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:

Gypsy Jazz – Necessity is the Mother of Invention

We all know the famous proverb: necessity is the mother of invention. This is the story of how true that maxim is. We begin in Belgium in 1910 when Jean “Django” Reinhardt was born into a family of itinerant Romani (Gypsy) musicians that lived in poverty, moving their caravans back and forth between Belgium and France. Gypsies (a pejorative term that was based upon the false notion that the Romani people came from Egypt) have been viewed as outsiders in Western Europe for centuries and Django and his family were clearly outcasts.  His father and seven uncles were all musicians who eked out a living playing music. Django (“I awake” in Romani) was taught to play the violin by his father when he was 7. At 12 he was given a banjo-guitar – a banjo with six strings like a guitar, instead of four strings like a banjo. He quickly taught himself how to play it and he and his brother became buskers working the streets of Paris.  Django appeared to be a savant, capable of learning music just by hearing it once, and it was clear that he was a virtuoso on his instrument. He began to play with adults who were often intimated by the child prodigy’s musical prowess. As a teen he was exposed to jazz and began to incorporate it into his music. At 15, he switched from street musician to earning a living by playing music in the dance halls of Paris, where he performed a style of music known as musette, a combination of French folk music, polka, waltz and jazz. Hearing a recording by Louis Armstrong during this period, it had a transformative influence on him and he began to focus on playing jazz.

Married (common law) at 17, he never received a formal education. It is doubtful that he ever learned to read, books or music, although in his late 1920s he did learn to write. He played with many dance bands until he was 18, moving from band to band, while making several recordings as a member of various groups. His reputation began to grow among the musicians he played with and then beyond, and on a fateful night in late October 1928 Englishman Jack Hylton, the leader of Europe’s most well-known jazz band, traveled to France to hear Django play and offered him a job.

Django accepted the offer but within days tragedy struck when he was severely burned by a fire in his caravan. His injuries were extensive, over half of his body (the right side of his body and left hand) sustained first and second degrees burns. The doctors discussed amputating his right leg as it was paralyzed and advised him that he would never play again because his left hand was burned beyond repair. He refused to accept their prognosis, left the hospital and took up residence in a nursing home, beginning an 18-month long rehab. He ultimately regained his full mobility, but was scarred for life. Unfortunately, the two small fingers on his left hand were paralyzed and he never recovered the full use of them.

At the start of his convalescence his brother brought him a guitar and encouraged him to learn to play it. The neck of the guitar was bigger than on his banjo-guitar and with the limited use of his left hand he was not able to hold the neck of the guitar and press the strings down on the fretboard. He practiced relentlessly and in the process developed a unique way of fingering the fretboard. Not able to use all the fingers on his left to play chords in a horizontal manner, he fashioned new chords using his contorted figures where possible, while rapidly moving his two good fingers up and down the neck of the guitar forming chords in more of a vertical way, inventing a truly unique technique. A less talented musician would have given up but Django was determined to overcome his handicap and he began to play professionally again. If he had stopped there, this would be a wonderful story of inventiveness and perseverance in the face of adversity, but Django didn’t stop there.

Fortuitously, he played in an impromptu jam session with Stéphane Grappelli, a French-Italian violinist, and that encounter led him to synthesize the music of his Gypsy heritage with jazz to create a ground breaking sound that would have world-wide impact, making him the most important European jazz musician ever and a guitarist who would influence successive generations of guitar greats. By combining three guitars with a violin and bass, at a time when American jazz was dominated by the sounds of piano, drums and horns, he created what became known as Gypsy Jazz (Jazz Marouche). He and Grappelli formed a band, “Quintette du Hot Club de France,” and they both became internationally famous musicians.

Tragically, Django died of a brain hemorrhage at 43 in 1953, but his legacy lives on as Gypsy Jazz is played throughout the world with jazz festivals dedicated to Django and his music held annually in Australia, Brazil, Canada, Ireland, Scandinavia, South Africa, the UK, the U.S. and of course, Belgium and France.  

Vail Jazz celebrates the musical legacy of Django on July 19 at 6:30 p.m. and 9 p.m. at the Sonnenalp Hotel and on July 20 at 6 p.m. in the Jazz Tent at Vail Square in Lionshead when it presents the Hot Club of France Tribute Band lead by French virtuoso accordionist Julien Labro. The music will be exuberant and played in a flamboyant manner, sizzling, infectious, and swinging, just as Django performed it 80 years ago.   

Hot Club of France Tribute heats up Vail

French-born accordionist channels the high energy of the Django Reinhardt tradition

It’s hard to say what resurrects the popularity of certain musical styles, but for whatever reason, the nearly 90-year- old Hot Club of France sound has become hotter than ever in 2017. Just ask French-born musician Julien Labro, who will lead the Hot Club of France Tribute Band that swings into Vail this week.

“Over the past 15 years or so, the Hot Club style has had some sort of resurgence, especially in North America,” says Labro, who’s won numerous international awards for his arrangements and compositions, has collaborated with everyone from Grammy winning pianist Fernando Otero to American jazz guitar icon Bucky Pizzarelli and has released 10 of his own studio albums.

Historically, the Hot Club de France was founded in 1930 by a group of student jazz enthusiasts who essentially put jazz music on the map in France and gave rise to international icon Django Reinhardt.

Labro believes the re-launched mainstream status of the Hot Club sound, particularly in the U.S., is likely due to its current use in numerous film and T.V. series soundtracks and commercials.

“Its acoustic instrumentation, European flavor and rhythmic drive make it very recognizable,” Labro says. “The strong presence of guitar pyrotechnics is compelling and can sometimes hint [at] ‘Americana’ with bluegrass, folk, and country-ish elements. The tunes are usually [played] at neck-breaking tempos – showy and virtuosic, which make for a very exciting performance. Of course, since it's part of our culture, I heard this type of music, but it’s not until I came to America that I really dug into it.”

Guitarist and Vail Jazz favorite Frank Vignola put the Hot Club of France Tribute band together, featuring his six-string partner in crime Vinny Raniolo and bassist Gary Mazzaroppi, who together with Vignola performed for a number of years with guitar legend Les Paul.

“Through his touring, Frank crosses paths with a lot of different musicians and he’s always up for playing and sharing the stage,” Labro says. “This is how he recruited guitarist Olli Soikkeli, violinist Jason Anick and myself on accordion to complete the rest of this tribute band.”

Recovering from a car accident this spring, Vignola will sadly not accompany his Hot Club of France Tribute on its tour through Vail. Labro will take the reins as bandleader.

As for Labro’s part, he has been playing the accordion since he was a small boy. He explains how the instrument’s allure instantly drew him in like a tractor beam.

“I grew up in France where the accordion is very much present in the culture and musical landscape. At age 9, I saw a TV program that featured an accordion player backing up a singer. I was really mesmerized at the sights and sounds of the instrument … all the shining buttons reflecting the light and the swaying back and forth of the bellows. I immediately wanted to get my hands on one to simulate what I saw,” he recalls.

Labro’s parents found their son a teacher who helped launch the young artist into what he refers to as his “life’s calling.”

He explains how the accordion etched its role in France in the 1920s and 30s as the centerpiece of the ‘Musette’ sound, in which it served as the centerpiece of a tune as the guitar, bass, drums and banjo carried the rhythm. According to Labro, the genre was most popular with blue-collar crowds in Parisian bars and dance halls. Then, Django Reinhardt entered the mix.

“Django Reinhardt, looking for work at the time, quickly became the favorite of the accordion bandleaders. His incredible abilities and formidable ear and technique allowed him to match the tricky accordion riffs,” Labro explains, adding that after Reinhardt and violinist Stéphane Grappelli were discovered by the Hot Club of France, they formed their famous quintet.

“While the quintet did not have an accordion in its instrumentation, you can clearly hear Django’s musical vocabulary influenced by his early years playing with accordion players,” Labro says.

The Hot Club of France Tribute quintet presents a retrospective of Django Reinhardt and Stéphane Grappelli’s music as well as jazz standards in Hot Club style during two intimate club performances on Wednesday in Vail and then in energetic, breakneck fashion in Vail Square in Lionshead on Thursday.

Vail Jazz Hot Club of France Tribute performances

Wednesday, July 19

The Hot Club of France Tribute brings its intricate, intimate ballads to 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, July 20

The Hot Club of France Tribute ramps up to the Django Reinhardt tradition of high- speed rhythms for an energetic performance 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.

For tickets or more information visit or call 888-VAIL- JAM.

$10 Jass and Technology

The world of jazz is in a very festive mood as it celebrates a seminal year in the history of jazz: 1917. Four of the greatest masters of the art form were born that year – Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk and Buddy Rich.  It was also the year that the Original Dixieland Jass Band (ODJB) recorded what is generally considered to be the first jazz recording. “Livery Stable Blues” was the hit side of the record (you remember records, you actually turned them over to hear the music that was on the other side) and on the “flip” side was “Dixieland Jass Band One-Step.” The record became an instantaneous hit and sold over one million copies, setting off a craze for jazz that ushered in the Jazz Age (the 1920s).

Recording of music on cylinders was well established in the 1880s, so why was jazz not recorded before then? Because there wasn’t any jazz to record.  While musicologists like to debate when jazz was first performed and by whom, it should be understood that even the use of the term “jazz” to describe the music was not generally agreed upon until the early 1920s, when jazz became the preferred spelling.

Whatever the origins of its name, it is clear that for at least a decade prior to the recording, jazz was evolving, but it can’t be pinpointed with accuracy when the music was first performed. This is for a number of reasons, the most important of which is that jazz is an art form that has evolved (and continues to evolve) from a combination of musical traditions and there is no one point at which all the ingredients were first fused together in a “jazzy way.”  Some of the most important ingredients include: the music of the brass and marching bands from the post-civil war era; ragtime and boogie woogie music from the late 19th century; and the blues. So when were these and other musical traditions joined together to produce jazz? No one can be sure.

Today anyone can make a recording, and of course, music is easily notated and preserved in writing. In the early 20th Century, the recording industry was concentrated in NYC and jazz was centered in New Orleans and the South, although it had begun to spread to several other urban areas. The musicians were not conservatory trained and most couldn’t read music. The widespread availability of the radio was still more than five years away and the first talkie movie was over a decade away, so the best technology of the day was a two-sided disc that when turned at 78 rotations per minute (rpm), could spread jazz throughout the globe.  

But it took the ODJB, composed of five white men traveling from New Orleans to NYC, to light the fuse that set off the jazz explosion. It should be remembered that jazz was performed for dancing and therefore jazz bands were dance bands. While the ODJB claimed to be the “creators of jazz,” it is clear that jazz was generally created by blacks and creoles in New Orleans. For many jazz historians it is a sad fact that blacks weren’t the first to record a jazz record and that the band that did had copied the music of successful black musicians in New Orleans. There was of course no one creator of the music.  The fact is that early jazz greats such as Buddy Bolden and King Oliver stayed in New Orleans and were just some of the “chefs de cuisine” that prepared the musical gumbo that became jazz, along with many others, known and unknown, that added to the jazz recipe.  

The quality of the playing on the record, with its limited improvisation and its repetitive choruses, was not the best example of jazz at the time and there was a corny aspect to the music with instruments imitating the sounds of barnyard animals, but the record displayed a lively danceable beat and the importance of the record cannot be denied. In essence, the technology of sound recording gave a large number of Americans, who had never heard jazz, their first chance to hear the music and allowed for the rapid dissemination of a regional sound, which was then embraced in the four corners of the U.S. and then globally.

The famous bandleader Paul Whiteman explained it best: “One moment jazz was unknown, a low noise in a low dive. The next, it became a serious pastime of a hundred million people, the diversion of princes and millionaires.”

The ODJB was the first band to use “Dixieland” as part of its name. While there is no doubt “Dixieland” was regularly used to describe the Southern states that seceded from the Union, the origin of Dixie as the descriptor of the South is clouded in mystery. The most accepted explanation is that “Dixie” is the corruption of the French word for 10, “dix,” and when banks in the French Quarter of New Orleans (and ultimately in the surrounding areas) first issued their own $10 bank notes with Dix on the reverse side, English-speaking southerners starting calling the bills “Dixies.” Eventually all of the South became known as Dixieland. The fact that the ODJB adopted this name also created another first, the music of New Orleans became known as Dixieland Jass and finally Dixieland Jazz.

Vail Jazz will celebrate the rich history of the music of New Orleans on July 12 at 6:30 pm and 9 p.m. when it presents the legendary Henry Butler, New Orleans blues vocalist and pianist at the Sonnenalp Hotel. In addition, Vail Jazz will present Butler, Bernstein and the Hot 9 in concert on July 13 at 6 p.m. in the Jazz Tent at Vail Square in Lionshead. You won’t want to miss that authentic ‘Nawlins vibe.

The sounds of New Orleans soar through Vail this week

In addition to tonight’s Vail Jazz Gala starring singer John Boutté, iconic pianist/vocalist Henry Butler throws down sizzling solo club shows Wednesday, then Butler, Bernstein & The Hot 9 light up Vail Square Thursday

Henry Butler compares his audience connection to making love. For the 67-year-old blind pianist, connections are all about communicating without words.

“The thing that I really like about performing, regardless of what kind of performance it is, is those energies going back and forth all the time,” he says. “It’s the same energy involved in loving somebody, the same energy involved in love making. It just manifests differently.”

Growing up in New Orleans, La., Henry Butler has been playing music since he was a small boy. Blinded by glaucoma in his infancy, his studies began at Louisiana State School for the Blind and continued at Southern University in Baton Rouge and Michigan State University. Since then, he’s recorded 12 full-length albums, performed in every large festival throughout the country and toured the world many times. He’s come to be regarded as one of the great pianists and vocalists of the ages, revered in both his hometown of New Orleans and his new town of New York City. But Butler says the learning never stops.

When asked what have been some of the more memorable compliments he’s been paid over the years, Butler says, “I’ve gotten all kinds of positive comments and I let people know I appreciate their sentiments. But I always say to myself, ‘hopefully the next time you hear me, I’ll be better.’”

He typically practices twice a day in his small apartment in Brooklyn.

“Part of it is an exercise regime, but that’s the base part. Within the exercise, you decide you have an idea of what you want to accomplish. That concept could be negotiating certain types of harmonic progressions. It could be working on a certain technical thing, or work on scales. It could be on working on proficiency,” he says. “Living in a place like New York, you have to portion your time. Once you get to a place where you know yourself pretty well, you can get a lot done in an hour or an hour and a half.”

Butler’s home was one of the many destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. He lost nearly all of his possessions, including his most treasured piano. Following the disaster, he relocated to Colorado and then New York, but has yet to feel settled.

“I don’t know that I’ve completely gotten over Katrina,” he says. “I just haven’t felt home since. I haven’t felt I lived in a community that felt like home since Katrina. I may go back to New Orleans or I may go to California. I could live anywhere at this point. I might come back to Colorado… but it got a little quiet for me. I needed to hear a few more sirens.”

Bellowing out vocal notes that sound almost operatic against his racketing piano, Butler is a force in and of himself. Still, he has shared the stage and recording studio with everyone from Jeff Golub to Cyndi Lauper, James Carter to B.B. King. His latest collaboration has him fusing cosmic musical powers with famed trumpeter Steven Bernstein & The Hot 9, a boisterous crew including a six-piece horn section: Curtis Fowlkes, Doug Wieselman, Peter Apfelbaum and Eric Lawrence, as well as guitarist Matt Munisteri, bassist Brandi Disterheft, violinist Sam Bardfeld and drummer Donald Edwards.

The result is a hypnotic explosion of  delightful harmony and improvisation, each musician taking turns to launch ahead of the rhythm, catapulting it with fiery solos as the entire band will occasionally pause in awe of Butler’s escalating individual masterpieces, which wander a gamut of emotions from melancholy to ecstasy.

“Every time I go out and sit on stage in front of an audience my goal is to inspire, to uplift, to encourage, to inform. If in some way we can heal a little bit together, that’s great,” Butler says. “The audience usually lets you know if you’re on the way to achieving any of that.”

The message Butler gets from his audience transcends words or applause or anything that can be measured.

“It happens all the time in what we call nanoseconds, when the audience energy comes back to me,” Butler says. “I get more inspired. I realize more ideas to share. As that stuff goes back to the audience, the audience perhaps moves to a different place of different understanding. Maybe it lifts them a little bit.”

To Butler, this type of communication is the deepest type of human connection.

“I’ll tell you what it’s like,” he says. “You’re in a relationship and you’re sitting with that partner and you feel what you’re thinking is something special. And maybe even before the partner says anything, before you utter anything to the partner, before either one of you pronounces love, you’re feeling what you think is love. Wherever an audience is after receiving the music and receiving more and more music, they send that back to me. You feel it. I’m always feeling it.”

Vail Jazz performances

Wednesday, July 12

Henry Butler kicks off the summer’s Vail Jazz Club Series with his rich solo performances 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, July 12

Butler, Bernstein & The Hot 9 bring their bouncing, New Orleans-inspired glee symphony to 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 throughAug. 24 in the all-weather Jazz Tent in The Arrabelle courtyard in Lionshead. Drinks are available for purchase.


Meet the 2017 Vail Jazz Workshop

Each year in late summer, a dozen of North America’s most gifted young jazz musicians come to Vail for one of the nations most highly regarded pre-college study programs. Now in its 22nd year, the Workshop is conducted exclusively, and uniquely, without any written music, emphasizing listening skills, improvisation, and playing by ear. Over ten very long days and nights, these twelve young jazz wunderkinds learn and perform in a high pressure environment of talented peers, world-renowned instructors, and legendary professional musicians at the Vail Jazz Party over Labor Day weekend.

By anecdote, reputation and word-of-mouth, the 12 annual Workshop slots are among music’s most coveted scholarships for high school jazz players. The Workshop professors are legendary jazz artists including Workshop director John Clayton (bass), Jeff Clayton (saxophone), Bill Cunliffe (piano), Wycliffe Gordon (trombone), Lewis Nash (drums), and Terell Stafford (trumpet).

Once again, there were a record number of Workshop hopefuls—more than 150 this year—vying to join the distinguished cadre of 250 alumni. This year’s twelve students are: Marvin Carter (alto sax), Ari Chais (piano), Clay Eshleman (piano), Ben Feldman (bass), Chris Ferrari (tenor sax), Geoffrey Gallante (trumpet), Peter Glynn (drums), Anthony Golden (bass), Zach Guzman Mejia (trombone), James Haddad (trumpet), Sam Keedy (trombone), and Kofi Shepsu (drums). Learn more about the students who comprise the 2017 Vail Jazz Workshop.

Many Workshop alumni have advanced to highly successful careers, garnering Grammy® recognition, recording opportunities, and tours and performances at notable jazz venues and music festivals throughout the world. The success of our Workshop graduates, and their glowing accolades for the Vail experience, provide ever greater reinforcement for the stellar reputation of the Workshop as one of the finest performing jazz incubators in the world.

Plan for more fireworks of the auditory variety when Marcia Ball returns to Vail this Thursday

The ‘saucy’ southerner discusses ‘two-fisted’ piano, eavesdropping and being the ‘fun’ influence on her grandchildren

Besides playing some of the most romping, two-fisted piano around, Marcia Ball also puts on a poppin’ summer camp. She calls it “Camp Granny” and the lucky campers are her 9- and 4-year-old grandsons.

It’s a hot day at home in Austin, TX and Camp Granny is in session, as evidenced by the boisterous piano notes in the background during a phone interview with Ball.

“He likes to pick things up by ear,” explains the five-time Grammy nominee about 9-year-old grandson, Lincoln. “He takes piano lessons from a real teacher but I’m showing him the left hand.”

Chances are, the kids possess a solid genetic predisposition for piano prowess.

And, by the way, “two-fisted,” is a slight misnomer when it’s used to describe Ball’s style.

“That phrase was coined a while back in reference to Katie Webster, a great piano player from Lake Charles, Louisiana – 20 miles from where I’m from. She’s got an album called Two-Fisted Mama! It means playing the piano by banging on it. I’m always ready to rumble, but mostly I use my fingers,” Ball says.

The 68-year-old then pauses a minute to review some other terms that have frequently been used to describe the style and image she’s etched over her musical career that’s spanned nearly five decades. Another descriptor that’s come up continuously is “saucy.”

“Saucy to me implies ‘with attitude, a bit of an edge, a bit of sassiness. It’s someone with a sassy attitude,” she says. “…That’s fairly accurate.”

Ball’s sauciness has been embraced and heralded by every audience she’s encountered in her decorated career, over which she has recorded 17 albums, made feature performances in every massive jazz and blues festival countrywide (including Monterey Jazz Festival, Chicago Blues Festival, Austin City Limits and of course, many years at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festivals), landed 10 Blues Music Awards, eight Living Blues Awards and inductions into both the Gulf Coast and Louisiana Music Hall of Fame. Just this spring she was deemed the 2018 Texas State Musician.

Ball is humble about her accomplishments, however. Getting back to Camp Granny, she takes zero credit for her grandchildren’s burgeoning musical abilities.

“It’s none of my doing, I assure you,” she says. “The older one is working on playing music right now and is autodidactic. He’s developed an interest in classical music and he’ll ask about a piece or hum me a piece and I’ll figure out what it is. I asked if he wanted to try piano lessons and he did.”
Ball, as it turns out, had no designs on being the kid’s teacher.

“Somebody else needs to teach your grandchildren things,” she insists. “I want to be the fun one, not the disciplinarian.”

It’s not easy to imagine Ball being anything but playful when it comes to the piano. Although she has written numerous moving ballads and love songs, most of her musical creations – both instrumentally and lyrically – are fueled with a distinct sense of adventure.

This is largely due to her wandering eye – or ear – for inspiration.

“I pick up a lot of my song ideas from eavesdropping,” she says. “That’s what happens. It happens in conversations with friends. You hear a word or phrase and write it down. I was with another musician the other day and we both overheard the same line in a conversation. It was a race to write it down.”

Ball is in the midst of a songwriting frenzy this summer, stringing together the follow up to her latest release, 2014’s The Tattooed Lady and The Alligator Man, the title track of which was inspired by the subjects themselves.

“They told me their story and I wrote it down. People like that story. I don’t have a reasonable explanation for what strikes me as good storytelling for each song. It’s just like it walked up to my porch and knocked on my door,” she says.

The most rewarding aspect of her musical career, says the Louisiana natve, is the way her stories resonate with audiences.

“I talk to people after the gigs almost every night and it’s a cool thing if a song has meant anything to them. I get to hear about who used ‘The Power of Love’ at weddings or ‘Human Kindness’ in presentations about ethics.”

When asked to speculate on what her songs or her presence – albeit not as a teacher – will mean to her piano-playing grandson, Ball finally acknowledges that there might be a place for her.

“I have thought about the fact that maybe they’ll ask him about his musical history one day and he’ll say, ‘my grandma played the piano.’ Yeah, thinking about that makes me feel pretty good.”

Marcia Ball @ Vail Square
Don’t miss Marcia Ball’s return to Vail at 6 p.m. July 6 in Lionshead for the 2017 opening performance of Vail Jazz @ Vail Square. General admission tickets are $25, $40 for preferred seats and $50 for premium seats. Preferred and Premium seat subscriptions are also available for multiple performances. 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.

Boogie in the Barrelhouses of the Texas Backwoods

In East Texas before the Civil War, cotton was king and so was timber, as there were vast forests of longleaf pine trees covering eastern Texas. The lumber from the trees was an ideal building material and there was a great demand for it. So slaves were not only in bondage on cotton plantations but also in lumber camps in the backwoods of East Texas, with the greatest concentration in Harrison County, north-easterly Texas. When the Civil War ended, most of the freed slaves had little prospects for employment, so out of desperation they continued to work the cotton fields and lumber camps where they had previously toiled in involuntary servitude.

By the 1870s, railroads were established in and around Harrison County in order to efficiently bring the logs to market. For most of the loggers, this was the first time they had ever heard a steam locomotive with its accelerating “chug, chug” sound, which made its way into the music of Harrison County and beyond.

In many of the lumber camps and on the outskirts of towns where African Americans were living after being freed, “barrelhouses” began to be constructed as a place the former slaves could seek entertainment away from their white bosses. These sheds were stocked with barrels of whiskey and beer, a dance floor, and usually a tinny-sounding out-of-tune upright piano played by an itinerant piano player, so the patrons could dance. Gambling and fighting went with the territory, as well as a “back room” where “railroad ladies” earned their keep. Liquor was served directly from the barrels (hence, a barrelhouse) and a lot of partying went on. Beginning in the 1870s in the barrelhouses of Harrison County, a unique sound was heard emanating from these pianos, initially known as “Fast Western” and “Fast Texas” (probably derived from the local Texas Western Railroad). The music later became known as “Barrelhouse,” “Honky Tonk” and ultimately “Boogie Woogie” or the shorten version, “Boogie.” Over the next four decades as the music evolved, it was the trains that not only inspired the music, but also transported the itinerant piano players, first from lumber camp to lumber camp, and then to New Orleans, Chicago and beyond, thereby spreading the new music to a larger urban population of willing black dancers.

Boogie sprang from the blues and had all the elements of jazz – syncopation, improvisation and that “swinging feeling.” However, the blues were traditionally played in a slow tempo, while Boogie was a fast blues for dancing. The piano was played in a percussive manner, like a drum, beating out a rhythm (generally eight beats per bar played by the left hand, while the right hand played rhythmic variations of the bass line), so dancers could move aggressively with the music. Some say the pulsating and driving rhythm had sexual overtones and while the origin of the name is not clear, brothels were known as “boogie houses” and to “pitch a boogie” was to have a party or sex. Whatever your interpretation of the music and its name, to the churchgoing blacks it was clear that this was the music of the devil, even the name suggested an abomination.
Because initially both Boogie and Ragtime were played on a piano, exclusively, and evolved at roughly the same time, they are sometimes confused, but in fact are quite different. Both styles use the right hand to play syncopations, but the left hand in Ragtime plays a bass line that is a 2/4 “oompah” type rhythm, very much like a Sousa-style march. While the left hand in Boogie has a shuffling, walking and swinging quality that creates a tension and excitement, a sense of perpetual motion, with an explosive quality, that makes you want to dance. Ragtime, on the other hand, makes you want to tap your foot.
Alan Lomax, the famous ethnomusicologist, described the originals and sounds of Boogie as follows: “Anonymous black musicians, longing to grab a train and ride away from their troubles, incorporated the rhythms of the steam locomotive and the moan of their whistles into the new dance music they were playing in jukes and dance halls. Boogie Woogie forever changed piano players, as piano players transformed the instrument into a polyrhythmic railroad train.”
By the 1920s, Boogie was well established in urban centers with large African American populations, but few white Americans knew the music. That all changed on the evening of Dec. 23, 1938, when three African American Boogie masters, Meade “Lux” Lewis, Pete Johnson and Albert Ammons, performed at Carnegie Hall at the legendary “Spirituals to Swing” concert. Their performances set off a nationwide dance frenzy that continues to this day. How is that possible? Think back to the early music of Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Ray Charles and Jerry Lee Lewis, who famously said, “They called it blues. They called it Boogie Woogie. Then they changed the name of it to Rock and Roll.” So what started out in the barrelhouses of the backwoods of Texas as a fast blues, morphed into jazz and ultimately shaped the beat of rock and roll.

Vail Jazz is pleased to present Vail’s favorite “Boogie Queen,” Marcia Ball, in concert at 6 p.m. on July 6 in the Jazz Tent at Vail Square in Lionshead. Singing and playing barrelhouse piano and the blues, Marcia always leaves her audiences wanting more.

The life of a New Orleans Jazz Singer

How a cruel speech therapist, a hurricane and a stalker helps John Boutté bring tears of joy to his audiences.

There’s a tropical storm ripping through Louisiana and John Boutté is watching the towering, 200-year-old trees blow and sway on his new property outside of New Orleans.

“Man, I’m so fortunate,” he says during a phone interview in June, his voice fading in and out with the gusts. “This is what I hear, the sounds of oaks rustling. It’s incredible. I never hear any sirens. I don’t hear bullets anymore.”

Besides all of his time on the road touring the world and the stint he spent serving as a U.S. Army Officer, Boutté has spent nearly all of his 58 years in New Orleans. Two years ago he moved away from the downtown home next door to the one he grew up in and relocated to the countryside.

“It’s 23 acres of pine trees, magnolias, white oaks … it’s a beautiful forest. The house is only about 800 square feet. This used to be a golf course,” he explains. “When I tell my friends I bought a golf course, I say, ‘Man, don’t look at me like I’m Donald Trump.”

Boutté grew up in a family of 10, loving music as early as he can remember. His first instrument was his aunt’s antique cornet he received when he was 8. He recalls asking his mother about it and being frustrated, because he struggled to pronounce “Rs,” and thought she’d misunderstood him.

“I remember my mom was at the stove. She had my baby brother in her arms, my baby sister pulling on one leg and I was pulling on the other. So here I am hollerin’ ‘Mamoo has a cornet,’ and she said, ‘Mamoo doesn’t have a clarinet.’ I stormed away. But the next morning before I went to school, she had it waiting for me. That was the beginning of my musical career,” Boutté says.

He was reading music shortly thereafter, then playing in marching bands, singing in choirs, starting a capella groups, performing in street bands and winning talent shows. His trajectory did, however, encounter a blip during his teenage years.

“I feel like I won a lottery for how great my childhood was. But at 17, I had a speech therapist who told me there was something wrong with my voice because it was so high,” Boutté recalls. “He said, ‘you sound like a girl.’ It broke my heart. It threw me off; I wasn’t singing for about a year. It was a wakeup call to me that that sometimes you’re going to have some real a—hole people you have to deal with in life. In one fell swoop, this guy knocked the confidence right out of me.”

Eventually, the confidence came stomping back. Boutté began singing again and then soaring. His professional recording career has led to 10 albums and collaborations with everyone from Herbie Hancock and Paul Sanchez to Galactic and Todd Rungren. His voice has been admired by the likes of Mel Torme and Stevie Wonder. He created the theme song for the hit HBO series, Treme, and the series keeps coming back with more song and appearance requests.

If only that speech therapist could see him now.

“I would love to see the look on his face,” Boutté admits. “I’ve always loved to sing. I’ve been lucky to work with some of the most incredible jazz musicians in New Orleans, the second generation of jazz cats, the third generations of jazz cats, I grew up around them. To be in that circle, I lucked out. I got schooled by a lot of them. You never think of yourself as good. You see so much talent around you.”

Half-jokingly, Boutté goes onto say he didn’t realize he had anything going for him until about three years ago.

“I realized I really knew I had something, when it was something I didn’t want … when I got my first bonafide stalker,” he says.

This is no joke. Somehow a misguided fan began sending Boutte strange gifts although he has no idea how she got his address and calling him “at all times of the night,” though he doesn’t know how she got his phone number.

He eventually filed a restraining order. Although he is still recovering from the emotional drain of the experience, he feels he is better equipped to deal with unpleasant situations after losing most of his treasured possessions – including that first antique cornet – during Hurricane Katrina. He says the hurricane has instilled in him a live-for-the-moment approach to life that he refers to as “the Katrina mentality.”

“With all of my travel, the gain, the loss, knowing I’m in a world that can turn on a dime at any moment, all of those experiences have left a reservoir of emotions that I can tap into,” he says.

Not only do the floodgates open for Boutté every time he steps onto a stage, but for his audiences, too.

“One time after singing Annie Lennox’s ‘Why,’ I looked out at the audience. Man, when I opened up my eyes, all the ladies were crying. All the guys were crying. Kids were crying,” he says. “I do touch a lot of people, man.”

2017 Vail Jazz Gala

Don’t miss John Boutté’s Vail debut on July 10 when he performs From Bridge Street to Bourbon Street at The Sebastian in Vail with a select ensemble of Vail Jazz Workshop Alumni. Cocktails and appetizers begin at 6 p.m. followed by dinner and silent auction at 7 p.m. and music at 8 p.m. For tickets or more information, visit From Bridge Street to Bourbon Street or call 888-VAIL-JAM