New Donovan Pavilion shows bring jazz club setting to snowy Vail

Summer is not the only time that Vail transforms into a hub for some of the world’s greatest jazz artists. While the snow falls and nighttime entertainment ebbs, Vail Jazz pours a tall glass of first-rate live music on select special evenings this winter.

Vail Jazz’s 2016 Winter Series lineup is confirmed and consists of two exclusive, invite-only soirées at private residences, a big-time Vilar Center performance and a pair of one-of-a-kind evenings in Vail, transforming Donovan Pavilion into an intimate dinner lounge scene reminiscent of jazz clubs in Chicago or New York.

Magical jazz evenings in Vail

The heart of the Winter Series beats at Donovan Pavilion, transforming the beautiful wooden lodge on Gore Creek into an alpine jazz club with beer, wine and scrumptious gourmet bites from Edwards foodie favorite eat! drink! and a pair of performers that are bright lights on the up-and-coming jazz world radar.

Caesar sings Nat “King” Cole on Feb. 25

Nothing makes for a cozier winter evening than the rich strains of Nat Cole, especially when delivered by acclaimed baritone Caesar. With constant flashes of a huge, bright smile not unlike Cole’s, Caesar, a Chicago native, enraptures audiences with deep, spellbinding vocals that have been compared to the King’s long before Caesar began performing the legend’s greatest hits. Caesar’s voice earned him the first and only baritone spot on Julio Iglesias’ world tour and brings back the vocal velvet of Nat “King” Cole’s Golden Age with every performance.

Sarah McKenzie Quartet on March 10

If you haven’t heard of Sarah McKenzie, be assured that you will. The young Australian pianist has sung alongside Michael Buble and is referred to by James Morrison, one of her many A-list mentors, as “a musical marvel.” With vocals that have been likened to those of Diana Krall and Norah Jones, Morrison says that McKenzie’s “groove of the piano is the stuff that makes people want to play jazz.”

Vail Jazz Winter Series performances at Donovan Pavilion kick off at 7:30 p.m. (food served beginning at 6:30 p.m.) and are limited to audiences of about 120. Seating will be lounge/jazz club style at small tables with wine, beer and gourmet fare served cash bar-style by eat! drink! of Edwards. Parking is free. Tickets are $30 in advance, available beginning Dec. 29 at or by calling 888-VAIL-JAM.

Private soirées

The Winter Series kicks off with an invite-only intimate soirée on Jan. 29 as six- string virtuoso Frank Vignola and accordionist Julien Labro stoke the flames of the hot gypsy jazz tradition. The second soirée in the Series wraps up the winter on March 25 with a truly grand finale starring renowned New Orleans-based pianist and singer Jon Cleary performing The History of New Orleans Piano. Touring internationally with the likes of John Scofield, Taj Mahal and Bonnie Raitt, Raitt has touted Cleary to be “the ninth wonder of the world.”

Beaver Creek big stage

On Feb. 10, Vail Jazz partners with the Vilar Performing Arts Center as two-time Grammy winners Yellowjackets make their Beaver Creek debut with a mix of R & B, fusion and straight ahead jazz. The four piece, which has been nominated for a whopping 17 Grammy Awards and whose hit song “A Rise in the Road” debuted as No. 1 on the iTunes Jazz Charts, is about to release its 24th album.

Workshop alumns in Vanity Fair

Two recent articles in Vanity Fair Magazine focused on today’s bright new generation of jazz musicians, and featured a dozen Vail Jazz Workshop alumns in the ranks of the best young musicians on the scene.

Grace Kelly (’08, sax) appears alongside Vail favorite Cyrille Aimée in an article about Millenials who are shaking up the jazz world. (Robert Glasper, ’97 piano, gets an honorable mention but misses the age cutoff).

In another article about the parade of sensational young jazz players on today’s scene, dubbed the Jazz “youth-quake” ,  another nine Vail Jazz Workshop alumns are mentioned.

Congrats to Elena Pinderhughes (’11, sax), Luques Curtis (’00, bass), Russell Hall (’10, bass), Hailey Niswanger (’07, sax), Lakecia Benjamin (’99, sax), Erica Von Kleist (’98, sax), Sullivan Fortner (’02, piano), Marcus Gilmore (’02, drums), and alumn of the original 1998 Workshop class, Miles Mosley (bass).

Photo for Vanity Fair by Mark Seliger.



‘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

Make way for the next generation of jazz

In its 20th year, the Vail Jazz Workshop hosts 12 of the nation’s top teenage musicians preceding this weekend’s annual Labor Day Jazz Party

Luca Rodoni wasn’t one of those musical prodigies who sat down at his first piano lesson as a small boy and started playing a symphony.

“When I was young, I hated it,” says the high school senior, one of 12 teenagers selected from a massive pool of applicants to partake in this week’s Vail Jazz Workshop. “I went to every lesson crying. I went home crying. That went on for years.”

So the piano wasn’t his thing.

The trumpet was a different story.

On his ninth birthday, Rodoni’s Swiss grandfather brought him a trumpet. When he had to choose an instrument for school a year or two later, he picked it up. Right before he entered the seventh grade, Rodoni was exposed to a local jazz camp. Although it was “just a dinky thing,” he says the camp “opened my ears.”

Hypnotized by the magic of jazz harmony, Rodoni “got very serious” about music. He began playing his trumpet for hours every day and seizing every opportunity to learn more about jazz. He formed several performance groups, has traveled with the elite Jazz Band of America and even up and moved to Park City, Utah in order to further his blossoming jazz career.

Still, he applied for the Vail Jazz Workshop last year and was not selected.

Determined to make it happen this year, however, Rodoni proved his worth to Vail Jazz Workshop mentor and co-founder John Clayton by transcribing intricate solos of his trumpet heroes – Lee Morgan, Freddie Hubbard and Blue Mitchell. Among 140 extremely talented applicants from across the United States vying for one of 12 spots in the 2015 Vail Jazz Workshop, Rodoni made the cut.

In its 20th year, the Vail Jazz Workshop is a 10-day program in which Clayton – a Grammy winner and one of the world’s leading jazz bassists – and the five other members of the Vail Jazz Party House Band intensively mentor the students in technique and playing by ear. The workshop culminates in students transforming into the Vail Jazz All-Stars and performing multiple times throughout the 21st annual Vail Jazz Party, Sept. 3 to 7 alongside the Vail Jazz House Band and 40 other national and international renowned jazz stars. They perform two free shows – at 11:30 a.m. on Saturday and Sunday in the Jazz Tent in Lionshead.

“The Vail Jazz Party has committed to simultaneously presenting first class performances as well as being responsible for a high level of jazz education,” Clayton says. “There is a healthy understanding of the importance of giving back, moving things forward and investing in the future.”

Led by fellow Vail Jazz House Band members and mentors Terell Stafford, Bill Cunliffe, Wycliffe Gordon, Lewis Nash and Dick Oatts, the 2015 Vail Jazz Workshop is comprised of 11 other teenage students, who, in spite of their youth, are also on the fast track to becoming professional musicians.

A California native, 17-year-old drummer Alec Smith is also a member of Jazz Band of America. He has won scholarships to the Stanford Jazz Institute and is part of several performing groups. TrumpeterEvan Abounassar (age 16) has already won outstanding soloist awards at the Monterey, Reno and Irvine Jazz Festivals and has played with the likes of The Grammy Jazz Band and National YoungArts Foundation. A brass multi-instrumentalist, trombonist Remee Ashley (16) has split his teenage years performing with the San Francisco High School All-Stars as well as the Berkeley High Chamber Winds & Orchestra and provides free music lessons to underprivileged children. The workshop’s two student bass players have ties to Berkeley as well. Solomon Gottfried (17) also launched his childhood musical pursuits on the piano but by the time he was big enough to handle a double bass, found his true calling, moving to Michigan to attend Interlochen Arts Academy and perform with the Academy orchestra, which included a tour of China. Bassist and Berkely resident Max Schwartz (18) was only 10 years old when he began arranging jazz compositions and now performs regularly at the San Francisco Jazz Center and popular jazz club Yoshi’s.

The piano stuck for Californians Lucas Hahn (age 15) and Luca Mendoza (16).

Specializing in both jazz and classical, Mendoza has, among many other honors, won Best Composition for the DownBeat Student Music Awards and was NextGen Finalist at the Monterey Jazz Festival. Hahn trains with renowned pianist Taylor Eigsti and was selected for the elite Stanford Jazz Workshop Jazz Camp and Residency program at the age of 12. Trombonist Ethan Santos (17) won a DownBeat Student Music Award (for Outstanding Performance) and has been a part of Stanford Jazz Institute, the California Band Director’s Association Honor Concert Band, the California Orchestra Director’s Association Honors Symphony Orchestra, the Cal Poly All-State Music Festival Honor Jazz Band and the 2015 GRAMMYCamp-Jazz Session big band. Both of the saxophone players at Vail Jazz’s 2015 workshop hail from the tri-state area. Growing up in Brooklyn, 17-year-old Rodney James-Spann established an inseparable bond with the tenor sax in middle school after years of piano lessons, earning him a spot in the Julliard Music Advancement Program. Having won many other scholarships to elite nationally recognized programs, he was the youngest member selected for the Jazz at Lincoln Center Youth Orchestra. New Jersey native Alex Laurenzi got his start on violin from the age of 6 before switching to alto sax at age 9, going on to win a DownBeat Student Award for best junior high school soloist, an Essentially Ellington Outstanding Alto Saxophonist Award and a spot in the 2015 Grammy Band. Jerome Gillespie (17) also started out on the violin as a very small boy but gravitated to the drums by the time he was 6. Having won the MusicDoingGood scholarship all-star award and selected as Outstanding Soloist at the Moores School of Jazz Festival, he attends Houston’s High School for the Performing and Visual Arts.

Clearly, each of this year’s workshop students is a rising star already. For students like Rodoni, however, this week with Vail Jazz presents the most pivotal learning and performance experience yet.

Although it brought on all those tears as a child, the piano is now a crucial composition tool for the trumpet player, who dedicates five hours a day to playing jazz. Allowing both his talent and passion to guide him, the Bozeman teen has already played with Vail Jazz veteran Wycliffe Gordon, fellow trombonist Robin Eubanks and trumpet great Brian Lynch. He even performed with a band that opened for rock group Journey in front of 45,000 people at a music festival in Salt Lake City. But he views this week’s workshop and upcoming performances in Vail as his next major career step.

“I have so many questions that range from technical stuff to concepts,” Rodoni says. “It’s a great time to ask those questions when you’re around a world class faculty. The accessibility of these very accomplished musicians is really the big thing. I’m theirs for a week and they’re mine. There’s incredible inspiration that comes from that.”

Vail Jazz Festival welcomes students from across the nation

Carolyn Pope for “Vail Valley Scenery,” Special To the Vail Daily

If you see some high-schoolers wandering around Vail this week, instrument cases in hand and a bounce in their step, you might give them a high-five and welcome them to the world of Vail Jazz.

This week, 12 young men from across the nation are in Vail honing their skills with some of the best jazz instructors and musicians in the country. Education is the cornerstone of the Vail Jazz Foundation. It’s not just about bringing in world-class musicians for all of us to enjoy; it’s about passing the torch to the next generation, and the folks of the Jazz Festival, under the watchful eye of Howard Stone, have been doing just that for the past 20 years.

“This may be the most talented group we have ever seen,” said Owen Hutchinson, development manager for the Jazz Foundation.

The students were introduced to their host families, a group of six families from Vail to Edwards who volunteer their homes and hospitality for the week the students are attending classes. Dinner was served at Lion Square Lodge, and a casual jam session featuring the students ensued. The young men had only been together for one afternoon, which gave the audience a first look at their talent.

Maureen Mayer, along with her husband, Wing, have hosted students for the past four years. “I love jazz, plain and simple,” she said. “I want to see the art form move further, and the only way for that to happen is to have young people learning and playing jazz.”

The other hosts echoed her sentiments.

“The kids who get chosen are not only talented but intelligent,” she said. “They have to fit all their gigs in on top of school, and they are all stellar students.”

Also hosting students are locals Karen Rosenbach and Tom Daniel, Sharon Kirschner and Dan Brajtbord, Glen and Margaret Wood, Karen and Jay Johnson, and I couldn’t resist, either, since my son headed off to college this fall, so I have two great kids, Alec Smith, a drummer, and Alex Laurenzi, who plays alto saxophone.

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.

Grammy Award-winning Gregory Porter makes Vail debut this Thursday

Gregory Porter was barely in kindergarten when he wrote his first song.

It went like this:

“Once upon a time I had a dream boat/once upon a time I had a love/Was it just a dream that I did love you …”

Sounds pretty sophisticated for a five-year-old, right? Clearly, the Brooklyn based, California-born singer was onto something big.

“I knew nothing about love. Or dream boats. I had never been on a boat, never been in love. What am I talking about?” Porter wondered aloud in a Soul Talkinterview in London last year.

As a child, the 43-year-old never would have guessed he’d make a career out of his singing and songwriting, or go on to win a Grammy Award (Best Jazz Vocal Album in 2014 for Liquid Spirit).

Raised in southern California by his mother with his father mostly absent from his life, Porter’s mother likened her young son’s sound to Nat King Cole’s. Sneaking into his mother’s record collection, Porter would listen to Cole and imagine the iconic singer was his father. It was at that young age that Porter realized the power of music.

“Yes it’s entertainment, but it’s a deeper thing. The ability of music to heal, do other things, was clear. [Nat King Cole] wrote those songs not for a 5-year-old boy listening on a console stereo. He wrote it to make music, for his career. But I was thinking, ‘this is my daddy.’ And unbeknownst to me, I was cultivating a whole thing – ear training … all of it,” he said on Soul Talk.

It wasn’t long before Porter’s mother, a storefront minister, enlisted her son to sing gospel in her church. Though a burgeoning athletic career that led to a full ride football scholarship to San Diego State University was curtailed by a shoulder injury, Porter always found an emotional outlet in his music.

As Porter’s sound developed, it was influenced by “everything on the radio.” Michael Jackson, Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder are names that fall under his style umbrella. Led by his all-encompassing baritone, Porter’s own sound, he says, encompasses “the full musical experience.”

Stevie Wonder is just one of the big names with whom Porter has shared the stage in the last few years. He has also performed alongside Elton John and Quincy Jones.

“When I heard that Elton john was a fan I was like, ‘you a liar and a half,’ Porter said. “I’m still blown away by those names.”

Porter had moved to Brooklyn and began performing at small neighborhood venues in 2004. He took up a residency at St. Nick’s Club in Harlem and found his touring band. His first two albums, “Water” in 2010 and “Be Good” in 2012 were nominated for Grammy Awards and 2013’s “Liquid Spirit” won for Best Jazz Vocal Album. As for his emotional kinship to Cole, a major part of Porter’s theater career (which also included his role in the original cast of Broadway’s “It Ain’t Nothin’ But The Blues”) was the musical he co-wrote and co-founded, “Nat King Cole & Me.”

Always appearing in his trademark fuzzy Kangol hat and told more than once by his band mates to “not sing so hard,” Porter doesn’t shy away from writing songs about tough situations and real-life experiences, painful as they may be.

“I want to speak to the human heart,” he says.

Many of Porter’s songs pay tribute or were somehow inspired by his mother, who always believed in him and foresaw his successful future from the moment she laid ears on that first song.

“She used to say, ‘your gift will give you space at a table with kings.’ That’s happening for me,” Porter says.

Don’t miss Grammy winner Gregory Porter with quartet – Chip Crawford on piano, Aaron James on bass, Emanuel Harrold on drums and Yosuke Sato on saxophone – at 6 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 27 for Vail Jazz @ Vail Square in the all-weather jazz tent in Lionshead. Jazz Tent tickets are $15 or $30 for VIP seats (including front of the tent seating and a drink ticket). Ticket prices go up an hour before showtime. 

Rising star Bria Skonberg makes Vail debut

Hailed by many as one of the modern jazz world’s most striking talents, the trumpet player/singer recounts her multi-faceted route toward self-expression

Impossible to guess while hypnotized by her sultry, 1950s- style vocals, red hot trumpet solos and commanding stage presence, Bria Skonberg is a “trained extrovert.” Growing up on a farm in the small town of Chilliwack outside of Vancouver, B.C., the 30-year-old fell in love with the trumpet as preteen after her parents encouraged her to play with a variety of instruments – the piano, bass and clarinet.

“I always understood that music is like food,” Skonberg says. “You should try everything.” That adventurous mindset has led the Canadian to her eclectic sound. Rooted in traditional jazz, Skonberg has not held back when it comes to experimenting with world percussion and electronic sounds on her first three records and promises that the fourth upcoming recording (crowdfunded here), will house her most dynamic original material to date.

This unconstrained drive that appears to define Skonberg’s style and character did not come naturally to the musician … or so she says. She claims that she was extremely shy as a child and didn’t truly come out of her shell until taking the lead role (Sandy) as a ninth grader in her school’s musical performance of Grease.

Clearly, the extrovert training became intensive because by the time Skonberg was midway through high school, she had worked her way up the ranks in school bands and choir, had instigated and managed her own jazz, ska, big bands and even a marching band. She was also captain of the basketball team and president of student council.

“I’m a product of great parents and teachers,” says the tall, striking blonde from a midtown diner near Manhattan’s famous Birdland Jazz Club, where Skonberg regularly performs with Wycliffe Gordon (Vail Jazz Workshop instructor) and a slew of other jazz greats in between traveling the world with her own band  “The play in ninth grade was where I started to sing openly. I was too shy before that. Now I can see the trajectory. The trumpet has been a great vehicle for letting that soul out,” she says.

Skonberg moved to New York City from Vancouver in 2010. It took her no time at all to find her stride and take up her cadre of activities, but these days, they’re all geared toward making, performing and teaching music. While she can’t exactly cut loose on the trumpet in her small Lower East Side apartment, the Canadian spends a significant chunk of every day she’s in town making faces at herself in the mirror in an effort to dial in her most efficient trumpet mouth. And she prefers to tackle all of her chores and training within a calculated time slot.

“If you can focus for 10 minutes and play something vigorous, it’s like heavy lifting. You need air in between. It’s this buzz that happens. But a lot of practice is me looking in the mirror going [makes a puckered lip face]. With the trumpet, you have to do whatever you can do to efficiently push air through the horn and make it vibrate. Working on dexterity, placement of the tongue … it’s the mechanical things that make the difference. You get one finger partially off and it starts to squeak.”

There’s not much squeaking that happens in Skonberg’s world, literally or figuratively. Whether she’s launching into a trumpet solo or belting out a verse, kindling a hot jazz camp for kids in the city, pledging for feedback and funds for a new record, testing a line for her next original tune, performing as a sidewoman (“at this point I’m one of the guys”) with an ensemble of big name veterans or conducting an honest interview in a Manhattan coffee shop, she is going all out.

But she says the extrovert training is still a work in progress. One key step Skonberg has unquestionably mastered is embracing her unique talent and letting it shine unobstructed, uncompromised by any doctoring or dolling up.

“In the jazz world, we call that a ‘hood ornament,’” she says. “When I moved to New York, I had this idea that if you’re too pretty, people won’t take you seriously. When I lived in British Columbia I was wearing sparkly dresses, singing for a big band. I plugged that into New York, and it didn’t have the same effect. So I cut through the … whatever the politically correct word is …. and it was a huge integrity check along the way. Now four or five years in, I’m more comfortable. I can say, this is what I look like. This is what I play like. Now what am I going to do that’s different?”

Bria Skonberg makes her Vail debut with quartet – Dalton Ridenhour on piano, Sean Cronin on bass, and Darrian Douglas on drums – at 6 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 20 for Vail Jazz @ Vail Square in the all-weather jazz tent in Lionshead. Click here for tickets.

Remembering Mezz, the Muggles King

Early this year I was in New York and dropped by Mezzrow, a new jazz club in Greenwich Village. It is the sister club to the very hip Smalls Jazz Club, located less than a block away. When I am in New York, Smalls is one of my go-to spots for great jazz with an appreciative audience that comes to listen. Mezzrow bills itself as a listening room and “a place for music lovers to have an intimate experience, … a musical environment run by musicians for musicians.” I thoroughly enjoyed the experience at the club and it got me thinking about the name “Mezzrow.”

I knew there was a musician by the name of Mezz Mezzrow who had played the clarinet, and my curiosity got the better of me, so I spent some wonderful time learning about one of the more fascinating characters in jazz who epitomized the early years of the genre and the legendary hipster image of long ago.

Milton “Mezz” Mezzrow was born into a middle class (some say impoverished) Jewish immigrant family in Chicago before the turn of the last century and died in 1972. His teen years were marked by brushes with the law and he was in and out of reform schools and prisons, where he first was exposed to jazz and blues. Inspired to take up the clarinet (he also played the alto and tenor saxophone), Mezz immersed himself in the jazz scene of Chicago in the ’20s.

Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, Mezz Mezzrow and others at jam session

Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, Mezz Mezzrow and others at jam session (photo Gjon Mili)

Hanging out with many of the giants of jazz, his circle of musician friends included King Oliver, Sidney Bechet, Louis Armstrong and many other people of color. Embracing the culture of his African-American friends, he married an African-American woman and moved to Harlem. He explained later in his autobiography, “Really The Blues” (1946), that when he first heard jazz he knew what his calling in life would be. He “was going to be a Negro musician, hipping (teaching) the world about the blues the way only Negroes can.” He declared himself to be a “voluntary Negro.” Mezz can also be heard on six recordings with the legendary Fats Waller and many others greats.


In a career that was probably more noted for off-the-band-stand activities than accomplishments with his horn, his friendship with Louis Armstrong led him to become Armstrong’s assistant and for a time his manager.

He organized, played in and financed many historic recording sessions with the black titans of jazz in the 1930s and 1940s and helped reignite an interest in New Orleans-style jazz. Ultimately, Mezz founded King Jazz Records in the mid-’40s, recording multiple “sides” with his friend Sidney Bechet, who is considered to be one of the greatest soprano sax players of all time.

Mezz can also be heard on six recordings with the legendary Fats Waller and many others greats. Notwithstanding the company he kept and recorded with, the consensus is that he wasn’t one of the top clarinetist of the day, but it was his devotion to the music and generosity with his musician friends that earned him their respect.

I would be leaving out an important detail of this story if I didn’t tell you about Mezz’s activities as a marijuana dealer. He was an advocate of marijuana as an alternative to alcohol and other drugs and he was a reliable supplier to many musicians. In fact, “mezz,” “the mighty mezz” and “mess-rolls” all became slang for marijuana in the jazz community. Mezz himself was known as the “Muggles King,” another slang term for marijuana at the time. In 1940, he was busted for his drug selling activities and sentenced to jail. When he was about to be placed in a cell block with other white prisoners he protested that he was black and was ultimately placed in the prison’s segregated black section.

Mezz was an outspoken critic of segregation and a proponent of equal rights for all, well before the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. Mezz was truly a complex one-of-a-kind character who lived at a time when the values and mores of the U.S. were undergoing a dramatic change and he was right in the forefront of it all.

After appearing at the 1948 Nice Jazz Festival, he joined many other ex-pat American jazz musicians living in France, making Paris his home during the last 20 years of his life, playing jazz and being Mezz.