7 Questions With Catherine Russell

The chart-topping vocalist opens up about musical childhood and singing in the car

Catherine Russell was born with music in her genes. Her father was Louis Armstrong’s long-time collaborator and her mother was a Juilliard-educated member of the storied International Sweethearts of Rhythm, the first integrated, all-female band in the U.S.

Photo by Sandrine Lee.

Growing up in New York City, Russell has always associated music with “fun.” She was David Bowie’s go-to vocalist and has performed and/or shared the stage with Steely Dan, Paul Simon, Wynton Marsalis, Jackson Browne, Cyndi Lauper and Roseanne Cash, to name just a few. She launched her solo career 15 years ago and has been soaring ever since, recording seven albums as bandleader, including Grammy-nominated Harlem on My Mind for Best Vocal Jazz Album. Her rich, hypnotizing vocals landed her a Grammy for her work on the soundtrack of the HBO Series Boardwalk Empire, and a number of her emotional interpretations of tunes dating from the 1920s to today have topped the Billboard charts. Before her much-anticipated local debut on Aug. 15, Russell took a few moments to answer some questions with Vail Jazz.

 1. Vail Jazz: What specific characteristics do you believe you inherited from your mother and father?

Catherine Russell: Both my parents were leaders. They were both very organized and cared very much about their personal appearance. They always looked good. They knew how to take care of business as well as music. Whatever they did, they did 100 percent. My mother, Carline Ray, taught me about being punctual, prepared and confident. My father, Luis Russell, made recordings that were always fun to listen to, and I model my recordings after his.

2. VJ:  As a child, how did you fall in love with music?

CR: I listened to my dad’s recordings, which were always fun to hear, because the musicians sounded like they were having fun. We had a radio in the kitchen, so every morning my mother and I listened to the “Make-Believe Ballroom,” where I heard everyone from Frank Sinatra to Louis Armstrong … all the hits of that time. The first year I remember what I heard was 1959, and Bobby Darin comes to mind. We listened to jazz station WLIB, where I first heard Herbie Hancock. We also listened to a lot of classical music and opera on the radio, because my mother knew a lot about both. So I fell in love with Ravel and Bach, as well as the wonderful German lyric baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau.

3. VJ: What are your earliest memories of singing and playing instruments?

CR: I used to harmonize to the national anthem when we sang it in school at the start of the day. And I used to figure songs out by ear and play them simply on the piano at home. We had several instruments in the house, including my grandfather’s violin and mandolin, so later on, I started fooling around on his mandolin, playing simple songs with a few chords.

4. VJ: Your interpretations of classics and standards are so rife with emotion. How do you go about selecting tunes?

CR: First, I need to be able to sing every lyric. Does the tune speak personally to me, so I can live through it every time I sing it? Nice chord changes will draw me to a tune. If it’s a blues tune with just a few chord changes, will it be fun to sing and play for the band? I like tunes that swing and ballads that ask questions about life, old blues from the 1920s as well as R&B from the 1940s and 50s.

5. VJ: What have been some of the most memorable moments sharing the stage with artists like Wynton Marsalis, David Bowie and Cyndi Lauper?

CR: Well first of all, it’s inspiring just to be on stage with iconic musicians. I can’t believe I get to do that time after time … no pun intended. Every night when David Bowie would sing “Ziggy Stardust,” I was transported, because the songs on the Ziggy Stardust album were some of my favorites as a teenager.

6. VJ: How do you hone the versatility of your vocal chords? Do you sing in the shower? The car?

CR: I have two voice teachers and I combine some of their exercises for my warm-up. The voice changes every day according to how much sleep I’ve gotten, whether I’ve traveled, etc., so I have certain exercises I do all the time and others that are specific to whatever may need more work from day to day. Sometimes I sing in the car … usually if I’m traveling and that’s the only place I have to warm up. When I get to sing in concert halls, the dressing rooms are made for musicians to practice. If we are in a club with no separate dressing room, then I’ll find a place away from everyone else to do a final warm-up before the show. Mostly I’m vocalizing in hotel rooms …my poor neighbors! I try to practice in the mid-afternoon when people may be out for the day.

7. VJ: What have been your most rewarding moments during or after a performance?

CR: Well I have to say, performers like applause. Applause means that the audience is having a good time, so that makes us feel good. I like to see people smiling during songs. Sometimes a few couples will get up and dance to a swing song. After a show when I meet people, I like meeting younger people who might be hearing the songs – and the artists’ names who originally recorded them – for the first time. I also like meeting older people who have memories attached to the songs that they share with me. I’m grateful that with all the ways people have to spend their days or evenings, they would choose to come to hear us.

Aug. 15: Vail Jazz @ Vail Square with Catherine Russell

Catherine Russell performs with Mark Shane on piano, Matt Munisteri on guitar and Tal Rohen on bass at 6 p.m. on Aug. 15 in the all-weather jazz tent at Vail Square in Lionshead. Tickets are $25 for general admission, $40 for preferred seat and $50 for premium seat. Beer, wine and cocktails are available for purchase. Get tickets here.

 

Howard Stone: I Did It My Way

The Academy Award-winning documentary film, Twenty Feet from Stardom (2013) explores the careers and lives of a number of rock/pop “backup” singers. These very talented women backed up Bruce Springsteen, Mick Jagger, Sting, Stevie Wonder and other iconic rock/pop performers, but while the public may have known their voices, they were largely anonymous, performing while standing in the shadows, as the spotlight shone brightly on some of the legendary pop vocalists of the 21st century. Their value was their ability to blend and harmonize with the “front person,” enabling the group effort to create an overall sound that propelled the leader to fame and fortune. The film examines the hurdles, some self-imposed, that prevented these great vocalists from solo careers and stardom. There have been, of course, many male backup singers in rock/pop, as well, and many of both gender have gone on to great careers. Cher, Elton John, Luther Vandross, Mariah Carey, Michael McDonald, Sheryl Crow, Whitney Houston, Katy Perry, Pink, Mary J. Blige, Phil Collins and John Legend, to name just a few, all sang backup before becoming huge commercial successes.

Howard Stone (above: Catherine Russell).

What about jazz backup singers transitioning to the limelight? The simple answer is there haven’t been any, because there haven’t been any jazz backup singers. While there have been several instances where members of a jazz vocal ensemble (Lambert, Hendricks & Ross and the Manhattan Transfer come to mind) have vocally supported a solo by one of its members, the jazz vocal tradition relies more on the interaction between the vocalist, who is seen as another one of the instrumentalists, and the remaining members of the band. In jazz, everyone is responsible for the group sound or you are a soloist and everyone else in the band supports you. Scatting, the vocal technique of singing non-sense syllables, is a perfect example of how a jazz singer and the band work together for a group sound. So in jazz there is a totally different approach to the music.

Interestingly enough, there have been only a few rock/pop backup singers that have become top draw jazz vocalists. Catherine Russell and Niki Haris are two of them. Each started out singing backup for legendary pop artists. In the case of Catherine, she spent over two decades singing backup for the who’s who of pop music – Steely Dan, Al Green, Cyndi Lauper, Paul Simon, Jackson Browne, Rosanne Cash, and many others. Catherine toured extensively with David Bowie and is a multi-instrumentalist, not only singing backup, but also playing mandolin, guitar and percussion. It was only as she approached her fifth decade that she decided to take a stab at a solo career, not as a pop vocalist, but as a jazz singer.

Niki Haris began singing pop and R&B music in the early 1980s after college and from 1987 to 2001 she toured the world singing backup for Madonna. During the same period, her vocal work could be heard on the soundtracks of a number of films and she appeared in the documentary film about Madonna, Truth or Dare. She also worked as a choreographer for Madonna and others. By 2003, Niki decided to focus on family life and gave birth to her daughter, and when she returned to work as a vocalist several years later, she began to sing jazz and gospel.

So how is it that these two very successful rock backup singers suddenly discovered jazz and decided that in the later part of their careers they wanted to be a soloist singing jazz? Well, I guess the old proverb, “an apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,” and the lyrics of the Frank Sinatra hit, “My Way,” may explain it. Catherine and Niki have several things in common that I believe led them to jazz. Both are the daughters of jazz greats, but they both chose a career path outside the world of jazz. While their musical journeys may have started with jazz, both established their own identities and didn’t initially follow in the footsteps of their fathers.

In Catherine’s case, her father was Luis Russell, the legendary jazz pianist, bandleader, composer, arranger and long-time music director for Louis Armstrong. In Niki’s case, her father was Gene Harris (Niki uses one “r” in her last name), who was one of the most soulful pianists to ever play jazz, with a career that spanned over four decades.

So now you can see why the metaphor and song lyrics above are so appropriate. The daughters of two jazz greats grow up and develop into remarkably talented vocalists, but the world they grow up in is not the world of their fathers. Instead, they come of age in a world dominated by rock. My view is that as gifted, independent young women, they didn’t want to follow in the footsteps of their famous fathers, but instead, they did it their way.

Catherine Russell makes her Vail debut as part of the 25th Annual Vail Jazz Festival on Aug. 15 at the Jazz Tent in Lionshead (Get tickets HERE). Niki will once again return to Vail to lead the perennial Vail Jazz Party favorite, The Gospel Prayer Meetin,’ which will make its inaugural appearance on the big stage in the Ford Amphitheater on Sunday morning, September 1 (Get tickets HERE).

Howard Stone is the Founder and Artistic Director of Vail Jazz, the presenter of the annual Vail Jazz Festival. This summer Vail Jazz is celebrating its 25th Anniversary Season with performances by internationally renowned artists in multiple venues throughout the Vail Valley. In addition, Vail Jazz presents throughout the year jazz educational programs with a special focus on young musicians and young audiences. Many of Vail Jazz’s performances and educational programs are presented free of charge.

Veronica Swift and Emmet Cohen Return to Vail

Young jazz stars bring spontaneity and exploration to musical storytelling

If you think it’s an exaggeration to say that a talented singer’s vocal chords can do acrobatics, you have not heard Veronica Swift. Yet, the 25-year-old rising jazz star does not describe herself as a vocal acrobat. She doesn’t even refer to herself as a singer or a musician.

“What am I? I’m a storyteller,” she says. “A jazz singer is a storyteller. I aim to put the music and lyrics in perfect marriage. I have to sing lyrics that will apply to a large range of ages and races. That’s what jazz does.”

Hailing from Charlottesville, VA and now residing in New York City, Swift returns to Vail with the Emmet Cohen Trio just before the release of her Mack Avenue Records debut album, Confessions, on which she belts forth creative interpretations of obscure gems (eg:“Gypsy in My Soul” ) with the accompaniment of the Emmet Cohen Trio as well as the acclaimed Benny Green Trio.

In her young career, Swift’s vocal skills have also landed her gigs as a featured vocalist with the likes of Wynton Marsalis, Chris Botti and Michael Feinstein. Inspired by singers and strong musical personalities ranging from Anita O’Day to Lady Gaga and Marilyn Manson, Swift’s earliest influences were her talented parents.

An only child, Swift began performing with her father, the late jazz pianist Hod O’Brien, and her mother, singer Stephanie Nakasian, before she reached double digits. Playing the piano and the trumpet from a young age, music has always been second nature to Swift.

“My first serious instrument was trumpet. I was playing trumpet before I was singing jazz. I played the piano. I marched drum corps. I was always. I played in the all-state orchestra. There wasn’t ever a certain sense of duty,” Swift says. “I was always surrounded by some of the greatest legends of jazz, getting bootleg recordings, here in this environment. It wasn’t until I guess, high school, even though I’d been touring already at that point, where I felt a purpose. Until then, it was more like speaking a language, like speaking English … something I did without thinking.”

By the time she was 10, Swift was recording with and sharing the stage with saxophonist Richie Cole and at age 11, landing a spot in the Women in Jazz series at Lincoln Center.

She attended the Frost School of Music at the University of Miami and then landed second place in the prestigious Thelonious Monk Jazz Competition. Gaining quick traction in the jazz world, Swift has also dabbled in opera and theater … which brings us back to her aforementioned identity as a storyteller above all else.

For her, expanding her musical repertoire is the same as a poet expanding her lexicon.

“The more songs you know, the more vocabulary you have. I’m always learning songs and listening,” she says. “When I’m picking tunes, I’m always asking, ‘does this make sense with the story?’ I have a concept for every show. The story has to make sense. I like to mix it up between American Songbook and obscure tunes. It’s the lyrics that draw me in. It’s like poetry.”

Swift refers to the Emmet Cohen Trio, which is comprised of Emmet Cohen on piano, Russell Hall on bass and Kyle Poole on drums, as “the best young musicians on the scene today,” rife with elegance, sophistication and most importantly, spontaneity.

“People will say to us, ‘oh you’re born in the wrong era.’ We are the culmination of our ancestors and our peers. We are constantly learning from each other. They’re all such creative people and it’s inspiring to constantly be moving forward together,” Swift says.

Cohen, who returns to Vail on the heels of winning the prestigious Cole Porter Fellowship from the American Pianists Association, describes his trio’s role in the storytelling as “explorative.”

“We follow the energy of the room, that’s part of the magic of our presentation,” Cohen says. “We play in the style of all of our favorite bands, spanning a hundred years of jazz, from Jelly Roll, Fats Waller, Duke Ellington, to beboppers and some of our favorite, modern composers. We’ve taken a lot from the history of jazz and our own take on the way our music can be presented.”

Veronica Swift and the Emmet Cohen Trio

Vail Jazz Club Series

Aug. 7

Soaring vocalist Veronica Swift and The Emmet Cohen Trio (Emmet Cohen on piano, Russell Hall on bass and Kyle Poole on drums) deliver a pair of intimate solo performances at The Sonnenalp’s Ludwig’s Terrace on Wednesday, Aug. 7. Doors for the first seating open at 5 p.m. with performance beginning at 5:30 (get tickets here). Doors for the second seating are at 7:30 p.m. with music starting at 8 p.m. (get tickets here). Tickets at $40. Full dinner service is available, not included in ticket cost and a $30 per person food or beverage minimum applies.

 

Vail Jazz @ Vail Square

Aug. 8

Veronica Swift and the Emmet Cohen Trio take their musical stories up a few octaves at the Jazz Tent at Lionshead’s Vail Square at 6 p.m. on Thursday, Aug. 8. Tickets are $25 for general admission, $40 for preferred seat and $50 for premium seat. Beer, wine and cocktails are available for purchase. GET TICKETS HERE.

Howard Stone: The Jezebel of Jazz

This year is the centennial of the birth of Anita O’Day (Anita Belle Colton), a daring jazz vocalist who developed her own style and created a vast body of innovative vocals while being tagged “The Jezebel of Jazz,” for her nonconformist ways. At mid-20th century, she was considered to be one of the top female jazz singers along with Ella, Billie and Sarah. In a career spanning seven decades, Anita rode the proverbial elevator of fame to the top, only to descend to the depths of hell on earth on more than one occasion. Somehow, she was always able to rise again.

Raised in an impoverished, broken home in Chicago, Anita left at age 14 in order to make a living competing in the marathon dance contests that were popular during the Depression. At 16, while dancing with a partner, she was asked if she could sing and responded by breaking out in song. The crowd showered her with money … and her destiny was revealed.

Howard Stone (above: Anita O’Day).

Anita returned to Chicago determined to be a singer and adopted her stage name. She sang wherever she could find a gig, developing unique timing and phrasing, mastering scat singing and trying new interpretations of the established repertoire. By 1941, the 21-year-old was hailed as the “New Star of the Year” by DownBeat magazine and joined Gene Krupa’s big band.

Bands weren’t integrated then, but Gene’s band featured the great African-American trumpeter Roy Eldridge. When Anita and Roy performed in a duet, the mixed racial pairing was considered scandalous. However, their “Let Me Off Uptown,” was a hit, making Anita a star. (See the video here)

Other hits followed and for the better part of the 1940s, Anita would sing with prominent big bands, including Woody Herman’s and Stan Kenton’s. This was the big band era and each band had a “girl singer,” conspicuously seated in front of the band, projecting a glamorous image dressed in a strapless gown, while she waited for her turn to perform. Anita rebelled against the stereotype and wore a band jacket and a skirt to show that she was one of the band. Her attire was considered shocking and she was once again judged guilty of outrageous conduct.

By the end of the decade, she left the world of big band singing and went out on her own. She began performing at major venues with many jazz greats, culminating with her appearance at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival. The epitome of cool, flamboyantly attired in a black dress, white gloves and a wide brimmed hat with ostrich feathers, Anita projected a stunning visual appearance that appeared on the covers of national magazines, catapulting her to international fame.

From 1955 to the mid-60s, she recorded 17 LPs that confirmed her reputation as a unique song stylist, using an inventive technique fueled by the freedom to improvise, to sing before and after the beat. She combined a great wit with a fearlessness that led her to places others dared not go. “Given a choice, I wanted to be where the action was,” is the way she explained it. While this approach paid dividends musically, she paid dearly for it in her personal life, as there were failed marriages and affairs, no children and numerous abortions. After her triumph at Newport, the elevator ride up continued a while longer, but the seeds had been sown for a change in direction. Starting in the late 1940s, Anita had begun smoking marijuana and became addicted to heroin. She was jailed for possession and use of both marijuana and heroin on several occasions and regularly abused alcohol. She nearly died from an overdose in 1967, but she quit cold turkey in 1968 and made a miraculous comeback in 1970. She continued to perform and record into the 1990s, but in 1996, she had a terrible accident, suffering life-threatening injuries. Once again, at the age of 80 in 1999, Anita resumed her career, performing sporadically, but died in her sleep at the age of 87 in 2006. Her life story was brilliantly told in her autobiography, High Times, Hard Times, as well as in a compelling documentary film, Anita O’Day: The Life of a Jazz Singer.

It is clear when reflecting on Anita’s life, that well before the #MeToo era, she was an extraordinarily talented, independent woman who was unwilling to be just “the girl singer in the band.” In the process, she inspired many young women jazz singers to do it their way. Veronica Swift, the remarkably talented 25-year-old, is one of the next generation jazz singers inspired by Anita. Veronica possesses perfect pitch, a stylish sense of phrasing and timing and can scat with the best of them. Whether she is interpreting the Great American Songbook or bebop classics, she says “I try not to imitate, but to emulate.” Vail Jazz is pleased to present Veronica Swift and the Emmet Cohen Trio on Aug. 7 in two shows at the Sonnenalp Hotel (Get Sonnenalp tickets here) and at 6 p.m. Aug. 8 in the Jazz Tent in Lionshead (Get tickets here).

Howard Stone is the Founder and Artistic Director of Vail Jazz, the presenter of the annual Vail Jazz Festival. This summer Vail Jazz is celebrating its 25th Anniversary Season with performances by internationally renowned artists in multiple venues throughout the Vail Valley. In addition, Vail Jazz presents throughout the year jazz educational programs with a special focus on young musicians and young audiences. Many of Vail Jazz’s performances and educational programs are presented free of charge.

 

 

 

A Brit’s Deep Slice of New Orleans

Grammy winner Jon Cleary recounts his journey to and through The Crescent City

Growing up in a small village in England, Jon Cleary made a b-line for New Orleans the minute he hit adulthood.

The 56-year-old Grammy Award winner took up the guitar when he was a small child, but added the piano – and New Orleans piano-playing sensibilities – to his repertoire when he initially moved to The Big Easy as a teenager.

“Everyone in my family, if they weren’t musicians, they were music lovers,” Cleary says. “They’d always turn up with bags of records. My grandma’s generation was the ‘30s and ‘40s – the Fats Waller era. My dad’s was Lead Belly blues. My mom loves New Orleans jazz. One of my uncles was into blues and gospel. That kind of stuff was always around. The men in my family all played musical instruments for as long as I can remember. My uncle lived in New Orleans for a few years in the early 70s. He brought hundreds and hundreds of 45s. I’d stay with him and soak it up like a sponge.”

After working a job moving sheet rock and saving enough money for the trip, Cleary set foot in NOLA himself. He hadn’t planned on staying for more than a few weeks and certainly didn’t envision a successful musical career taking shape. But he landed a room in an old house next to the Mississippi River (equipped with a piano) and a slapdash (not musical) job at the iconic Maple Leaf Bar and it all came to gather serendipitously.

“I was a scruffy 18-year-old who could play four or five tunes. Me and a mate from school started digging up banana trees for work and the guy who owned the bar asked if I needed a job. He said, ‘the bar needs a paint job. Do you know how to paint?’ We said yeah. We had never painted in our lives. It took us six months to paint the bar. We got to see all of the bands for free. We’d show up and I’d sit and play the piano. When my boss came in, he’d shout at us that we were supposed to be painting. For hours every day I played the old piano in the house I was living in. It was my university of funk. I spent most of my time just listening and learning.”

One of the Maple Leaf’s regular acts was R & B keyboard king James Booker. One night Booker was in no condition to perform and Cleary was asked to sit in. It marked his first public performance. He was hooked.

“I was getting to play with the guys I’d pay to go see – Jessie Hill, Earl King … These were the legends still playing,” Cleary says.

It wasn’t long before Cleary’s own talents as a multi-instrumentalist, vocalist and composer joined NOLA’s legendary ranks. He went on to share the stage with everyone from B.B. King to Eric Burdon and write compositions for Bonnie Raitt, Taj Mahal and John Scofield. He’s recorded eight albums, 2016’s Go-Go Juice winning a Grammy for Best Regional Roots Album. For the last 20 years, he’s traveled the world delivering the spirit of New Orleans with his own distinctive stamp.

“There’s nowhere like New Orleans,” he says. “The spirit, it’s an intangible thing. Music is synonymous with New Orleans. Everything about this place screams good music. For over a century, they’ve been honing it down and getting it right. The ethnic folk music of New Orleans – R & B, jazz and funk – it’s so good it’s been taken and used as a template for all music across the world.”

Those decades of honing have led to a New Orleans musical tradition that is boundless, running an endless gamut of styles and sounds. When asked to describe what sets the approach to piano apart, Cleary said it’s something that can’t necessarily be put to words.

“The beauty of music is it transcends the limitations of language,” he says. “I suppose one thing is that the piano style is percussive. When you hit a piano key, it can be played in a percussive way. It’s strong when you’re part of the rhythm section, but it’s a chord instrument, too, so you’re dealing with the harmonic structure, the grace notes, the slurred notes. They are carefully played and selected, so it’s also subtle, something that tickles the ear. It’s sparkly. The big thing is that it’s medicine. It makes people feel good.”

Jon Cleary’s Tribute to the New Orleans Piano Tradition

Vail Jazz Club Series

July 31

Jon Cleary takes audiences through the history of New Orleans piano, highlighting icons such as Henry Butler, Dr. John and Allen Toussaint in a pair of intimate solo performances at The Sonnenalp’s Ludwig’s Terrace on Wednesday, July 31. Doors for the first seating open at 5 p.m. with performance beginning at 5:30. Tickets are $40. Get first set tickets HERE. Doors for the second seating are at 7:30 p.m. with music starting at 8 p.m. Get second set tickets HERE.  Full dinner service is available, not included in ticket cost and a $30 per person food or beverage minimum applies.

 

Vail Jazz @ Vail Square

Aug. 1

Cleary’s lively piano and vocals-driven New Orleans tribute show hits the Jazz Tent at Lionshead’s Vail Square at 6 p.m. on Thursday, Aug. 1. Tickets are $25 for general admission, $40 for preferred seat and $50 for premium seat. Beer, wine and cocktails are available for purchase. Get tickets HERE.

 

For more information, call 970-479-6146.

Howard Stone: New Orleans Piano

If you were to ask most jazz fans what instrument most epitomizes New Orleans jazz, the trumpet would most likely be the answer. Actually, it should be the cornet, which Louis Armstrong and other early New Orleans jazzmen initially played, switching to the trumpet later. Another answer might be the trombone, most famously played in the “tailgating” style by Edward “Kid” Ory, who played with Satchmo (Armstrong). So, while it was brass instruments in The Big Easy around the turn of the 20th century that were initially associated with the new sound that became known as jazz, the clarinet also arrived on the scene and played a prominent role in early “Dixieland” jazz. However, by mid-century, it was the piano players of The Crescent City that had birthed a new style of music: rhythm and blues, or as it became known, R & B.

Howard Stone. (above: Jelly Roll Morton).

But I have gotten ahead of my story and must return to the 19th and early 20th century for some important details. At that time, New Orleans was a major port city and as such, received countless immigrants and visitors from places like Cuba, the Caribbean and South America. Many of the new arrivals brought with them their musical traditions and over time, their musical ingredients were added to the jazz recipe, creating a new musical multi-culturalism that furthered the jazz tradition. This is where the piano players of New Orleans took over.

It all started with the legendary Creole piano man Jelly Roll Morton (Ferdinand Joseph Lamothe), who in 1902 at the age of 12, began playing piano in the bordellos of Storyville, the red light district of New Orleans. While Jelly Roll claimed to have invented jazz (something that no one person can take credit for), he did move the music forward by fusing ragtime with the blues and added elements of the habanera from Cuba and the tango from Argentina. His extraordinary talent and new approach to the music elevated the piano to a position where it could vie for attention in a music that had up to then been dominated by brass bands, which even today remain an important part of the New Orleans jazz tradition.

What Jelly Roll set in motion ultimately lead to an approach whereby jazz pianists melded Caribbean and Latin American musical idioms that previously had not been combined with jazz or the blues. Subsequent New Orleans piano players continued this approach. Over the last 100 years, giants like Isidore “Tuts” Washington, Henry Roeland “Professor Longhair” Byrd, Champion Jack Dupree, James Carrol Booker III, Antoine “Fats” Domino, Allen Toussaint, Mac “Dr. John” Rebennack and Henry Butler created a music that can best be described as “New Orleans piano.”

While each of these piano titans had his own unique style, at the heart was a thumping bass line played with the left hand while a rollicking right hand played melodic lines. It is much like boogie-woogie and stride piano, except you can feel the rhythms of the habanera and rumba from Cuba, the Caribbean calypso beats and the hypnotic pulse of the tango from Argentina, all combined with jazz in a captivating way.

As mentioned above, one of the greats of New Orleans piano was Henry Butler. When Henry’s home in New Orleans was destroyed by Katrina in 2005, he took up residence in Colorado and performed on a number of occasions at the Vail Jazz Festival over the ensuing years, the last of which was in 2017. Tragically, Henry passed last year. To pay homage to him and many of the other greats of New Orleans piano, Vail Jazz will present Jon Cleary and his trio in a multi-media tribute to Henry and the other legendary piano men of New Orleans on July 31 at the Sonnenalp Hotel (get tickets here) and Aug. 1 at the Jazz Tent in Lionshead (get tickets here). Jon is a master of all the styles of New Orleans piano and will also share classic videos and tip his hat to some of NOLA’s legendary players.

Howard Stone is the Founder and Artistic Director of Vail Jazz, the presenter of the annual Vail Jazz Festival. This summer Vail Jazz is celebrating its 25th Anniversary Season with performances by internationally renowned artists in multiple venues throughout the Vail Valley. In addition, Vail Jazz presents throughout the year jazz educational programs with a special focus on young musicians and young audiences. Many of Vail Jazz’s performances and educational programs are presented free of charge.

7 things to know about Ann Hampton Callaway

Yes, she’s a songwriter, singer, composer, actress and pianist, but there’s more …

Having juggled singing, song writing and acting throughout her storied career, it makes sense that Ann Hampton Callaway would dedicate an album to some of her favorite (well … everyone’s favorite) tunes from classic motion pictures.

Jazz Goes to the Movies, Callaway’s 16th studio album, pays homage to hits like “As Time Goes By” from Casablanca, “The Way You Look Tonight” from Swing Time, “S wonderful” from An American in Paris and “Blue Skies” from The Jazz Singer.

Her live performances often also feature jazz tunes Callaway herself has sung on film soundtracks: “Come Rain or Come Shine” from The Good Shepherd, “The Nearness of You,” from Last Holiday and “Pourquoi,” an original song she wrote for Blind.

As a Theatre World Award and New York Cabaret Award winner, plus a Tony Award nominee, Callaway says the fusion of music and film has “enchanted” her all of her life. In kind, the multi-talented artist has been enchanting audiences for decades with her rich vocal delivery of originals, Great American Songbook classics and theater, film and TV numbers. Having composed and performed hundreds of songs for everyone from Barbra Streisand to Robert De Niro, Callaway returns to Vail on July 24 and 25. She’s bringing “Jazz Goes to the Movies.”

Here are a few things that set Callaway apart from other artists:

1) She views The Great American Songbook as the soundtrack of her life.

“These songs came in a golden age of writers who were writing mostly for Broadway and film. So they were writing for real situations, songs that had to advance the plot of a character in a timely, important, universal situation. I feel like these songs become more beautiful with time. They’ve become to me the things that understand us better than each other sometimes. They give me great comfort and I’ve learned a lot about life through them.”

2) She presents each song like a story.

My musical approach begins with the story and the lyric and where I’m going to be singing it – with a symphony orchestra, in a jazz club, in a foreign country. Usually the feeling I get from a story, from the words, dictate what I do with it. Since we’ve heard so many renditions of the [same] songs by great artists, to me it’s important to help people not take the words for granted and not take the story for granted. When my sister and I were putting our show Boom! together and songs from the 60s and 70s, people were so used to singing along that they didn’t even think about them any more. We had fun finding ways to articulate the lyric in a way that people felt moved by it.”

3) She feels extra inspired when she performs in Vail.

I just love the people. I love how much they love this music. It’s a great community of people who have come to support jazz. The beauty of the mountains inspires my performance, even though it’s harder to sing because of the oxygen situation. I usually take a couple hits of oxygen before I go on stage.”

4) Her personal play list runs the gamut.

“I have a very eclectic record collection. I listen to jazz. I love Brazilian music. I listen to a lot of instrumental music, singer/songwriters, some of the old songs I grew up with – Joni Mitchell, Carole King, James Taylor …. I’m broadening my list all the time.”

5) She always aims to surprise.

“When I perform, I want every song to be something I can’t wait to sing. If I’m going to sing a love song, I want it to be one of the most beautiful, powerful love songs anyone has ever heard. I want it to surprise people a little bit. I want people to feel brand new when they leave a night of music … refreshed and human all over again.”

 6) Being all of the things – songwriter, singer, actress and composer – makes her feel complete.

“I think my dad once told me that if you want to live a happy, fulfilling life the more you can combine all the things you’re good at, the happier you will be. I think that’s what’s been especially rewarding about my career. I’ve been able to interpret music, create music and my philosophical side as a person, my humorous, silly side, the side that wants to enter different personalities … all of these interests lend themselves to a career in music. Singing has been the most natural, but writing is how I think. Acting to me – I was an acting major – it’s been a great part of my foundation as a singer to step into a story of a song and make it come alive. All of these parts of me are important.”

7) She made her surprise feature film debut in Robert De Niro’s The Good Shepherd.

First of all, I didn’t expect to be in the movie. I thought I was just going to be on the soundtrack. Working with Robert de Niro recording the song, he directed me in every take and I did a large amount of takes because he’s so meticulous. We had fun in the green room talking about The Great American Songbook. When I got the call the next day that he wanted me in the movie, I was just beside myself. I loved working on the set with Matt Damon and Angelina Jolie. Robert de Niro insisted I call him ‘Bob.’ He took a special moment to introduce me to the stars.

Ann Hampton Callaway’s “Jazz Goes to the Movies”

Vail Jazz Club Series

July 24

Ann Hampton Callaway returns to Vail to present silver screen song favorites in two intimate shows at The Sonnenalp’s Ludwig’s Terrace on Wednesday, July 24. Doors for the first seating open at 5 p.m. with performance beginning at 5:30 (Get tickets for 5:30 performance here). Doors for the second seating are at 7:30 p.m. with music starting at 8 p.m (Get tickets for 8 p.m. performance here). Tickets at $40. Full dinner service is available, not included in ticket cost and a $30 per person food or beverage minimum applies.

 

Vail Jazz @ Vail Square

July 25

The “Jazz Goes to the Movies” golden age tunes hit the big stage inside the all-weather Jazz Tent at Lionshead’s Vail Square at 6 p.m. on Thursday, July 25. Tickets are $25 for general admission, $40 for preferred seat and $50 for premium seat (Get tickets here). Beer, wine and cocktails are available for purchase.

 

 

Howard Stone: Jazz and The Movies

The 1927 film, The Jazz Singer, was the first feature-length (not a short) “talkie” (a film with synchronized speech, singing, instrumental score and sound effects). While the title suggests that it was about a jazz crooner, the story is about a young man who wants to sing pop music instead of following in his father’s footsteps as a cantor. The film was a great commercial success, which revolutionized entertainment. By the end of the decade, 50 percent of the U.S. populace went to the movies weekly. Unfortunately, Hollywood’s track record when depicting the world of jazz has not been very good, as most films have relied on clichés and commercial themes that have strayed from reality. Periodically though, filmmakers have captured the essence of the music and the musicians. Forest Whitaker‘s portrayal of Charlie Parker in Bird and jazz saxophonist Dexter Gordon’s Oscar-nominated role in ’Round Midnight were thoughtful explorations of the jazz life.

Howard Stone.

In the past few years, two jazz-themed movies – Green Book (2018) and La La Land (2016) have taken home Oscars for Best Picture and in 2014, JK Simmons won an Oscar for his performance as a demonic jazz educator in Whiplash. While winning critical acclaim and box office success, many in the jazz community were less than pleased with these offerings. The most recent jazz film, Bolden, was panned by the critics and failed at the box office as well. On the other hand, there have been some wonderful documentary films about jazz in the last several years. Keep On Keepin’ On, I Called Him Morgan, Chasing Trane and What Happened, Miss Simone? are a few noteworthy offerings.

So, while in recent years some filmmakers have done a better job depicting the world of jazz, it hasn’t been films about jazz (or even jazz soundtracks) that have been that important to the art form. Instead, it has been the music in movies that has had an outsized impact on jazz. A little history is in order. The explosion in popularity of the cinema in the 1920s through the 1950s (when television viewing began to skyrocket and attendance at movie theaters began to decline) coincided with the period when composers and lyricists began writing songs that became known as “The Great American Songbook.” Many of these songs were written for the movies and even when they were first performed on Broadway, found their way into the movies, where the audiences were much larger. It was a time when the likes of Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Johnny Mercer, Jerome Kern, Richard Rodgers, Cole Porter and Harold Arlen, to name just a few, were writing the songs that jazz performers embraced and have been performing ever since, to the point that these songs are now “jazz standards.”

In 2004, the American Film Institute published its poll of the “100 Greatest Songs In American Movies,” Topping the list was “Over the Rainbow” from The Wizard of Oz (1939), with “As Time Goes By” from Casablanca (1942) next. On July 24 at the Sonnenalp Hotel (get tickets here) and again on July 25 at the Jazz Tent in Lionshead (get tickets here), Vail Jazz will present the great Ann Hampton Callaway, performing those two jazz classics and many more as she takes the audience on a walk down memory lane in her show entitled “Jazz Goes To The Movies.” I hope to see you all at these shows. As the character Sam (Humphrey Bogart) said in Casablanca … “here’s looking at you, kid.”

Howard Stone is the Founder and Artistic Director of Vail Jazz, the presenter of the annual Vail Jazz Festival. This summer Vail Jazz is celebrating its 25th Anniversary Season with performances by internationally renowned artists in multiple venues throughout the Vail Valley. In addition, Vail Jazz presents throughout the year jazz educational programs with a special focus on young musicians and young audiences. Many of Vail Jazz’s performances and educational programs are presented free of charge.

John Pizzarelli Pays Tribute to Nat ‘King’ Cole

The charismatic guitarist turns up his vocal chords to honor one of the 20th Century’s most beloved jazz stars

One of the most memorable compliments John Pizzarelli ever received was, “I don’t really like jazz music, but I like what you do.”

Upon hearing this, the guitarist stopped in his tracks for a moment, wondering how anyone could truly dislike jazz. Then he realized that some people simply don’t understand the vast musical umbrella the genre covers.

“People get so scared by the word ‘jazz,’ says Pizzarelli, who grew up surrounded by music thanks to his famous father, Bucky Pizzarelli. “Some people think you play jazz for yourself and not for people around you. Growing up, jazz for me was sometimes the same group of guys playing the same sort of music. Now you have bebop, swing, Latin jazz … there are so many different variations. It’s really exciting. It’s almost impossible that some variation wouldn’t appeal to every kind of person.”

One particular artist under that vast jazz umbrella has made an especially life-changing impression on Pizzarelli. This is Nat “King” Cole. Pizzarelli’s latest album, For Centennial Reasons, is his third tribute to the legendary musician whose timeless songs landed on the top of the pop charts (“pop” at the time was often synonymous with “jazz”), more than a hundred times during his day and remain among the most recognizable of tunes in The Great American Songbook.

 

In a career that began as a small boy playing with his father 35 years ago, Pizzarelli has long connected with Cole’s tunes. In turn, he has developed a knack for cultivating a solid communication pipeline between himself and every audience.

 

“A lot of artists from my father’s generation would get up on stage and play song after song after song,” Pizzarelli says. “Some guys can rely on their artistry so they don’t have to speak. So afterward you’d say, ‘I didn’t get much about the person, but he can really play the saxophone.’ I like to know why you’re doing what you’re doing.”

With his intricate guitar playing and engaging singing style, there is a unique charisma Pizzarelli brings to the stage that stretches beyond the jazz genre.

“It was around 1983 that I saw Billy Joel, Bruce Springsteen and Frank Sinatra in the same venue,” he recalls. “Each guy had a different way of communicating. When Billy told stories between songs, it really added something to the whole experience and when Sinatra sang, there would always be a theatrical aspect. I don’t try to bring that to the show, necessarily, but I keep everybody at ease and let them know what’s going on. I like to keep people informed and entertained.”

Although he is famous for putting his own stamp on Cole’s classics and a slew of others from The Great American Songbook, Pizzarelli is known to sprinkle his style onto pop hits from the likes of Neil Young, The Beatles, Joni Mitchell, Elvis Costello, Tom Waits and The Allman Brothers.

“When we get there, we feel it out. I like that,” he says. “We ask ourselves, what record do we want to highlight? Do we want to play more Sinatra? More bossa nova? I could do more Nat Cole. I may play some Ellington. It’s nice to have these problems.”

In the end, Pizzarelli relishes knowing that something in his repertoire will strike some memorable chord with every single member of the audience.

“The best thing about any performance is introducing music to new fans and have people tell you what the music meant to them,” Pizzarelli says.

John Pizzarelli’s 100-Year Salute to Nat “King Cole

Vail Jazz Club Series

July 17

John Pizzarelli along with Mike Karn on double bass and Konrad Paszkudzki on piano deliver a pair of intimate solo performances at The Sonnenalp’s Ludwig’s Terrace on Wednesday, July 17. Doors for the first seating open at 5 p.m. with performance beginning at 5:30 (get tickets here). Doors for the second seating are at 7:30 p.m. with music starting at 8 p.m (get tickets here). Tickets are $40. Full dinner service is available, not included in ticket cost and a $30 per person food or beverage minimum applies.

Vail Jazz @ Vail Square

July 18

The trio’s tribute show amps up for the big stage/multimedia performance in the Jazz Tent at Lionshead’s Vail Square at 6 p.m. on Thursday, July 18. Tickets are $25 for general admission, $40 for preferred seat and $50 for premium seat. Beer, wine and cocktails are available for purchase. Get tickets HERE.

For more information,  call 970-479-6146.

 

Preview of the 25th Annual Vail Jazz Festival: Unforgettable

“Out of clutter, find simplicity. From discord, find harmony. In the middle of difficulty, lies opportunity.” The life of Nathaniel Adams Coles bears witness to these words of wisdom from none other than Albert Einstein. Nat “King” Cole, as he became known, was born into an African-American family in Montgomery, Alabama, 100 years ago this year, and this adage served him well during a lifelong struggle with racism.

Nat’s father was a Baptist minister and his mother led the choir at his father’s church. The family relocated to Chicago when he was 4 years old and during his early years, he played the organ at his father’s church. Nat’s mother taught him to play the piano, providing him with the only formal music training he ever received, and as a teen he would sneak out of the house late at night to listen to jazz at local clubs. By 15, Nat had quit high school, determined to become a jazz pianist. At 17, he joined an all-black touring musical show, but was stranded in Los Angeles when the show folded on the road. True to Einstein’s maxim, in the middle of a difficult situation, he saw opportunity and began playing in local bars, all the while honing his jazz chops. When his reputation began to grow, he was offered the opportunity to organize a quartet (piano, bass, drums and guitar) to play at a more upscale venue.

Howard Stone.

The band worked hard to prepare for the gig, as Nat understood this was the breakout moment he had been waiting for. But it appeared that fate would intervene. On opening night, his drummer failed to show up. This is when Einstein’s direction to find simplicity and harmony out of clutter and discord would save the day, along with the mantra of all great jazz players: when all else fails, improvise. Nat found simplicity and harmony with a drummer-less trio, forging a new way to present swinging jazz. It caught on, but as he put it, “for years the Trio did nothing but play for musicians and other hip people. We practically starved to death.”

He was not yet 21 and with all of his success, Nat was still unknown outside the world of jazz. Money was an issue and he was struggling. However, that was about to change, for as legend tells it, on a fateful night, the trio was playing in a club when a drunk began harassing him and demanding that he sing a specific song. At first, he tried to ignore the man as he didn’t know the tune and singing wasn’t part of his act. When that failed, he decided to try to shut up the drunk by singing “Sweet Lorraine,” a song that he knew. The audience loved his smooth baritone voice and his unique phrasing and enunciation. That night, out of an extremely difficult situation, he once again proved that when opportunity knocks, you need to open the door.

Nat went on to record the song in 1940, which would become his first hit record and started him on the road to success and fame. During the ensuing two-plus decades, he would record hit after hit, including “Unforgettable,” that aptly described him as a remarkably gifted entertainer. He became one of the most famous singers of the era, moving away from jazz to the broader audience of pop, and in the process selling over 50 million records and successfully touring throughout the world. In 1946, he had his own radio program – a first for a black musician – and in 1956, he had his own network TV program, another first for a black musician.

But unfortunately, in mid-20th century America, Einstein’s axiom proved to be no match for the “discord” and “difficulty” of racism and no matter how hard Nat tried to seize the opportunities that potentially existed for him, there were barriers for blacks that he could not break down.

A case in point, in 1948 he purchased a home in an all-white neighborhood in Los Angeles and was greeted by a burning cross on his front lawn. The family dog was poisoned and neighbors confronted him and told him that they did not want “undesirables” in the neighborhood. Nat responded, “neither do I. And if I see anybody undesirable coming in here, I’ll be the first to complain.”

His TV show, which was lauded by the critics, only aired for a year because a national sponsor could not be found. As Nat said at the time, “Madison Avenue is afraid of the dark.

At the height of his popularity in 1956, he decided to return to his home state of Alabama and perform in Birmingham. Playing for an all-white audience (audiences were segregated in the South at that time), he was “welcomed home” by four white members of the audience who vaulted onto the stage and attacked him. He survived, but he would never return to the South to perform again.

While racism threatened his very existence, it was Nat’s three-pack-a-day smoking habit that killed him, as he tragically succumbed to lung cancer in 1965 at age 45. And while he died way too young, his musical legacy was renewed for a new generation of fans in 1991, when his daughter, Natalie, recorded a Grammy-winning virtual duet with Nat of “Unforgettable.”

Vail Jazz is extremely pleased to present the John Pizzarelli Trio “For Centennial Reasons: 100 Year Salute to Nat King Cole” on July 17 at the Sonnenalp Hotel (get tickets here) and July 18 at the Jazz Tent in Lionshead (Get tickets here). These shows will be multi-media presentations combining a live performance by John and his trio with classic video of Nat King Cole performing some of his greatest hits.

Howard Stone is the Founder and Artistic Director of Vail Jazz, the presenter of the annual Vail Jazz Festival. This summer Vail Jazz is celebrating its 25th Anniversary Season with performances by internationally renowned artists in multiple venues throughout the Vail Valley. In addition, Vail Jazz presents throughout the year jazz educational programs with a special focus on young musicians and young audiences. Many of Vail Jazz’s performances and educational programs are presented free of charge.