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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.