Thursday evenings are set for jazz this summer

VAIL — There’s no mistaking the sounds of a soulful summer in the air on Thursday evenings in Vail — the distinctice and familiar ring of world-class jazz music.

Beginning April 15, tickets are on sale for this summer’s Thursday night Jazz @ Vail Square concert series. Celebrating the 20th anniversary of the Vail Jazz Festival, the Thursday concerts offer an A-list lineup of artists.

New this year, Jazz @ Vail Square offers two-tiered pricing for seating under the tent. General Admission tickets are $15 per show or $30 for VIP seating, which includes priority seating, access to the VIP lounge area and a drink voucher. Information available at or 888-824-5526. Passes for the nine-performance series are also available.

July 3

Kicking things off at Vail Square, guitar virtuoso duo Frank Vignola and Vinny Raniolo return with their quick-fingered, quick-witted performance covering everything from jazz classics to rock hits, all with a humorous flair.

July 10

Also returning by popular demand, the foot-stomping, dance-inspiring rhythms of conga drumming sensation Poncho Sanchez and his Latin Jazz Band.

July 17

Young singer and jazz pianist Tony DeSare hits the stage with energy described to lie somewhere between that of Harry Connick Jr. and Billy Joel. He’s one of the hottest up-and-comers in jazz at the moment and plays Vail for the first time.

July 24

Long-time Vail Jazz favorite and world-renowned pianist Marcia Ball returns with New Orleans-infused, feel-good melodies. See why they call her “saucy.”

July 31

When a New Orleans brass band collides with the strains of Eastern Indian horns and percussion in the form of a large but harmonious ensemble, it looks and sounds something like Red Baraat. Also likely to instigate some dancing.

Aug. 7

Jamaica’s one and only Monty Alexander brings his addictive jazz piano and the classic grooves of a full band, the Harlem-Kingston Express, from their usual setup at New York City’s Lincoln Center to those lucky to witness the experience in the tent at Vail Square.

Aug. 14

Guitarist/vocalist John Pizzarelli returns for a rich and riveting performance along with his quartet, including brother Martin on bass.

Aug. 21

Expect to dance, swing-style. Artist TBA.

Aug. 28

It’s a triple bill for the series’ grand finale. Resident favorites, The Vail Jazz Party House Band wrap up Jazz @ Vail Square with a white-hot performance preceded by the nation’s top lineup of teenage protégés, the Vail Jazz All-Stars and also the now-famous All-Star alums. The performance, while closing the Thursday night series, kicks off the 20th annual Vail Jazz Party.

Turning 20 means going big: Summer lineup released for the Vail Jazz Festival’s 20th season

Twenty years ago, the Vail Jazz Festival planted its heels into Vail and with a soaring but humble brigade of trumpets, bass, drums and guitars, launching an event that nobody would envision snowballing to the proportions it has reached this season.

Growing from a Labor Day weekend lineup of performances to a summer-long event featuring weekly performances by some of the country and even world’s top jazz musicians, the Vail Jazz Festival is poised to blow the doors off in celebration of its 20th anniversary.

“Jazz started in New Orleans and it’s truly a gumbo. It’s a living music – a changing, breathing creature,” says Vail Jazz Festival founder Howard Stone. “For this 20th anniversary season, our lineup is not just a New Orleans gumbo, it’s a world gumbo with more energy and variety than we’ve ever had.”

Beginning at the end of June, twelve weeks of performances include free jazz every Sunday at the Vail Farmers’ Market and Restaurant Kelly Liken along with hands on, educational workshops – Jammin’ Jazz Kids. Then of course, there are the Thursday evening Jazz@ Vail Square performances with a line up that will have long-time jazz diehards brimming with anticipation and young jazz skeptics readily admitting that the genre is worth exploring.

The names immediately recognizable to the former group include iconic guitarist John Pizzarelli, who made his inaugural appearance at last summer’s Vail Jazz Festival and kicks off the season June 27 with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra as a collaboration with Bravo! Vail, a collaboration that also brings a series of three jam sessions – all of which sold out last season – on July 2, 12 and 23.

The Jazz @ Vail Square performances have truly evolved into an event of their own, filling the jazz tent in Lionshead with a brimming crowd every Thursday evening and the entire side of town with uplifting melodies. Advanced tickets to each show are $10 or $25 for VIP preferred seating.


Jazz @ Vail Square

July 3: The series kicks off with the return of hypnotizing guitar duo Frank Vignola and Vinny Raniolo. Appearing in Vail for the first time last summer, Frank & Vinny have a knack for enthralling a crowd with their lightning fast fingers covering a litany of tunes from classics like “Stardust” to Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven,” all while conducting their own silly choreography and drawing laughs from the crowd. Keep an eye out for the duo on the best-sounding float in Vail’s Fourth of July parade.

July 10: Also returning by popular demand, the foot-stomping, dance-inspiring rhythms of conga drumming sensation Poncho Sanchez and his Latin Jazz Band.

July 17: Young singer and jazz pianist Tony DeSare is quickly becoming known for making the keys dance while belting out original compositions as well as upbeat renditions of his favorites from a gamut that runs from Billy Joel to Harry Connick Jr. This marks the Vail debut of his quartet.

July 24: Jazz festival favorite Marcia Ball returns to Vail with her romping New Orleansinfused piano and vocals.

July 31: Imagine New Orleans Brass Band colliding with the strains of Eastern Indian horns and percussion. The young and energetic Red Baraat grabbed NPR’s attention for a Tiny Desk Concert and are sure to have Vail Square thumping.

Aug. 7: Jamaica’s one and only Monty Alexander brings his addictive jazz piano along with the classic grooves of his full band, the Harlem-Kingston Express, from their regular setup at Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York City to a very special show in Lionshead.

Aug. 14: Guitarist/vocalist John Pizzarelli returns for his own riveting performance along with his quartet, including brother Martin on bass.

Aug. 21: Defying the classic conventions, young, blonde and uber talented trumpeter Bria Skonberg makes her inaugural appearance in Vail. You’ve never heard a horn wail in such inspiring melody as this. Swing dance?

Aug. 28: The kings of Vail Jazz, The Vail Jazz Party House Band wrap up Jazz @ Vail Square with a white-hot performance followed by the future of jazz embodied in the nation’s very best, carefully selected ensemble of Vail Jazz All-Stars.

Vail Jazz Party Labor Day Weekend

The ultimate grand finale, the 20th anniversary party brings an onslaught of more than 40 of the world’s finest jazz musicians, including the genre’s most renowned pianists Benny Green along with the return of Monty Alexander, drummers Jeff Hamilton and Ernie Adams, trumpeter Byron Stripling, saxophonists Ken Peplowski and Grace Kelly and vocalists Curtis Stigers and Ann Hampton Callaway.

The weekend will include mind-blowing multimedia tributes to Benny Goodman, Clark Terry and Sarah Vaughn, singer Niki Haris at the helm for the wildly popular Gospel Prayer Meetin’ and a true star power lineup of Vail Jazz All-Star alums, including the remarkably talented blind pianist Justin Kauflin, featured in the gripping documentary “Keep on Keepin’ On.” To be viewed over the festival weekend.

“Each of these artists is a jazz powerhouse in his or her own right,” says Vail Jazz Foundation Executive Director Robin Litt. “To get this many of them in one place, on one weekend, is something that just doesn’t happen anywhere else.”

For more information or to purchase to any of the festival’s upcoming events, visit

Vail Jazz Unveils 20th Anniversary Image

February 12, 2014 – Vail, Colorado – As part of the 20th Anniversary celebration of the Vail Jazz Festival, The Vail Jazz Foundation unveiled its festival image, the brand of the summer-long festival.

With over 40 performances spanning 12 weeks, offerings will include free and welcoming outdoor concerts, large format performances as well as intimate soirées.

Each year, we work with a graphic artist to capture the essence and excitement of our festival through a captivating image,” said Robin Litt, executive director of The Vail Jazz Foundation. “This year, we decided to go about things differently than in the past and we conducted a contest to get designers interpretations of Vail Jazz. We are excited to be working with AJ McCormick, whose winning trombone image seems to explode with mountains.”

Entries came from all over the country, including Eagle County and the Front Range. McCormick, a graphic designer based in Denver, spends a lot of time snowboarding in Vail.

The image becomes the brand of the festival, which will commence on June 22 and wrap up with the Vail Jazz Party on September 1st. The 12-week festival will be filled with over 40 performances ranging from free outdoor performances to intimate and elegant small-venue shows.

Addressing the Vail Jazz mission of presenting performances and educational opportunities that promote jazz, with specific focus on young artists and young audiences.

The season gets a jump start on June 27th with a collaboration with Bravo! Vail at the Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater featuring jazz guitarist John Pizzarelli and the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Jeff Tyzik.

Jammin’ Jazz Kids, which debuted in 2013, will be expanded to offer free interactive programming for youth every Sunday in July at the Vail Farmers’ Market, in conjunction with the weekly Jazz @ The Market series.

“Jazz After” jam sessions at Larkspur will continue in partnership with Bravo! Vail following performances at the GRFA.

The cornerstone of Vail Jazz summer activities is the weekly series at Lionshead each Thursday night, Jazz @ Vail Square.

Artists will include Monty Alexander and the Harlem-Kingston Express, John Pizzarelli Quartet, Tony DeSare, one of the hottest singer/pianists on the scene todayand Vail Jazz “House Band” made up of John Clayton, Jeff Clayton, Terell Stafford, Wycliffe Gordon, Bill Cunliffe and Lewis Nash. The full line up will be announced in March.

The grand finale of the festival takes place over Labor Day Weekend with the Vail Jazz Party. The Party is a unique format that brings the audience up close with over 40 artists, who will jam for over 35 hours over Labor Day Weekend. Artists who will perform along with the House Band over Labor Day Weekend include: pianists Benny Green and Monty Alexander, vocalists Curtis Stigers and Ann Hampton Callaway, drummer Jeff Hamilton and his trio, trumpeter Byron Stripling, clarinetist Ken Peplowski, drummer Ernie Adams, bassist Marty Wind and the Vail Jazz Alumni Ensemble, all past members of the Vail Jazz Workshop who are current touring musicians.

Special shows will include: the popular Gospel Prayer Meetin’ led by Niki Haris, Multi-Media Tributes to Benny Goodman, Clark Terry and Sarah Vaughn, Piano Duets featuring all of the party’s pianists, and a partnership with the Vail Symposium – a screening of “Keep on Keepin’ On”, a documentary featuring Clark Terry and one of his last students, Vail Jazz alumnus, Justin Kauflin.

“We’ll have more exciting programming over Labor Day Weekend than ever before – and we already have a packed weekend of music!” Litt remarked. “Each of these artists is a tremendous headliner in his or her own right, but when we bring together so many jazz powerhouses at our party, the output is like nothing you’ve experienced before.” Tickets for the Vail Jazz Party will go on sale in March.

Vail Jazz Presents Winter Series as Kick-Off to Celebratory Year

January 13, 2014– Vail, CO – The Vail Jazz Foundation celebrates 20 years as the leading presenter of jazz education and performance in the region and kicks off an exciting year of celebration with three unique performances during this winter, 2014.

Plans are well underway for the 20th Anniversary Vail Jazz Festival, a twelve week series of over 40 performances, slated for June 22 – September 1, 2014.

The winter series kicks off on Wednesday, February 12 with an intimate soiree held in a private residence featuring Brazilian diva, Eliane Elias, who will perform with her husband, acclaimed bassist, Marc Johnson. Elias’ sensuous ballads and artful piano playing will enthrall the audience in an exquisite, intimate setting.

The series follows with Diego Figueiredo and his trio. Figueiredo, a fast rising star among jazz guitarists, adds his own Brazilian flair on March 9th at The Fitz Lounge in Manor Vail Lodge. While performing during the past two years at the Vail Jazz Party over Labor Day Weekend, Figueiredo wowed audiences with his superb technique, timing and imagination.

April 3rd marks a collaboration with the Vilar Performing Arts Center featuring Chris Botti, winner of the Best Pop Instrumental Album at the 2013 Grammy Awards.

Artistic Director Howard Stone announced the line-up for the Winter Jazz Series noting, ”The lineup of winter artists mirrors what Vail Jazz is known for – exceptional performances presented in intimate and intriguing locales. We are so fortunate to bring three top jazz performers that are compelling and captivating entertainers. Our first two shows highlight the extraordinary sounds of Brazilian Jazz, followed up with Botti’s smooth wit and awe inspiring talent on his trumpet. These performances will cover a varied spectrum of appealing jazz styles that are sure to please audiences, whether a hardcore jazz fan or just someone looking for a great musical experience.”

Executive director Robin Litt added, “Each of these award winning artists brings an exceptional level of talent to the Vail Valley. We are thrilled to partner with the VPAC, Alpine Bank, Colorado Mountain Express, Vail Resorts Echo, Westin Riverfront at Avon and our other sponsors to present these concerts.”

Celebrating its 20th year, The Vail Jazz Foundation produces innovative and prestigious educational programs including the Vail Jazz Workshop, Jammin’ Jazz Kids and Jazz Goes to School, along with the Vail Jazz Festival, one of the nation’s foremost jazz festivals featuring over 150 artists throughout the summer. The summer-long Festival has met with unprecedented growth over the past five years as attendees have come to recognize Vail Jazz for presenting the highest quality performances. Vail Jazz focuses on perpetuating jazz music through live performances that showcase the artistry and talent of great jazz musicians, and through jazz education, with a focus on young musicians and young audiences. For more information, visit

Jazz Goes to School returns for Session 2

December 31, 2013 – Vail, Colorado Jazz Goes to School, The Vail Jazz Foundation’s jazz education program for 4 th and 5th graders, returns to Eagle County schools January 13-16, 2014.

The program features a quintet of professional musician/educators who travel to 15 local elementary schools to share their love of jazz and American history, and inspire young people to embrace jazz: America’s own art form.

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

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

Later in the Jazz Goes to School curriculum, the older students try their hand at writing their own jazz music. The final concert includes blues compositions created by the fifth graders, performed in medley at the final concert.

Gulizia is not the only one who appreciates how Jazz Goes to School makes a difference for local kids. Vail Resorts Echo, the company’s philanthropy program, has identified Jazz Goes to School as a necessary and valuable way to help bring the arts into our schools. “Vail Resorts supports Jazz Goes to School as an incredibly important program that teaches the wonders of Jazz to the children of Eagle County,” said Nicky DeFord, Manager of Charitable Giving for Vail Resorts Echo. Additionally, Alpine Bank’s grant to The Vail Jazz Foundation provides funds to bring the accomplished jazz instructors into all elementary schools in the region.

“We encourage parents of 4th and 5th graders to attend their children’s programs to share their enthusiasm for what they’re learning. Their love for the program can be really infectious!” says Robin Litt, Executive Director of The Vail Jazz Foundation.

Tony Gulizia (keyboard and vocals), directs the Jazz Goes to School program for the Vail Jazz Foundation. Gulizia is joined by his brother Joey, who is also a professional jazz musician and educator, on drums. Other musician/educators performing this week include Andy Hall (bass), Roger Neumann (saxophone), and Mike Gurciullo (trumpet).


About Jazz Goes To School

Jazz Goes to School, which is in its 16th year, supports and promotes the jazz art form with a focus on educating young musicians and young audiences – fulfilling the mission of the Vail Jazz Foundation. Jazz Goes to School is presented by The Vail Jazz Foundation (VJF) to Eagle County 4 th and 5 th graders, including all public schools plus the Eagle County Charter Academy, Vail Mountain School, Vail Christian Academy, Stone Creek Elementary Schools, and St. Clare of Assisi. Jazz Goes to School reaches over 1,100 students each year, and has exposed over 15,000 school students to the course about this uniquely American art form.

Elements of Jazz Goes to School will be presented in a summer program entitled Jammin’ Jazz Kids at the Vail Farmers’ Market as part of Vail Jazz’s weekly free Jazz @ The Market series in July, 2014.

The Vail Jazz Foundation is celebrating its 20th Anniversary in 2014.

Jazz Goes to School offers a unique interactive learning experience that enhances the basic school curriculum and is provided free of charge, thanks to each school’s PTO and program sponsors, including Vail Resorts Echo, Alpine Bank, Colorado Mountain Express (Official Transportation Provider), Eagle County RE-50J School District, Ella Fitzgerald Charitable Foundation, United Way of Eagle River Valley, Vilar Center Community Performance Fund, and East West Resorts, Antlers at Vail and other corporate sponsors and individual donors.

Jazz Goes to School hits schools for 16th year!

September 30, 2013 – Vail, Colorado – Jazz Goes to School, the Vail Jazz Foundation’s jazz education program for Eagle County 4th and 5th graders, returns to schools the week of September 30th.

The innovative educational program features professional musician/educators who visit with 16 local schools to share their love and knowledge of jazz and American History, and inspire young people to embrace jazz: America’s own art form.

“After recently concluding our most successful summer jazz festival,” says Executive Director Robin Litt, “we are more excited than ever to bring jazz to local school kids. There’s nothing like Jazz Goes to School elsewhere in the country, and we are privileged to have such a talented teaching staff lead the program.”

Jazz Goes to School, now in its sixteenth year, supports and promotes the jazz art form with a focus on educating young musicians and young audiences – fulfilling the mission of The Vail Jazz Foundation.

This first session of the four part program traces the evolution of the music from its origins in Africa and the American south through to today’s jazz.

Local jazz musician and program director Tony Gulizia explains, “We look at the geographical movement of Senegalese, Yorbuba-Dahomean and Ashantis slaves to the United States. We examine their customs and culture with a particular emphasis on the musical traditions they brought to America.”

The history of great jazz giants, such as Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, W.C. Handy, Scott Joplin, King Oliver, Kid Ory, and how the migration of the black population brings the blues to New Orleans is also featured in this lesson.

Additionally, the history of many musical instruments is discussed, and students are encouraged to try their hand at playing special percussion instruments from West Africa. Students learn about African rhythms which found their way to New Orleans, where they began to blend with European church music.

Tony Gulizia (keyboard and vocals), directs the Jazz Goes to School program for the 16 th year for The Vail Jazz Foundation. For this first session, Gulizia is joined by his brother Joey, who is also a professional jazz musician and educator, on drums and Michael Pujado, on percussion.

Subsequent sessions include up to six jazz musicians as they share their various functions within the jazz band.


About Jazz Goes To School

Jazz Goes to School is presented by The Vail Jazz Foundation to Eagle County fourth and fifth graders, including all public schools plus the Eagle County Charter Academy, Vail Mountain School, Vail Christian Academy, Stone Creek Charter School and St. Clare of Assisi.

Jazz Goes to School reaches over 1,100 students each year, and has exposed over 14,000 school students to a course about this uniquely American art form.

The final session in the spring is a true jazz concert performed by the Jazz Goes to School Sextet at the Vilar Performing Arts Center.

Jazz Goes to School offers a unique interactive learning experience that enhances the basic school curriculum and is provided free of charge, thanks to each school’s PTO and supported with grants from: Alpine Bank, United Way Eagle River Valley and Vail Resorts Echo, along with festival sponsors: AT&T, Alpine Party Rentals, Colorado Creative Industries, Colorado Mountain Express – Official Transportation Provider, Ella Fitzgerald Charitable Foundation, The Jazz Cruise, KUVO 89.3 & KVJZ 88.5 Jazz Public Radio, Vail Daily, Vilar Center Community Fund, Woods and Son Pianos and Yamaha. In addition, individual donations support Jazz Goes to School.

Lights on the ladies of jazz at the 19th Annual Vail Jazz Festival

Meet the five big-time female artists at this year’s Vail Labor Day Weekend Party.

Like any history, the history of jazz has been marked by some very notable ‘hers’. There’s been Billie Holiday, Bessie Smith, Ellie Fitzgerald … the list goes on.

Of all the contemporary favorites bound to one day find a place on this iconic list, the 19th annual Vail Jazz Labor Day Weekend Party features some awe-inspiring potential candidates.

The five-day live music celebration is stacked with more than 30 of the country’s most highly acclaimed artists. From Shelly Berg’s History of Stride and Boogie Woogie to Byron Stripling’s tribute to Miles Davis, the weekend is of course bubbling with dynamic sets of straight-up jazz, but the lineup and styles also reach every possible corner of the rather vast umbrella of what we know as jazz music.

“You can really say to the few naysayers out there saying that jazz is dying, ‘Hey! Look at Vail,” says Vail Jazz Party pioneer and director of education John Clayton. “What’s happened is, through the years, people have grown to trust [founder and developer] Howard Stone and trust his taste. There will be people the Vail Jazz supporters have never heard of, but they know they’ll always, always go home from a jazz performance and say, ‘God, that was great.’”

Among the greats at this year’s jazz party, there are five female artists that are unquestionable standouts.


Niki Haris

Although some might consider gospel in a classification other than jazz, anyone who’s attended Niki Haris’s Gospel Prayer Meetin’ knows that the same elements that define the jazz genre are on fervent display. “The word gospel means ‘good’ and many voices speaking about one good. All races, all colors come together to be part of this spiritual celebration,” says Haris, who is a singer, songwriter, dancer and choreographer and will be performing several times throughout the weekend culminating in her 9:30 a.m. Sunday Prayer Meetin,’ featuring the Mile High Gospel Ensemble and for the first time in history, including lyrics for the audience to not only clap along but raise their voices too.

“Jazz is about freedom of expression,” she says. “I’m so happy and proud that [Vail Jazz Party organizers] have taken a step out and made this gospel prayer spiritual meeting to be an integral part of this festival. Not only do they love jazz but they understand the core of it.”

Gospel is only one of Haris’ points of focus, as she has worked with everyone from Ray Charles to Mick Jagger and spent 18 years touring and recording with Madonna. Along with the Gospel Ensemble and several special guests, Haris delivers what’s arguably the highest energy performance of the whole festival, guaranteed to have everyone in the Jazz Tent on their feet, singing, clapping and swaying.

“I love the entire energy of the Vail Jazz Festival but one of the best parts is that it is set in the most pristine, beautiful part of the country,” Haris says. “I always say God was having a great day when he made Vail, Colorado – or should I say she? The point is, this is the world we all want to see – everyone celebrating in their own way to whatever God they serve. We’re all here together.”


Cyrille Aimeé

Performing several times throughout the weekend beginning on Friday night, Cyrille Aimeé’s enchanting vocals have won her first place in the esteemed Montreaux Voice Competition and have also landed her on the list of most acclaimed regular artists on the New York City jazz scene.

With a French father and Dominican mother, Aimeé has spent much of her life in both France and the Dominican Republic and her singing style resonates with influences from each – the hypnotic rhythms of traditional Domican beats and also some spice of French gypsy swing.


Tia Fuller

Does the name Beyoncé ring a bell? You may recall the international star’s unforgettable all-female band from such highlight reels as last year’s Super Bowl halftime show and among this glittering group, Tia Fuller on saxophone was a standout.

The Colorado native is also well-versed in piano and flute and co-directs Esperanza Spalding’s rising band, the Radio Society.

Fuller was a student in the Vail Jazz Workshop in 1996 and is back at this weekend’s Jazz Party with the Vail Alumni Quartet to demonstrate to the valley just what heights she has reached with her talent and her career.


Akiko Tsuruga

Another Vail Jazz Party favorite, Akiko Tsuruga has been known to spark audiences to attention by striding onstage in a traditional kimono and attack her B3 organ as if it were the last night of her life.

Since moving to New York City, the native of Osaka, Japan has established herself as a crowd-pleasing mainstay at Jazz at Lincoln Center and has also won over many an audience headlining Birdland and Blue Note.

She will be performing Saturday and Monday afternoons in the Jazz Tent.


Karen Hammack

First lured by blues piano at the age of 14, Karen Hammack quickly embarked on her singer/songwriter career incorporating all elements of jazz, gospel, funk, soul and rock and is now a master recording artist with a long list of original numbers that have been singled out for their heart-gripping sincerity.

Hailing from California, Hammack has worked with Jackson Brown, Michael McDonald, Bill Frisell and a slew of others and recently released her latest, 14-track album, My Beating Heart.

She delivers riveting solo performances Saturday and Monday in the Jazz Tent and will also be the music director and pianist for Niki Haris’s Gospel Prayer Meetin’ on Sunday.


Running today through Monday, tickets to this year’s Labor Day Jazz Party are close to sold out. For more information on availability and more info on performances, visit or call 1-888-VAIL-JAM.

18th Vail Jazz Workshop commences

You’ve heard of young musical prodigies, seen movies about them discovering their uncanny knack to play a particular instrument like a professional adult when they are only 5 years old and surmount obstacles such as poverty, loss and relocation. But just imagine the energy and combined prowess that abounds when you get 12 of such characters together as one well-tuned team ready to play their hearts out.

The summer grand finale of the Vail Jazz Festival is the five-day live music Labor Day Weekend Party. Bringing in the country’s top contemporary jazz artists, to ensure a future of continued stardom, every year the festival selects 12 teenagers from across the country for an intensive, 10-day workshop with mentors John and Jeff Clayton, Bill Cunliffe, Wycliffe Gordon, Lewis Nash and Terrell Stafford.

After the intensive training, the 12 students transform into the Vail Jazz All-Stars and perform throughout the weekend party, kicking off Thursday for Jazz @ Vail Square and again Saturday and Sunday.

Of course, every one of the students arrives with an inspiring story behind his talent.

Drummer Adrian Cota’s begins when he was 2 years old, listening to his father’s Latin band rehearse at their home in Sinoloa, Mexico. Surrounded by a family of musicians, the young Cota would spend so much time listening and would get so absorbed that one time he fell asleep on one of the speakers. “The reason why I chose drums is I always hear a pulse. I think it started when I was very little. I always liked to be precise – that’s how I see myself. I like pulse, something that’s always there.” says 17-year-old Cota, who started his senior year of high school last week.

Driven by his desire and supported by his family who wanted him to have a real opportunity to steer his talent into the spotlight, Cota left Mexico three years ago to live with an uncle in Los Angeles.

He has made great strides so far, not only selected as a drummer for the Grammy Band Jazz Combo and receiving full scholarships for several residency and jazz programs, but Cota has also managed to adopt a full command of the English language during his short time in the U.S.

Cota has received a full scholarship to this year’s 18th Annual Vail Jazz Workshop. “I couldn’t speak that much English when I got here. I learned most of it here,” he says. “I knew it was something that I really needed. There was no other option. I had a lot of struggle with it, but I got better. I told myself I’m going to learn English. When you want something and know you need it, it just happens.”

It’s with that same drive and commitment that Cota aims to one day be surrounded by his whole family – who visited him for a few days before he made the trip to Vail – and lead his own band.

“You might think I’m getting a little deep right now, but everything is related to love. I moved here and knew it was going to be hard,” Cota says. “But I had a dream. I knew I was going to accomplish it. I would like to be together with my family. If they were here it would be amazing. But my dad is the director for our own family band in Mexico. He’s pretty well-known there. I really want them to be here at some point. I want to stay here and make music.”

As far as being selected for the Vail Jazz Workshop, Cota is still in awe that he was even considered for it. “I was really excited first of all that I got recommended. Lewis Nash is one of my favorite drummers. I saw him in concert once. That inspired me a lot,” he says. “When I auditioned and I got in, I couldn’t believe it. It’s such a beautiful feeling to really want it and then get it. I was prepared, though. If I didn’t make it, I would be glad just that I got the interview.”

Raised in New Orleans in the care of his grandmother, 17-year-old trombonist Jeffrey Miller comes from a different background but his story is equally inspiring. He too, is driven by a love for music … and a good bit of talent, too.

“Music is literally my life,” Miller says. “So, the only thing I really do besides music is school. I go to Ben Franklin High School for my academics and then NOCCA in the afternoon. Ben Franklin has a pretty rigorous curriculum, so I can be pretty hard to juggle that AND my music. For example, since my sophomore year, I’ve been performing every Wednesday night with Delfeayo Marsalis and the Uptown Jazz Orchestra at Snug Harbor from 8 p.m. to sometimes 12 a.m. You can see how that would be challenging to do that and go to school the next day.”

Miller still manages to “do the regular teenager stuff, like movies and dating,” but he has some notches on his belt that a scarce few 17-year-olds posses, playing with jazz greats and also appearing on the HBO series “Treme.”

But the performance at Carnegie Hall is his standout achievement to date. “There are a lot,” he says of his musical highlights so far. “But if I had to choose, it would be performing at Carnegie Hall when I was 15 with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. It was a sold out concert and I was just so thankful from the plane ride out there to the performance itself because not many people get to say that they’ve played Carnegie Hall, let alone at 15. I don’t mean to sound cocky or anything, but I was just so thankful and blessed. And it was my very first time in New York at all, so that in itself was a new experience for me, you know?”

When asked where he sees himself in the future, Miller doesn’t mince words. “You know, standard rich and famous-type stuff,” he says, but is then quick to delve into his more profound ambitions and also gush with gratitude to his one-woman support team.

“I’m not in it just for the money, of course,” Miller says. “I want to change the world with my music. I want my music to make people feel happy, or emotional … just any way they want to feel. But the only reason the money wouldn’t be such a bad idea is because of my grandmother. Since my mom passed when I was a year old, she’s been raising my twin sister and me. Really, without her, I definitely wouldn’t be who and where I am today. She is the one who always supported my endeavors and sacrificed so much so that I’d be where I am today and the least I can and WILL do is make sure I pay her back for all the time, money and love she’s selflessly given to me. I want to be rich for her. I want to change the world for her. I want HER to be happy, and I want her to see that all her hard work and sleepless nights were in no way in vain.”

Miller has also received a full scholarship to the Vail Jazz Workshop. The Vail Jazz Workshop is funded through individual donations from supporters of The Vail Jazz Foundation.

Don’t miss the Vail Jazz Workshop AKA Vail Jazz All-Stars, which, in addition to Cota on drums and Miller on trombone, are comprised of Ashwin Prasanna on drums, Kyle Tilstra on trombone, John Michael Bradford and Fernando Ferrarone on trumpet, Cole Davis and Nashir Janmohamed on bass, Jamael Dean and Micah Thomas on piano and Alejandro Ramirez on alto saxophone.

Following their performance Thursday, their mentors themselves will play a set.

Let’s conga! Poncho Sanchez brings hot Latin Jazz to Vail

Growing up poor in Los Angeles, Poncho Sanchez thought he might have found his calling after he bought a three-string Spanish guitar for $.50 from a neighbor. “The guy across the street had a band doing a lot of Motown stuff,” recalls the Grammy award-winning Latin jazz bandleader. “He had a Fender and he’d let me touch it but not too much because I was just the kid across the street. I bought this little Spanish guitar and started plucking on it. I got to playing four or five songs and thought I was pretty good.”

It wasn’t until the young Sanchez went to join a neighborhood band that his true province emerged, or at least part of it. With the three-string in tow, Sanchez immediately saw that the band already had a guitar player that put him to shame. But they informed him that what they really needed was a singer.

“I didn’t think I was a singer,” Sanchez says. “But I got up there and sang a James Brown song. I started dancing around like James Brown. When the song was over, they said, “wow. You can sing and you can really move.”

The youngest of 11 children, Sanchez can thank his seven sisters for the dance moves. He and his siblings listened to late 50s mamba and cha cha cha records incessantly as children but while his sisters danced around the house, Sanchez would stare at the album covers and hone in on the deep rhythms of the songs.

“What attracted me to the Latin percussion is the sound of the drum itself,” he says. “It was the flavor of them, or, as we say in Spanish, el sabor. I felt it, the rhythm, the flavor, the ‘unk-cha, chik-ah, chi-ka.” My sisters would dance and I would hear their feet shuffling on the floor. I’ve loved it as far back as I can remember.”

Needless to say, Sanchez was a born bandleader. And in high school, he bought his first conga drum. “I learned the trade of how to be a front man in a band. But all this time, I always liked the conga and the timbales,” he says. “Nobody in my neighborhood knew nothing about Latin percussion stuff. I bought a conga – my father bought one in a cheap pawnshop. I went home, put Cal Tjader’s records on and started to play.

Just the sound of the instrument, when I laid my hand down and learned how to slap it, there’s an open sound – ‘oon-go, oon-go.’ It felt right to me. It felt good on my hands.”

Sanchez and his congas were front and center, leading several local bands for years of his youth in Los Angeles. Then in 1975, the drummer’s hero Cal Tjader invited him on stage to perform with his band. The famous vibraphonist was so taken with Sanchez that he made him the official conguero in his band until the older musician passed away in 1982.

Sanchez’s time with Tjader provided him a fantastic dose of full circle magic in his career and he embraces that time period as the most memorable and poignant in his 35 years of professional music.

“I never dreamed I would play with him, especially for seven years,” Sanchez says. “I was with him when he died – we were on tour. It was a heavy, heavy experience, a big learning experience. The first time I played with Dizzy Gillespie was also one of the special moments. You don’t forget the great legends.”

Without even trying, Sanchez is poised to become a legend himself. In Lima, Peru, a couple of weeks ago, Sanchez found himself on the country’s most popular TV programs – hosted by “a gentleman who is like the Larry King of Peru.” Sanchez was interviewed in Spanish, which does not come easily to him as English has always been his more comfortable language. Sanchez’s entire family saw it a couple of days later on YouTube. “My sister called me and was crying. She said it was beautiful. She said, ‘You did a great job,’” Sanchez says. “She said, ‘the part that really got me is you were telling this guy there were 11 of us and we’re all alive and well.’ I’m the youngest. I’m going to be 62 My brother is 80. It’s really nice that I get along with all my brothers and sisters. They’re very proud of me. I’m the baby brother that did well.”

Tommy Igoe Drummer Extraordinaire at Jazz @ Vail Square

Jazz @ Vail Square continues this Thursday, Aug. 8 with the high-energy, seat-thumping sounds of the Tommy Igoe Sextet.

One of the world’s preeminent drummers, Igoe has led the Birdland Big Band in New York City over the last several years, created the beats for Broadway’s “The Lion King” and has toured the world with the likes of Art Garfunkel, Stanley Jordan and Blood Sweat and Tears.

When leading his big band, Igoe charges into each number on his drum kit as all the other musicians – the horn section, guitars, piano and bass – weave in.

Unlike most drummers who hold up the beat in the background, Igoe is always the leader, forever driving the train. Smaller in size than the big band, his sextet promises the same caliber of whistles and steaming momentum. “The small group together has been an answer to the big band,” says Igoe, who now resides in San Francisco. “The big band got so much attention, but it was hard to move around with so many people. I came up with the idea of doing the same kind of thing with the same energy in a sextet form. It follows the same artistic DNA as the big band. It’s much more than just a jazz event; it’s a music event with music from all over the world.”

The Vail show will feature Igoe on drums, Phil Palombi on bass, Matthew Aaron Jodrell on trumpet, Allen Farnham on piano, Nathan Childers on alto saxophone and Rolando Morales Matos on percussion.

While delivering plenty of favorites from the core of jazz, the sextet will also cover pieces from Brazil, Cuba, Venezuela and of course, good ol’ American tunes. The vast gamut of musical genres is not the only aspect of Igoe’s profound repertoire.

Barely 2 years old when he started playing drums, Igoe has studied plenty of other instruments but always takes what he learns back to his drumming. “I studied classical piano for 20 years,” he says. “I have a love-hate relationship with the piano because I love to hate it so much. Ha ha! No really, I love the piano. Studying the piano has made me a much better drummer. I studied all the instruments, and it has all helped me on the drum set.”

In addition to conducting and performing in various-sized bands, Igoe spends the other half of his life educating young up-and-coming drummers.

Even as his sticks become a blur as he hits dozens of strikes per minute and magically incorporates additional beats as if he has 20 limbs rather than four, there is one simple piece of advice Igoe offers to all of his students. “I’ve invested a lot of my time and energy into the education field. I’ve made a lot of DVDS and in so many different ways I’ve addressed that whole question – How do you do that and not get tired? And more importantly, how do you not hurt yourself? I’ve found a way to put it in one word: relax. If you relax, you can do anything. Really, anything, anything. You’ll never hear any music teacher say ‘OK students, get ready … get as tense as you can be.’ In any activity – especially anything physical – the secret is relaxing.”

If you’ve seen Igoe rapid-firing with his drumsticks and his entire body moving with his orchestra of beats, you’d never guess he’s relaxing. See and hear it for yourself this Thursday.