Make way for the next generation of jazz

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

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

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

So the piano wasn’t his thing.

The trumpet was a different story.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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