Vail Jazz Goes to School returns with a sweet reward in store

Vail Jazz Goes to School, Vail Jazz’s music education program for fourth- and fifth-graders, returns to schools in Eagle County starting today. This third session brings a trio of professional musicians and educators into 15 local schools to share their love of jazz and American history, and to inspire young people to embrace America’s own art form, whether as spectators or musicians.

Musician and educator Tony Gulizia leads the program.

“When the kids get to use their own hands to play an instrument as they do in this session, the beauty of the music really comes alive for them. They understand how it works and why improvisation is at the heart of all jazz music,” Gulizia said.

Two jazz educators — Gulizia’s brother, Joey, drums, and Andy Hall, bass — join him in this session as they introduce the blues scale and other techniques used in improvisation. Students are taught the notes of the blues scale and musical concepts such as dissonance and syncopation. With this foundation, the older students then get a chance to try their hand at creating their own jazz by writing 12-bar blues compositions, with lyrics put to a blues beat.

At the final concert on May 10 and 11 at the Vilar Performing Arts Center, a selection of fifth-grade students’ blues compositions will be presented in medley. New this year, one group of students will be awarded for having the best lyrics at each of the three final concerts, thanks to support from Sugar Bar. The Vail Daily will also recognize winning lyrics by publishing them in the newspaper.

“Most kids would never be exposed to jazz, much less understand its development and relevance to American history, without this program,” said Dawn Vallejos, music teacher at Eagle Valley and Edwards elementary schools.

The program provides music teachers with a comprehensive curriculum, pre- and post-visit lesson plans and follow-up activities that complement the three sessions with the musicians in the classroom.

Vail Jazz Goes to School, now in its 16th year, supports and promotes jazz with a focus on educating young audiences. Jazz Goes to School is presented by Vail Jazz to Eagle County fourth- and fifth-graders at all public schools and Eagle County Charter Academy, Vail Mountain School, Vail Christian Academy, Stone Creek Elementary School and St. Clare of Assisi Catholic School.

Vail Jazz Goes to School will reach more than 1,100 Eagle County students this school year and has exposed more than 17,000 students to this unique American art form since its inception.

Singer-pianist Sarah McKenzie makes local debut

Sarah McKenzie has etched herself a firm place on Australia’s map of formidable jazz artists, and now she’s taking on the rest of the world. At the moment, the Melbourne native calls Paris home.

“To say that I love Paris would be an understatement,” the singer-pianist said. “In Paris, you can be inspired by every little thing … an old street lamp, a cobblestone lane, a little cafe. Paris has had a big influence on my writing, and I am certain it will continue to do so.”

A full scholarship recipient and graduate of Berklee College of Music, McKenzie’s second album, 2012’s “Close Your Eyes,” won the Best Jazz Album Australian Recording Industry Association Music Awards Award (Australia’s equivalent to a Grammy). Last fall’s “We Could Be Lovers,” produced by Brian Bacchus (who has worked with Norah Jones and Gregory Porter, among other stars), won the Bell Award for Best Australian Jazz Vocal Album.

A NATURAL PROCESS

McKenzie’s original compositions have always arrived to her naturally, inspired by the world around her.

“I wrote the music for ‘We Could Be Lovers’ while living in Boston. I had a tiny apartment on the top floor of my building just near Symphony Hall, and I did most of my writing while gazing out the window at the skyline,” she said. “In three years, I watched all the seasons come and go.

“It has been said that I have ‘an old soul,’ and I do find that to be true. I love the way the writers of the Great American Songbook wrote tunes, particularly how they wrote lyrics. I love the old charm and wit they used. I have never tried to force anything writing-wise.”

The Australian’s latest release also features covers by Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Henry Mancini, Duke Ellington and other greats whom McKenzie said naturally influence her musical style. She names Maria Schneider and Dianne Reeves as vocal inspirations. As a young girl, it was Oscar Peterson’s “Night Train” that made her fall in love with jazz music.

“I remember it vividly,” she said. “I was 13 years of age, and I just felt while listening to the recording that it was really special. I had never heard a kind of music like it before, but I knew instantly that I loved it and wanted to be a part of this music called jazz.”

A SIMPLE MELODY

Composing since the age of 5, McKenzie’s musical ability evolved along with her depth of knowledge about the structures of jazz. Still, she believes there is a common ingredient at the heart of every amazing song.

“I listen constantly and not just to jazz,” she said. “Recently, I’ve been listening a lot to the great film writers — John Williams, Michele le Grand and Nino Rota. Film writers write great melodies. Great melodies. Without a great melody, you don’t have a great tune.”

Although her composition process differs for every number, McKenzie’s tunes typically begin with an idea or, in the case of the recent “Onwards and Upwards,” a solid title.

“For this particular tune, I had the title first and sat down at the piano and tried to visualize something that would fit. I wanted something similar to the sound of the Nat King Cole trio with the Freddie Green-style guitar and George Shearing-style voice,” she says. “I then addressed the melody. It needed to be something simple and catchy for the verses and something to vary it in the bridge. I came up with a simple idea and it stuck with me. When a melody gets stuck in your head, that’s a good sign.”

Judging by the reactions from her audiences, McKenzie’s melodies are contagious. When asked to recount the most memorable feedback she’s received about her music, McKenzie mentioned a young fan who named nearly every one of her songs as his favorite.

“I had a 14-year-old fan write recently to tell me how much he and his sister liked my music. He wrote that he enjoyed hearing me play on Jamie Cullum’s Show on BBC Radio 2 and that his favorite songs were … basically all of them,” she said.

“I thought this was so endearing and funny. He writes on to tell me that they are his favorite songs because they have timeless and unforgettable lyrics and melodies that you can sing along to and that they make everybody feel happy. I don’t know if I could receive any greater feedback than that my music makes people happy.”

Chicago-born Cesar makes Vail debut

Growing up on the south side of Chicago, Cesar thought playing the guitar was his life’s calling. His family traveled to Indianapolis twice a year for a big family cookout, and he’d watch his cousin, Odell Rhodes, jam in the living room with Wes Montgomery, who, unbeknownst to 8-year-old Cesar, would come to be regarded as one of America’s most seminal jazz guitarists.

“I would stand there mesmerized,” Cesar said. “When we returned home, I begged my father to buy me a guitar for my birthday.”

By the time he was a freshman in high school, Cesar played in the jazz band and, after numerous early-morning hours delivering newspapers, saved up enough money to buy himself a Gibson Les Paul Red Sunburst. The young musician, who was also captain of his football team, as well as a baseball and basketball player, eagerly awaited his first performance in front of his peers in the school talent show. But while at football practice one day, his guitar was stolen out of the band vault.

“I ended up singing in the talent show,” Cesar said. “I won. The rest is history in the making.”

MUSICAL MAINSTAY

Jazz music was a mainstay in Cesar’s house. Every weekend, he and his father would sit in the basement for hours listening to Ella Fitzgerald, Stan Getz, Billy Eckstine, Brook Benton, Joe Williams, Arthur Prysock and their favorite, Nat King Cole. As he performed more and more frequently, Caesar’s voice and vocal style was likened to Cole’s, a fellow baritone and Chicago native.

“It is an honor and humbling to be compared to one of the greatest singers of all time,” Cesar said. “He was the first African American to host a radio and television show and one of the highest-paid artists in the music industry long before the Civil Rights movement. The one thing that we can all agree on is that his voice and timeless lyrics brought people together.”

‘YOU’VE GOT IT’

Like Cole, Caesar moved to Los Angeles to pursue his vocal career. He was performing at a club in Encino, California, covering one of Cole’s most memorable recordings, “Route 66,” which had taken on special firsthand meaning to the recently relocated singer, when who should walk in but the King’s famed daughter, the late, great Natalie Cole.

“Natalie Cole walks in with Star Jones and sits in the second row,” Cesar said. “I start singing ‘Route 66,’ and something came over me. It was probably the best performance of my life. After the show, we hung out and talked and laughed. I told her about my Nat King Cole project. She said, ‘Cesar, you’ve got it.’ I will always cherish that moment.”

Cesar and Natalie kept in touch for years, and she attended several of his performances before her passing last December. He regards her “you got it” comment as the most memorable piece of feedback he’s ever received.

STORIED CAREER

As far as other career highlights to date, Cesar names being chosen by Julio Iglesias as a background vocalist on his Tango World Tour. He was the first baritone vocalist to tour with Iglesias, one of the best-selling artists of all time. Another big notch on his wall was touring and recording with Peter White and recording his album “Jazz Standards for Today’s Audience” at Capitol Studios in Hollywood using the original microphone and Steinway piano Cole used in the 1950s.

“The record was engineered by Al Schmitt, winner of 23 Grammy Awards. Al worked with me right after working with Paul McCartney and Diana Krall in the same studio,” Caesar said. “The Capitol Records building is called ‘the house that Cole built’ because Nat’s record sales built that building.”

The night before Cesar’s monumental day of recording, he came down with a severe case of laryngitis.

“I had dreamed of playing in that studio,” he said. “You’ve got Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Sammy Davis … everyone has played in that room. The day of the session, I couldn’t talk. My throat was so sore. Al looked at me and said, ‘We’ll get you some tea.’

“I walked through the hallway and took the time to look at the photos on the wall of all the people who had played there. All of a sudden, the adrenaline kicked in. I used Nat’s microphone and sang ‘I Wish You Love.’ Something crazy happened, and it sounded amazing. Al said, ‘You’re channeling Nat.’”

Jazz Ghosts and Yellowjackets

Jazz is truly a unique form of music, the hallmark of which is improvisation. But this article is not about what sets jazz apart from other forms of popular music. Instead, we focus on what it has in common with all popular music.

No, it is not melody, harmony and rhythm; it is the need for an audience. Yes, many musicians play music for the love of it, but let’s face it, if you are going to dedicate your life to making music, you need an audience. You can be a virtuoso and possess a compelling stage presence, but for better or worse, you need to have an audience, and they better dig what you do, so you can have a career, or you need a back-up plan, usually a day job.

Ah, the commercial side of things. How mundane and disappointing, but so important! In the 18th century, Franz Joseph Haydn was fortunate to connect with the wealthy royal Esterhazy family; he found patrons that provided him lifetime employment as a composer. Today, you need loyal (not royal) support — an audience that sticks with you.

FINDING AN AUDIENCE

So how do dedicated, talented musicians find and keep their audience? If you Google “finding your audience music,” you will get more than 19,000,000 entries of sure-fire, can’t-miss self-help guides and advice. Let’s say you are one of the fortuitous ones: You have the talent and perseverance to succeed, and you connect with like-minded, great musicians to form a band that rises to the top. Long odds, but doable, right?

Every day new names and faces, playing “new and old” music, enter our consciousness and vie for our attention in the hyper-competitive world of music. We marvel at their talent as they entertain us, and if they are truly special, they can have more than 15 minutes of fame, but it is extremely hard to stay at the top.

And yet for graying audiences, nostalgia is a powerful emotion and the number of bands that have lived off the glory of their past is testament to the powerful desire to reconnect with our youth. But to live off the past, you first need to have been very successful at building an audience — no past, no future.

In jazz, there are the “ghost bands” — the leader is deceased, but the band carries on in his name. Glen Miller went missing more than 70 years ago, but the band plays on. So, too, for the Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Harry James ghost bands and many, many more. And, of course, there are the innumerable tribute bands that play the music of (insert the name of your favorite deceased jazz musician).

But we live in the here and now, and the question is: How does a successful jazz band keep its audience?

YELLOWJACKETS KEEP EVOLVING

For the answer we turn our attention to the Yellowjackets, the iconic, multiple Grammy Award-winning jazz quartet that has flourished over a 35-year period, recording 22 albums, while successfully touring the world and enjoying unparalleled critical acclaim — quite a run for a band, jazz or otherwise.

Founding member Russell Ferrante on piano and keys anchors the band. Bob Mintzer is on saxophone and joined the band 25 years ago. William “Will” Kennedy holds down the drum and percussion throne, having had two stints with the band — 1987 to 1999 and 2010 to present. And the newest addition is Australian bass player Dane Alderson, who joined the band in 2015.

So how have the Yellowjackets been able to stay on top all these years? By combining extraordinary musicianship with superb new compositions, while performing music that spans the worlds of jazz — straight ahead and smooth, R&B, funk, fusion and more — the band has continued to successfully reinvent itself, thereby staying connected to its fan base while continuously attracting new fans. Quite a feat!

As for the band’s name: Pressed to come up with a catchy name during the band’s first recording session, Russell Ferrante recalls being presented with a list of “just awful” names. Forced to pick one, the band members agreed upon Yellowjackets since it seemed to communicate “something lively, energetic and something with a ‘sting.’ That’s really about as deep as it went. Once you choose a name, you’re stuck with it.”

While the name has stayed the same for 35 years, the music keeps on evolving, allowing the Yellowjackets the opportunity to take their audience to new and compelling musical places. The Yellowjackets will appear at the Vilar Performing Arts Center on Wednesday at 7:30 pm. You won’t want to miss this opportunity to be part of the audience to see and hear this great band!

Howard Stone is the founder and artistic director of the Vail Jazz Foundation, which is partnering with the Vilar Performing Arts Center to present the Yellowjackets in concert.

Eagle County Swings with Vail Jazz Goes to School

Vail Jazz Goes to School, Vail Jazz’s unique jazz education program for fourth- and fifth-graders, returns to Eagle County schools Monday through Thursday. The program features a quintet of professional musician-educators who travel to 16 local elementary schools to share their love of jazz and American history and inspire young people to embrace jazz, America’s original art form.

While September’s Session 1 focused on the origins of jazz and the rhythm section with handmade bongos and drums, this second session of the four-part program adds in the horn section.

“We want to introduce the kids to the heart of jazz, while the cool combination of drums, piano and bass forms the core of all jazz music,” said program director Tony Gulizia. “Now, we add in the saxophone and trumpet to create a clean, cool sound they love.”

COMPOSING JAZZ MUSIC

Later in the Vail Jazz Goes to School curriculum, the older students will try their hands at writing their own jazz music. The final concert in May at the Vilar Performing Arts Center includes blues compositions created by the fifth-graders, performed in an exciting medley format.

Vail Resorts EpicPromise, the company’s philanthropy program, has identified Vail Jazz Goes to School as a necessary and valuable way to help bring the arts into our schools.

“Vail Resorts supports Jazz Goes to School as an incredibly important program that teaches the wonders of jazz to the children of Eagle County,” said Nicky DeFord, manager of charitable giving for Vail Resorts. Additionally, Alpine Bank’s grant to Vail Jazz provides funds to bring accomplished jazz instructors from around the country into all elementary schools in the region.

“We encourage parents of fourth- and fifth-graders to attend their children’s programs to share their enthusiasm for what they’re learning,” said Robin Litt, executive director of Vail Jazz. “Their love for the program can be really infectious.”

Tony Gulizia (keyboard and vocals), directs Vail Jazz Goes to School along with his brother Joey, who is also a professional jazz musician and educator, on drums. Other musician-educators performing and teaching this week include Andy Hall (bass), Roger Neumann (saxophone) and Mike Gurciullo (trumpet).

Now in its 18th year, Vail Jazz Goes to School supports and promotes the jazz art form with a focus on educating young musicians and young audiences — fulfilling the mission of Vail Jazz.