The left hand knows what the right hand is doing

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

This is a story of love at first sight.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vail Jazz @ Vail Square: Joey DeFrancesco + The People

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

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

 

Jimmy and the Beast

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grammy winner Eliane Elias lands in Vail this Thursday

Grammy winner Eliane Elias shares song-inspired stories from fans

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vail Jazz @ Vail Square

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

Not the Girl from Ipanema

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here comes ¡Cubanismo!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vail Jazz @ Vail Square: ¡Cubanismo!

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

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

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: