I started playing simple notes. My dad was teaching me. Then I went to the classical musical school in Cuba. It takes about 16 years to get your PHD and I did it all the way through. Then I took an extra five years to get my PHD as an orchestra conductor. Right when I was a teenager I started to also be interested in other styles like jazz and Cuban music,” Herrera says.

It’s his passion for these three types of music – Cuban, classical and jazz, arguably the most difficult genres to master – that motivates the musician to spend the majority of his time on the piano. Even if he’s not performing or rehearsing, he practices eight to nine hours a day.

“I decided to keep myself playing all kinds of music. That’s something that is a blessing when you have the possibility to do it. I’m showing that music isn’t just one, that you can go from classical to jazz to Cuban. People ask me, ‘do you consider yourself a jazz pianist or a classical pianist?’ I say, I’m just a musician. I want to keep doing that, if it can give me good health and [keep] my fingers in good shape. It’s something like you’re free, like you’re doing what you want. It is the kind of payment of the investment of many years to get into the type of shape where you are capable of all kinds of music.”

Herrera relocated to the United States many years ago and now calls Minnesota home. He has firmly established himself among the nation’s top jazz and Cuban pianists but also returned to his “classical training” 10 years ago when he performed with the National Symphony Orchestra of Cuba as soloist. Before last week’s phone interview with Vail Jazz, Herrera had just returned from Spain, where he served as guest soloist for the Valencia Jazz Festival and was honored to receive “multiple ovations.”

“Respecting each audience is the most important thing for me. I practice every day as [if it’s] my first time practicing as a student,” he says.

Herrera’s all-day practice sessions involve at least a couple of hours of finger-strengthening exercises as well as trying out improvisation scenarios with a variety of musicians. A large block of time is dedicated, of course, to technique training.

“Any instrument you want to learn – not just piano – you have to have something special in technique,” he says. “I always like to explore the different possibilities. If you’re playing a piano concerto, they say it’s always the same notes, but the soloist wants to put that little flavor and feeling of yourself. With improvisation, it’s 50-50, half different motives you can practice and another 50 percent improvising. You need different elements to put together. I like to put myself in different situations … hard situations. It’s a lot to work with, but it’s always based on respect for the audience. I don’t want them to get out and say, ‘Oh well. That was OK.’ I always want to do my best.”

Essentially, the Cuban’s aim, regardless of performing on a huge stage with 30 musicians or in an intimate club with his trio, is to enrapture.

“In those two or three hours of a performance, I want that they completely get rid of their problems and bad situations,” he says. “I want people to get out of my concert completely satisfied.”

Vail Jazz Club Series: Nachito Herrera

Nachito Herrera and his trio make their Vail debut with a pair of intimate performances at The Sonnenalp’s Ludwig’s Terrace on Wednesday, July 11. Doors for the first seating open at 5 p.m. with performance beginning at 5:30. Doors for the second seating are at 7:30 p.m. with music starting at 8 p.m. Tickets at $40 or $136 for a subscription to four of the five Club Series performances through Aug. 8. Full dinner service is available, not included in ticket cost and a $30 per person food or beverage minimum applies.

Vail Jazz @ Vail Square: A Night in Havana

Nachito Herrera ramps up to a septet for the big stage at the Jazz Tent at Vail Square in Lionshead at 6 p.m. on Thursday, July 12. Herrera says his intention in designing the Night in Havana performance was “to show to the audience the versatility of the music we have in our country. It’s making a musical tour around all different styles, Latin jazz, cha, cha cha and classical. From east to west, when you visit my country, it’s unbelievable how you can absorb the different styles of everything from food to music. They’re all about celebrating that we’re alive and we’re together.” Tickets are $25 for general admission, $40 for preferred seat and $50 for premium seat. Subscriptions are also available for multiple performances. Beer, wine and cocktails are available for purchase.

Get tickets here.

Vail Jazz turns on the hot jets for a full summer of shows

National and international artists on tap for Sonnenalp, Vail Square and Labor Day Weekend performances

Launching into its 24th year, the Vail Jazz Festival’s summer’s lineup is stacked with young songstresses, established Grammy winners and sky-rocketing new talent.

The summer kicks off with an eclectic variety of national and internationally acclaimed artists for Vail Jazz @ Vail Square every Thursday beginning July 5, the Vail Jazz Gala July 9 and five intimate evenings of intimate club performances in July and August. There are more free performances than ever, happening in Edwards every Friday in July and August and every Sunday all summer at the Vail Farmer’s Market as well as at The Remedy in Vail. Of course, the festival culminates with the Vail Jazz Party over Labor Day Weekend – five days of live music featuring the modern jazz world’s top talent with more than 35 headliners.

Here’s a little more about what/who’s to come this summer:

Vail Jazz @ Vail Square:

Taking place in the all-weather Jazz Tent in Lionshead, performances kick off at 6 p.m. and feature three tiers of seating/pricing: general admission $25, preferred seat $40 and premium seat $50. Four-pack subscriptions are also available for a 15-percent savings. Drinks are available for purchase. 

July 5 – Hot Sardines – Touted as one of the most energetic jazz ensembles out of New York City, the lively vocals of Elizabeth Bougerol fuel this eight-piece musical force that will inevitably incite some dancing.

July 12 – Nachito Herrera: A Night in Havana – Performing with the Havana Symphony Orchestra at age 12, the fiery Cuban pianist is joined by his high-energy ensemble for a spell-binding performance with plenty of Afro-Cuban flare.

July 19 – Django Festival All-Stars – Following the fast-finger phenomena of Gypsy jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt, this sparkling five-piece swings back into town by popular demand, delivering an extra dose of lightning pace for the big stage.

July 26 – Tony DeSare and H2 Big Band – Tony DeSare is famous for infusing a jazz twist on modern pop songs as well as mirroring a young version of Frank Sinatra. Whether belting out zippy originals, putting his own flavor on Songbook favorites or adding a swing beat to a Prince tune, the appeal of this keyboard-playing crooner is only magnified by the melodic thunder of the H2 Big Band Band.

Aug. 2 – Andrea Motis featuring Joel Frahm – Barcelona-born vocalist and trumpeter Andrea Motis has made short work etching her place in the international jazz world. At age 23, she has seven albums under her belt and a propensity to swing and bop with the best of them. Along with the renowned saxophone talent of New York mainstay Joel Frahm, this duet, backed by a quintet, is a rare treat.

Aug. 9 – Nicki Parrott’s Tribute to Peggy Lee – Having sold out both shows at Ludwig’s during her last visit to Vail, The Australian vocalist and bassist returns to once again pay tribute to Peggy Lee, tapping into a variety set of the late, great singer’s most revered and rarest tunes.

Aug. 16 – Veronica Swift – As a testament to her long-standing vocal talent, Veronica Swift was performing at Lincoln Center by age 11. At 23, her skill set has only amplified. Her American Songbook renditions have brought audiences to tears and with the backing of pianist Emmet Cohen and his trio, emotions will surely swell.

Aug. 23 – Akiko/Hamilton/Dechter – Among the top touring jazz trios in the nation, organ phenom Akiko Tsuruga, guitar virtuoso Graham Dechter and drummer extraordinaire Jeff Hamilton never fail to impress with high energy, innovative arrangements and world-class musicianship, always leaving rave reviews in their wake. Playing together for years, this ace trio combines the exceptional talents of three singular pros into a greater-than-the-parts amalgam of tasteful, creative, straight-ahead jazz.

Vail Jazz Club Series

These performances present rare opportunities for up close and elegant musical evenings with the high caliber Vail Square artists. The events take place on Wednesdays in the intimate setting of Ludwig’s at The Sonnenalp. The evenings comprise of two seatings, the first at 5 p.m. with music beginning at 5:30 p.m. and the second at 7:30 p.m. with music beginning at 8 p.m. Seating is jazz club style at small tables with dinner service available. Tickets are $40 per show or $136 for a four-pack subscription. A $30 food and beverage minimum applies.

July 11 – Nachito Herrera Trio
July 18 – Django Festival All-Star

July 25 – Tony DeSare

Aug. 1 – Andrea Motis featuring Joel Frahm

Aug. 8 – Nicki Parrott

July 9

Gala Performance

Bossa Nova Nights Vail Jazz Gala features Carol Bach-y-Rita, fusing her Brazilian-inspired vocals and fervor for Bossa Nova, Samba and Choro with the piano talents of Grammy winner Bill Cunliffe and a slew of Vail Jazz Workshop alumni for eclectic renditions of American Songbook favorites. This one-off performance is an annual fundraiser for Vail Jazz’s vast educational programs, which instill the art and wisdom of jazz to more than 1,400 young learners every year. The event takes place at The Sebastian in Vail and begins at 5:30 pm. Tickets begin at $250 and include a gourmet dinner, cocktails and appetizers.

Free performances:

Vail Jazz @ The Market

Follow your ears to more free live music every Sunday beginning July 1 at the Vail Farmers Market with a rotating lineup of acclaimed regional acts at Vail Jazz @ The Market from 12 to 3 p.m. in the Solaris tent. Showcasing a variety of regional talent ranging from the Cuban jazz of Los Chicos Malos (July 1) to blues duo Delta Sonics (July 8), R&B-flavored Robert Johnson & The Mark Diamond trio (Aug. 5) or local vocal icon Kathy Morrow’s (Aug. 12) unique takes on jazz classics or the across-the-world upbeat and ever-changing sounds of Fortunato (Aug. 19), the performances are worth hanging out for.

Vail Jazz @ The Remedy

Tony Gulizia and Brian Loftus (BLT) are joined by a rotating cast of visiting musicians for Vail Jazz @ The Remedy, which kicks off at 8 p.m. Sunday, July 1 at The Remedy in the Four Seasons Resort, Vail. The performances are free and take place every Sunday evening through Aug. 26.

Vail Jazz @Riverwalk

Having established itself as the ultimate way to end a week, Vail Jazz @ Riverwalk will launch the weekend in Edwards every Friday in July and August. The series brings free live music to the Riverwalk Backyard Amphitheater in Edwards beginning July 6 with Colorado’s gospel queen, Hazel Miller. Brazilian rhythm kings Ginga land on July 13, the swinging big band sounds of Joe Smith & The Spicy Pickles July 20 and the pop-inspired vocals of soulful songstress Ayo Awosika July 27. The sizzling, highly varied mix of artists continues in August with brass swingers Red Young & His Hot Horns Aug. 3, Afro funk by Paa Kow Aug. 10, the return of saucy 12-piece Quemando Aug. 17 and the swing-funk sounds of trio Claxton, Kovalcheck and Amend Aug. 24.

EC3, Niki Haris, Ken Walker, and Dick Oatts (photo: Jack Affleck)

 

2018 Vail Jazz Labor Day Weekend Party

The 24th Annual Vail Jazz Party serves as the grand finale of the season from Aug. 30 to Sept 3 (Labor Day Weekend). The nearly nonstop indoor and outdoor performances (at Vail Marriott and Vail Square) include more than 35 headliners including, of course, the Vail Jazz Party House Band, return favorites Niki Haris, Jeff Hamilton and Adrian Cunningham as well as Byron Stripling, Benny Green and René Marie, to name just a few, performing in one-off multi-artist jam sessions and multimedia tributes to musical legends. It’s a life-changing long weekend.

Go here for tickets.

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!