2015 Vail Jazz Party photos now online

Pictures from the 21st Annual Vail Jazz Party are now online! Featuring pictures from nine sessions over Labor Day Weekend, with incredible solos, group performances and once-in-a-lifetime jam sessions. Check them out below:



Vail Jazz All-Stars CD now available for preorder

2015-All-StarsEach year, a dozen of North America’s most dedicated, gifted and promising young jazz musicians are chosen from a broad field of talented applicants, receiving scholarships to participate in the Vail Jazz Workshop. After 10 days of intensive study, the students are proudly referred to as the “Vail Jazz All-Stars,” performing on several occasions as part of the Vail Jazz Party.

This double cd features the 2015 Vail Jazz All-Stars, and their performances from Thursday, September 3 – Sunday, September 6 at the 21st Annual Vail Jazz Party. Over the Vail Jazz Party, the Vail Jazz All-Stars performed in two sextets, the Alto Combo and the Tenor Combo, and all together as a whole.

The songs they performed ranged from well-known jazz favorites to original pieces composed by the students themselves, including Jerome Gillespie’s “What I Meant to Say,” Max Schwartz’s “Mountain Bounce,” Ethan Santos’ “Softly,” and Luca Mendoza’s “Escape.”

Buy your copy today and you will be stunned by the incredible talent of these young musicians, as composers and performers. All sales benefit the 2016 Vail Jazz Workshop; help us support the future of jazz!



Please note that this is a preorder and the CDs will be ready to ship by December 1, 2015.


‘Unrehearsed brilliance’ at the annual Vail Jazz Party on Labor Day weekend

In the early 20th century, musicians began combining Caribbean and African drumming, creating a new sound ingrained in American history: jazz.

“Jazz is America’s unique musical art form,” said Owen Hutchinson, development manager for Vail Jazz. The genre has become a quintessential part of American culture, making the Vail Jazz Party, taking place Thursday through Monday, Sept. 7, a fitting way to celebrate the Labor Day holiday weekend.

The party is the culmination of the 12-week Vail Jazz Festival, which runs from June through September. Approximately 30 world-renowned jazz musicians, such as John Clayton and Roberta Gambarini, will play over the long weekend. Eleven sessions of multiple sets span the five days of festivities and allow the audience to see jazz legends, young professionals and the most talented jazz students in the country.


Each set is performed by a collection of musicians who have never before played in that specific mixture. Each combination of artists will improvise in front of an average audience of more than 500 people. This focus on spontaneity that has long characterized jazz is one of the party’s features that brings jazz lovers back to Vail each year.

Clayton, a bass player and former student of bass legend Ray Brown, said on-stage improvisation and connecting with old friends and young musicians off stage are the best parts of performing in Vail.

“That connection is inspiring” he said, suggesting that it helps develop his creativity. “I have to dig into a deeper place and combine my efforts and experiences” to play with these musicians.

While this creative process may seem like it will yield unwieldy results, Hutchinson said the results of the combinations and different styles are “unrehearsed brilliance.” And the continued success of the Jazz Party corroborates that stance.

The on-stage communication that makes jazz so unique is one of the features that Clayton associates with the genre. One of his earliest musical memories is of watching Brown on stage with other musicians in a Los Angeles club, communicating with their bodies and eyes.

“They were communicating with each other and having a joyous time,” Clayton said. This approach to music affects his playing even today, as he learned early to associate fun with music.


The Jazz Party weekend will provide audiences with endless opportunities to see musicians having fun.

  • Opening night, Thursday, welcomes back artists Bill Cunliffe and Lewis Nash, among others.
  • Friday is largely dedicated to celebrating women in jazz and begins with a showing of the award-winning documentary “The Girls in the Band.” After the film, there will be a multimedia tribute to women in jazz. Seven female performers, including Gambarini, Sherrie Maricle, Niki Haris and Lauren Falls, will perform and discuss their forerunners.
  • Saturday, Sept. 5, focuses on the contribution Brown made to jazz and the influence of drum rhythms.
  • The Gospel Prayer Meetin’ performance on Sunday, Sept. 6, will highlight the importance of gospel sounds to jazz. Since many of the artists developed in a gospel setting, Hutchinson said, this will be a high-energy and fun show.
  • The Jazz Party ends on Monday, Sept. 7, with an all-day session showcasing some of the festival’s greatest artists, including Gambarini, George Cables and others.

Along with fun, the Jazz Party also provides “edutainment,” or entertaining learning opportunities, said Robin Litt, of the Vail Jazz Foundation. Several performances throughout the five days are in a multimedia format, educating the audience about the lives of jazz legends through music, video and still footage. Litt said she hopes these shows will allow the audience to leave performances inspired to learn more.


The Jazz Party also provides opportunities to hear the future of jazz. Clayton said he enjoys listening to the young musicians at the festival because of their varied and contemporary musical vocabulary, incorporating hip-hop and New Orleans-based sounds.

“I love a lot of what they do,” Clayton said, “and I want to grow in that way, as well.”

To encourage the future of jazz, Vail Jazz offers the Vail Jazz Workshop each year during the Jazz Party. Twelve high school students are invited to study in Vail with the professionals playing in the festival. These students go through a rigorous audition, and the workshop aims to provide a focused, technical education different from what they receive at home with their regular teachers. Through this process, Clayton also hopes to solidify their passion for jazz.

“They already come in love with the music and with the idea of pursuing the music at the highest level they can, and they’re only in high school! But they’ve already got that focus,” Clayton said.

With a professional per every two students, these young musicians receive the attention they need to take their music to a higher level. The teachers are also dedicated to breaking some of the constraints with which many contemporary students approach music. Because of an increased dependence on sheet music in universities and conservatories, many students never develop the confidence to improvise.

But at the Vail Jazz workshop, no sheet music is allowed and independent creativity is encouraged. Playing on stage with professionals reinforces this skill, which, according to Litt, is a “very inspiring experience for the students because they’re seeing a life in jazz.”

The Vail Jazz Party is also a place for adults who don’t yet appreciate jazz to learn that it’s more than the classic ballad crooner sounds of Bing Crosby and Sinatra or the free-form elevator music pervasive in shopping malls. It includes genres such as swing and Dixieland, with danceable beats and high energy. So whether you are a jazz skeptic or aficionado, a traditionalist or contemporary jazz listener, there is something for everyone to enjoy at the Vail Jazz Party.

Sherrie Maricle, Karen Hammack, Niki Haris and Roberta Gambarini headline celebration of women in jazz this weekend

Luckily the musical world is well beyond those regrettable times when anyone would hear an amazing instrumentalist and dare say, “she plays pretty well … for a girl.”

The jazz scene in particular has been struck by a steady string of female standouts for decades and the 21st Annual Vail Jazz Party aims to both commemorate and celebrate the genre’s leading ladies, both past and present.

Kicking things off Friday afternoon will be a special screening of the powerful, eye-opening, documentary Girls in the Band. Highlighting the largely untold stories of female jazz musicians from the 1930s (such as trombone player Melba Liston, trumpeter Clora Bryant, pianist Marian McPartland) who, in spite of their incredible talent, faced a rash of sexism, racism and condescension in order to pursue their musical dreams. It is these women who paved the way for today’s female jazz stars.

“I’m definitely NOT aware of being a woman in the band most of the time,” said contemporary trumpet sensation Bria Skonberg, who performed at the Vail Jazz Festival earlier this summer and recently watched Girls in the Band. “There are a lot of women who have worked really hard so I can feel that way.”

The documentary also profiles current female stars, including Sherrie Maricle, drummer and leader of the all-female group DIVA, which made its Vail debut this summer. Maricle returns to town for this weekend’s Vail Jazz Party to perform alongside several other powerhouse musicians in Friday night’s Multi-Media Tribute to Women in Jazz and in various ensembles throughout the weekend.

“When DIVA was formed and to some degree even today, women didn’t usually get the first call for jazz gigs, so I viewed DIVA’s creation as a great opportunity to play amazing music with great players, period,” Maricle said. “Over the last 23-plus years of leading the band and playing with dozens of others, I can tell you with 100-percent certainty that there is absolutely no difference in talent, skill, passion or creativity between DIVA and any other world-class concert jazz orchestra.”

Internationally renowned vocalist Roberta Gambarini will also perform in tonight’s Multi-Media tribute. The Grammy award nominee who hails from Italy has an exuberant vocal style that has been compared to Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan and Carmen McRae, but which is also distinctly her own, each song and each performance rife with fresh trills and spontaneous twists. In addition to Friday’s girl power performance, Gambarini and her Trio will take the stage on Saturday and Monday.

Another familiar vocal talent, not to mention Vail Jazz Party fixture and favorite, Niki Haris will join the all-female power ring for Friday’s multi-media performance and appear numerous times throughout the wall-to-wall music weekend, leading Sunday morning’s climatic Gospel Prayer Meetin’ with the Mile High Gospel Ensemble.

“All races, all colors come together to be part of this spiritual celebration,” Haris said of  the Meetin’ and of gospel itself, which many believe to be the cornerstone of jazz, if not the very foundation of the genre. “Jazz is about freedom of expression.”

Gospel is only one of Haris’ points of focus, but energetic expression is the key ingredient of everything she does. A singer, choreographer, dancer and actor, Haris has worked with everyone from Ray Charles to Mick Jagger, Whitney Houston to Anita Baker and spent 18 years touring and recording with Madonna, arguably the pop star’s most talented band mate of all time. In Vail over the years, Haris has been consistently famous for rattling the stage and willing spontaneous movement of some sort out of every audience member – clapping, swaying or all-out dancing.

“I love the entire energy of the Vail Jazz Festival,” Haris said. “I always say God was having a great day when he made Vail, Colorado – or should I say she? The point is, this is the world we all want to see – everyone celebrating in their own way to whatever God they serve. We’re all here together.”

Karen Hammack is another shining star at which to marvel throughout the Vail Jazz Party. The pianist and singer/songwriter incorporates elements of jazz, gospel, funk, soul and rock into her unique sound and is a master recording artist with a long list of original numbers that have been singled out for their heart-gripping sincerity. Hailing from California, Hammack has worked with Jackson Brown, Michael McDonald, Bill Frisell and Perla Batalla, among many other greats.

Bassist Marion Hayden is a key component to the Tribute to Women in Jazz and will be a vibrant presence throughout the 2015 Vail Jazz Party. Hailing from Detroit, Hayden has taught at the University of Michigan, is a founding member of the all-female group Venus, has collaborated with renowned violinist Regina Carter and has performed or recorded with the likes of Dizzy Gillespie and Sonny Fortune.

Also blazing a trail as the next generation of jazz greats are Vail Jazz Workshop Alumnae Sophie Faught and Lauren Falls. Hailing from a small town in British Columbia with a masters graduate in jazz performance from Manhattan School of Music, Falls composes original music for her own quintet and has studied with iconic bassists such as John Clayton, James Moody and David Baker. A tenor saxophonist from Indiana, Faught currently leads her own band and is a notable composer. She shares the stage with stars such as Terrell Stafford, The Four Tops and The Temptations.

The combined talent of all of these artists is enough to make the mountains quake. Don’t miss this weekend’s celebration of women in jazz. The Friday evening session ticket includes not only the Women in Jazz set, but also riveting performances by famed pianist George Cables Trio, renowned harmonica player Howard Levy and the surprise-filled Late Night Jam Session. For a schedule of 2015 Vail Jazz Party performances, tickets or more information, call 888-VAIL-JAM or visit vailjazz.org.

Q+A with the Vail Jazz Workshop Instructors: John Clayton

Mastermind behind the Vail Jazz Workshop and a pioneer of the Vail Jazz Festival, Grammy winner John Clayton grew up in California learning bass from jazz master Ray Brown, whose bass he now plays.

He toured with the Monty Alexander Trio and the Count Basie Orchestra before taking the position of principle bass in the Amsterdam Philharmonic Orchestra. Upon his return to the states he founded The Clayton Brothers with his brother (and long-time Workshop instructor) saxophonist Jeff Clayton. John is an avid music educator, and currently serves as Artistic Director for no fewer than five jazz organizations, and has composed or arranged for the likes of Natalie Cole, The Tonight Show Band, Quincy Jones, Whitney Houston and Diana Krall.


What is the most memorable comment you’ve received?

When an audience member lets me know that my music touched them, made them feel great or made them cry, it makes me feel like I was successful in sharing my expression.

What’s your favorite on-stage or pre-gig sipper?

I don’t drink on stage. I spent two years in the Count Basie Orchestra and five years in the Amsterdam Philharmonic Orchestra. Both insisted that you hydrate before playing, so I am a bit “Old School” in that regard.

What about a post-gig drink?

Afterward, I’m a wine guy!

What is the most striking venue you’ve ever played?

It’s hard to mention only one! The list would include the Acropolis in Athens, the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, Carnegie Hall, The Hollywood Bowl, and a long list of small venues around the world with intimate acoustics.



Watch the six Vail Jazz Workshop Instructors in action this Vail Jazz Party, together as the Vail Jazz Party House Band and on their own throughout the weekend!

This article is part of a 6-part series highlighting the Vail Jazz Workshop instructors, who comprise the Vail Jazz Party House Band. In it’s 20th year, the Vail Jazz Workshop recruits 12 of the nation’s most talented teenage jazz musicians who travel to Vail for a week of intensive, two-to-one learning with the instructors. The students refine their skills, learn the art of playing by ear and most importantly, come to own and hone their special talents. Thanks to their Vail Jazz mentors, nearly all of the students have gone on to become professional musicians.

Vail Jazz turns 21 and celebrates with blowout party this Labor Day weekend!

It’s customary to go big for one’s 21st year. Vail Jazz is jumping on the bandwagon and pulling out all of the stops for its end-of-summer bash.

Following an entire summer of buildup with weekly concerts featuring a steady stream of today’s hottest jazz artists — many of whom formed in Vail for the first time — the 21st annual Vail Jazz Party brings five days of live music through Labor Day weekend and a more star-studded lineup than ever before.


Thursday, Sept. 3

The party kicks off with the season’s Vail Jazz @ Vail Square finale, featuring a triple bill in the jazz tent in Lionshead Village. The evening begins with 12 teenage proteges carefully selected from 150-plus applicants — the Vail Jazz All-Stars — who will have spent the week vigorously studying with seasoned pros from the Vail Jazz House Band. Then comes the Alumni Quintet — comprised of former students and current rising stars Lauren Falls, Sophie Faught, Evan Sherman, Jumaane Smith and Jeremy Siskind. The performance wraps up with a thunderous set by the Vail Jazz Party House Band, starring John Clayton, Lewis Nash, Terell Stafford, Bill Cunliffe, Wycliffe Gordon and Dick Oatts. All three bands will perform several times throughout the Vail Jazz Party, the All-Stars playing for free at the Jazz Tent in Lionshead at 11:30 a.m. on Sept. 5 and6).

As for the performances Sept. 4-7, the list of artists and performances rivals that of internationally-renowned events like the Newport or Montreal jazz festivals.

Friday, Sept. 4

Running with Vail Jazz’s summer theme of amazingly talented musicians who happen to be women, Sept. 4 kicks off with a screening of the award-winning documentary “The Girls in the Band,” detailing the largely untold stories of female jazz musicians from the 1930s to today, featuring the likes of trombone player Melba Liston, trumpeter Clora Bryant, pianist Marian McPartland, as well as current artists such as DIVA drummer Sherrie Maricle, who will perform in the multimedia tribute to women in jazz alongside powerhouse vocalists Roberta Gambarini, Niki Haris and many others.

The all-female performance is preceded by a performance by George Cables’ trio (bassist George Mraz and drummer Lewis Nash). Considered one of the top jazz pianists of all time, the New York City-based star has been leading bands since the 1960s, recording and performing with big names such as Woody Shaw, Dexter Gordon and Art Blakey.

Saturday, Sept. 5

The Vail Square stage hosts a rotating rainbow of talent beginning at 11:30 a.m. on Sept. 5 Along with another performance by George Cables, standout artists include six-string sensation Russell Malone, who specializes in swing and bebop guitar and who spent several years recording and touring with Harry Connick Jr., Diana Krall and Sonny Rollins. There’s also trumpeter and bandleader Sean Jones, who performed on Nancy Wilson’s Grammy-winning record and has twice won Downbeat’s Rising Star award. Let’s not forget Vail Jazz Party mainstays Jeff Hamilton, who has drummed with Ella Fitzgerald and Count Basie Orchestra and leads his own trio, and trumpeter Terell Stafford, director of jazz studies at Temple University.

The evening heats up as the magic moves to the Vail Marriott with a tribute to the great Ray Brown featuring powerhouse trio Larry Fuller, John Clayton and Jeff Hamilton, followed by Roberta Gambarini’s hypnotizing vocal performance and the most recorded jazz drummer in history, Lewis Nash’s blowout multimedia tribute to his drum heroes.

Sunday, Sept. 6

Don’t think that Sunday morning (Sept. 6) is sleepy around here, especially with what has historically proven itself as the Vail Jazz Party’s most popping event, the Gospel Prayer Meetin’. Led by the energy of vocalist Niki Haris, the stage quakes with the force of the Mile Hi Gospel Ensemble and moving numbers performed by musical stars Byron Stripling, Wycliffe Gordon, Sean Jones and many others. Sunday afternoon (Sept. 6) sessions bring red-hot performances by the Vail jazz Party House Band and Piano Duos, starring a revolving cast of six acclaimed key masters (including Shelly Berg, Larry Fuller, George Cables and Bill Cunliffe) duking it out on grand pianos. Haris returns to the stage Sunday evening (Sept. 6) in the Vail Marriott’s Grand Ballroom alongside Karen Hammack, Marion Haydon and Sherrie Maricle, followed by performances by a jazz celebrity ensemble led by John Clayton, then Byron Stripling’s educational multi-media tribute to the trumpet kings.

Monday, Sept. 7

All of the stars stick around for a final afternoon extravaganza kicking off at 11:30 a.m. with the George Cables Trio, followed by a vocal performance by Roberta Gambarini and one-of-a-kind sets mixing A-listers, Vail Jazz debut artists and long-time regulars. With a final set bringing 13 headliners all onstage at the same time (including four trumpeters!), the Vail Jazz Party ends with an incredible bang!

Single day-time session tickets (including access to all afternoon sets) to the Vail Jazz Party are $55 and evening sessions (including entry to the lively and spontaneous Light Night Jams) are $75. Gospel Prayer Meetin’ tickets are $55. Performance Passes are $350 and Patron Passes are $425 through Friday August 28, when pass prices increase.

Q+A with the Vail Jazz Workshop instructors: Terell Stafford

Terell Stafford first picked up the trumpet at age thirteen, initially studying classical music. After a meeting with Wynton Marsalis who suggested he pursue jazz studies at Rutgers University, he began to become interested in and immerse himself in jazz. Terell eventually made the switch from classical to jazz, and his career took off both as a performer and a musical educator.

Terell is now based in New York, where he has worked with the Juilliard School’s jazz program and the Lincoln Center’s Essentially Ellington program. He is also the Director of Jazz Studies at Temple University in Philadelphia and serves as the Managing and Artistic Director of the Jazz Orchestra of Philadelphia. His professional career is just as impressive as his educational one; has performed and recorded with an impressive array of artists and groups, from Diana Krall to Bobby Watson, and currently leads the Terell Stafford Quintet.



What is the best part of the Vail Jazz Festival? 

It’s definitely a family affair. It’s like a big reunion.

What is the most memorable comment you’ve received from a fan?

One particular year, the parents of a student came up to me and let me know their son had a rough year and that the Vail Jazz Workshop was the highlight of his year. He was so excited to play, it really helped him. You always hear growing up that music is powerful and healing, not just from a listening standpoint, but from a mentoring one.

What’s your favorite post-gig meal?

Steak or baby-back ribs.

What is your favorite restaurant in Vail?

Sweet Basil. (psst, check out Vail Jazz @ Sweet Basil on August 30th!)

What is the most striking venue you’ve ever played?

Overlooking Mt. Fuji.



Stay tuned for next week’s “Q+A with: John Clayton”!

This article is part of a 6-part series highlighting the Vail Jazz Workshop instructors, who comprise the Vail Jazz Party House Band. In it’s 20th year, the Vail Jazz Workshop recruits 12 of the nation’s most talented teenage jazz musicians who travel to Vail for a week of intensive, two-to-one learning with the instructors. The students refine their skills, learn the art of playing by ear and most importantly, come to own and hone their special talents. Thanks to their Vail Jazz mentors, nearly all of the students have gone on to become professional musicians.

Q+A with the Vail Jazz Workshop Instructors: Dick Oatts

Brand new to the Vail Jazz Festival and the Vail Jazz Workshop, Iowa native Dick Oatts will replace veteran Jeff Clayton this year in the Vail Jazz Party House Band. In 1977 Dick moved to New York City and joined the Thad Jones / Mel Lewis Orchestra. Since then he has recorded and toured with an amazing array of stars, including Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn, Tito Puente, and Mel Tormé, and has appeared on over 100 albums as a sideman. He has been an artist-in-residence at the Amsterdam Conservatory since 1997.

Formerly a faculty member at the Manhattan School of Music, he is now the artistic director and a professor (alongside Terell Stafford) at Temple University. Vail Jazz is proud to welcome him to the Vail Jazz Workshop faculty!



What is your connection to Vail Jazz? 

I have had students attend the Workshop and have worked with several members of its great teaching faculty over the years.


What is your favorite pre-gig beverage?

Water or decaf coffee.

Do you have a pre-gig ritual?

Having a good reed that can vibrate the air I can put into the saxophone. Also, not eating too much in order to have enough air for the gig.

What’s your favorite post-gig meal?

I’m a vegan so my meals are usually boring—something with a little salt or spice added.

What is the most striking venue you have ever performed at?

Village Vanguard in NYC and some of the beautiful outside festivals in Italy, Spain or Greece.



Stay tuned for next week’s “Q+A with: Terell Stafford”!

This article is part of a 6-part series highlighting the Vail Jazz Workshop instructors, who comprise the Vail Jazz Party House Band. In it’s 20th year, the Vail Jazz Workshop recruits 12 of the nation’s most talented teenage jazz musicians who travel to Vail for a week of intensive, two-to-one learning with the instructors. The students refine their skills, learn the art of playing by ear and most importantly, come to own and hone their special talents. Thanks to their Vail Jazz mentors, nearly all of the students have gone on to become professional musicians.

Spotlight on the Vail Jazz Festival

Tony Gulizia speaks to Vail Mountain about what makes the Vail Jazz Festival so special!


“If you are a jazz aficionado and you follow the different styles of jazz you will see at this festival undoubtedly some of the greatest names in the world and you can sit down and listen to what I consider to be the cream of the crop. Over the years with all of the musicians who I have had the opportunity to perform with, or just to hang with, these players love so much to come here.

For the whole year they look forward to coming here, not just because of the venue but because of the surroundings, hanging and playing in Vail. Here you can sit in a small room and listen to some of these great players and actually get to meet them… some of the greatest players in the world, and when they’re done you can go up and shake their hand.

I think that one of the highlights of the Vail Jazz Festival is that the artists are so close-knit to the audience. They become part of the whole jazz family, and after 4 or 5 days while they’re here at the festival they really get an opportunity to meet these people and realize that gosh, these jazz musicians really are cool guys, or cool cats as people say.”


The Vail Jazz Festival culminates over Labor Day Weekend with the Vail Jazz Party, from September 3-7. With over 40 of the jazz world’s biggest name convening in Vail, this event is a must-see for music lovers! Find out more information here.



The Vail Jazz Party brings non-stop music to Vail through Monday

Depending on how you feel about the genre, 35 hours of listening to jazz sounds like either a dream come true or a great way to cure insomnia.

“People think they don’t like jazz,” said part-time Vail resident and longtime jazz fan Rosemary Heller. “(But those) people have never really been to a jazz performance. I think it’s really important to see live jazz performed so that they can see the interaction between the musicians, see how exciting and dynamic it is to see music created right in front of them.”

This Labor Day weekend, jazz will be played and made live from early morning to late evening during the Vail Jazz Party, which closes out the Vail Jazz Festival’s 20th anniversary summer. The Vail Jazz Party lives up to its name with concerts, tributes, jam sessions and more for a five-day, non-stop jukebox of jazz music. There’s a song or a riff for everyone at the Vail Jazz Party, and for the hardcore fans, the difficult part isn’t deciding what to attend, but what one must leave out.

“People always say to me, ‘There’s so much’,” said Howard Stone, chairman of the board and artistic director of the Vail Jazz Festival. “They almost get crazed about it. I advise people to take the program and pick the stuff that really looks interesting to you. Out of the 35 hours of music over the weekend, you could choose to listen to 10 or 15 hours. A lot of people during the daytime will come to the tent and they’ll listen to an hour or two of music, then go for a hike, then come back and listen to more music.”

Jazz stars of today and tomorrow

The Vail Jazz Party got going with the Thursday evening session at the Jazz Tent in Vail Square with alumni from the Vail Jazz Workshop, which brings some of the most talented high school students to Vail every summer to learn and listen from professional jazz musicians. John Clayton, education director for the Vail Jazz Foundation, said these prodigious players might not be able to vote, but they’ve already won over many Vail Jazz Party crowds in the past.

“Standing ovations, almost every time,” Clayton said. “More than anything, (the audience) is just blown away by the level of the music, that just happens to be played by people under 20 years old.”

One workshop alumni who performed Thursday is Justin Kauflin, who’s made a big name for himself since his high school days. In his early 20s, Kauflin, a blind jazz pianist, found a mentor in legendary trumpeter Clark Terry. This relationship is chronicled in the documentary “Keep On Keepin’ On,” which will be screened today at 2 p.m. at Antlers at Vail. The film follows Terry, then in his late 80s, as he starts to lose his vision while teaching Kauflin. Because of this, the two begin to connect on a level deeper than music.

Clayton said Kauflin’s captivating key strokes were evident early on.

“(He) was quite shy, but he stepped up to the plate when it was time to perform,” Clayton said. “I don’t know if it’s so much about his style. If you stop and think about what draws you to music at a concert, it’s always the heart, it’s always the soul. So what if you hear really fast cool notes, so what if you hear something that’s really loud. But when someone moves you inside, you never forget that. I think that’s what people experience when they hear someone like Justin.”

Live, jammin’ and jivin’

After the “Keep On Keepin’ On” screening, tonight will feature a tribute to Terry. This is one of four tribute sessions throughout the weekend. Famed vocalist Sarah Vaughan will be honored Saturday night and Benny Goodman will be remembered in melody on Sunday evening. There will also be a drum session tipping the beat to drummer and bandleader Mel Lewis on Saturday. The tributes mix live music with video footage of the stars’ past performances.

“Current members of the jazz audience only know their names but never had a chance to see them perform live,” Stone said. “The tributes are a way to interact with the audience but at the same time educate them. … Everyone knows Benny Goodman, everyone knows he was the ‘King of Swing,’ but what’s the story behind that? What did he sound like live? What did he look like while he was performing?”

In between listening to jazz greats from the past and the potential future, the Vail Jazz Party offers plenty of opportunities to see some of the best jazz musicians of the present. Throughout the weekend there are morning, afternoon and evening sessions, and even late-night jam sessions that go into the wee hours just for the night owls. These jam sessions are a free-wheeling ride of improvised tunes and sonic surprises. Well-known jazz vocalist Curtis Stigers said when it comes to jazz, the singer isn’t always the one who gets the spotlight.

“In the jazz world, the jazz singer is like the red-headed stepchild,” Stigers said. “He doesn’t really fit into a bunch of players.”

Still, someone has to sing the words, and the jam sessions are a chance for Stigers to stretch those vocal chords in a new way. Oddly enough, Stigers said a vocalist practices scatting for jam sessions by mimicking other instruments, like the horn.

“The nice thing about jazz is we all share the same language,” Stigers said. “We can all speak jazz to each other on stage.”

For Clayton, a legendary jazz bassist in his own right, a jam session is a chance for musicians to “let their hair down,” he said.

“It’s not organized, it’s not calculated,” Clayton said. “Think of when you’re a child playing with other kids in the playground. You don’t have an agenda. You show up at the playground and there’s the jungle gym, there’s the swing, there’s the slide and there’s the sandbox. You just do your own thing. … That’s why they call it play, not work.”

Spiritual sounds in the mountains

Even if you stay up for the late night jam sessions, make sure to set your alarm for Sunday morning’s Gospel Prayer Meetin’, set for 9 a.m. at the Jazz Tent at Vail Square. Featuring vocalists Niki Haris and Ann Hampton Callaway, the gospel music session is often the most popular concert of the entire Labor Day weekend. Haris spent decades performing for pop audiences, both as a backup singer for Madonna and as a solo artist with her own club hits. Haris’ father was a jazz pianist and she initially returned to her jazz roots to be closer to him.

“Jazz was a way my father and I could bond again through music,” Haris said. “Whenever I’m on stage singing jazz, I’m so grateful that people still want to hear me. It was (first) a way for me to connect with my father and I happened to know the songs. Now it’s time for me to do the music justice and not have it just be an homage to my dad.”

Haris also grew up with gospel and calls it the “good news” spoken from a chorus of voices.

“I always took a spiritual approach to all the music I sing, including jazz,” Haris said. “If it’s not touching and reaching me on a real, visceral and cellular level, if it stays too much in my head, it doesn’t work for me. I sing from a place that’s from my heart.”

Haris said the best thing about the Vail Jazz Party is listening to jazz and gospel while surrounded by the mountains, which she calls “God’s natural music.”

“You can just walk in Vail and there’s music everywhere,” Haris said. “That’s the reason to go to this festival. You’ve got Mother Nature’s music and you’ve got Coltrane. (To me), that’s called heaven.”

The idea of music in your ear while looking out at the mountains does sound pretty heavenly. When you think about it, we can always listen in on the mountains, but hearing live jazz from some of the best musicians in the world only comes one weekend a year. Even if you only plan to listen for a song, a session or perhaps the whole 35 hours, the Vail Jazz Party will keep on playing until the last minute of summer. Just don’t party too hard; school starts up for some the day after.