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Alumni Series: An Instrument for Life

Almost a decade later, Vail Jazz Workshop alumni Patrick Bartley still carries a big part of his Vail experience onto every stage

Over the last 25 years, nearly 300 teenage musicians have been transformed by the Vail Jazz Workshop; a large majority have gone on to become professional musicians. This is one of their stories.

When Patrick Bartley came to Vail in 2010 as one of 12 teenagers carefully selected for the Vail Jazz Workshop, he had never owned his own saxophone.

The one he was renting from his high school was padded out with paper towels and partially held together by rubber bands. The thing wasn’t even completely functional, as discovered by workshop instructor and sax pro Jeff Clayton. As the workshop got underway, Clayton allowed the then-17-year-old Bartley to try out his own horn while he tried a few notes on the teen’s janky sax.

“We were all looking at Jeff’s horn,” Bartley recalled in a recent interview with Vail Jazz board member JoAnn Hickey.

“He had a King Super 20, the same type of horn that Cannonball Adderley played. I thought, wow. Jeff to me was the link to Cannonball. I felt he represented a lot of the same values I do today. He had a big sound, he was teaching everybody how to get a big sound,” Bartley says.

Yet, it wasn’t until the teen tried Clayton’s horn that he realized how big the sound of the alto sax could truly be.

“I was the only alto player, so Jeff asked, ‘you want to try my horn?’ I took my mouthpiece off, put it on his horn and went, ‘whoa, this is what a saxophone’s supposed to feel like.’ It was crazy. Meanwhile, he starts playing through my horn. To my amazement, he is struggling to play the instrument. He looked at me and said in that Jeff Clayton voice, ‘How do you play this? This horn is unplayable.’”

As a young child growing up in Hollywood, Florida, Bartley was initially much more interested in visual art and video games than he was in playing an instrument. Around the age of 9 he discovered he was colorblind and found himself gravitating toward the school band. He began playing the clarinet, moved to baritone and then alto sax …and his course lit up before him.

“When that saxophone got into my hands, that was that moment when everything clicked. That was the moment I realized this is what I was going to do for the rest of my life,” he says. “From that moment, I took all influences and used my saxophone to communicate the experiences. Music has never felt labored. It never felt like something I had to do.”

Patrick Bartley (second from right) performs with the Vail Jazz All-Stars in 2010.

Getting back to Bartley’s experience in Vail with his janky, rented saxophone … it turns out to have been more pivotal than anyone, Bartely included, would have ever imagined. Bartley had attended other prestigious national workshops, but none compared to Vail, which is notorious, as workshops go, for teaching students to play by ear and without the use of sheet music.

“That was not my first workshop experience but it was the most unique workshop experience,” he says, recalling a specific lesson with Clayton and fellow students learning Cole Porter’s “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye.”

“He taught everyone to sing together as a group, lyric by lyric,” Bartley says. “That was powerful and important for me. It taught me the importance of understanding the context of the song. We were all relying on each other and also relying on our ability to internalize the meaning of what the song meant while we played the notes. The concept stuck with me.”

That was not the only thing that stuck with Bartley from his Vail experience. Not even close.

Again, it was Clayton imparting the gifts, in this case, a brand new, Yamaha 62 Alto saxophone, which Clayton bought with his own funds and those of fellow donors.

“It was a week of my mom and me crying after the saxophone arrived,” Bartley says. “My mom was more in shock than me. She recognized by this point I was getting good at saxophone … but this was serious. She knew this would mark the path I would take, the solidifying moment of my life. It was like having a new body. Imagine every issue you might’ve had, any sickness, any bone fracture, any injury. You’re the same person inside, but suddenly you have a completely new body. Every day since I’ve vowed to continue that generosity.”

That saxophone has traveled with Bartley around the world. Now based in New York City, the young composer performs in a number of eclectic bands and ensembles. He has performed and recorded with musicians such as Louis Hayes, Jonathan Batiste and Wynton Marsalis from iconic stages from Madison Square Garden to the Black Sea Jazz Festival, performing on the Late Show with Stephen Colbert, at the 52nd annual GRAMMY Awards with Dave Matthews Band and has himself been nominated for a GRAMMY.

“I’m 100-percent playing this Yamaha 62 Alto that Jeff got me,” he says. “I’ve tried other saxophones with the intent of buying but I just can’t part with this horn. It’s special to me. It has taken me all over the world. People identify my sound. I am positive it’s because of the saxophone.”