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The Faces of Vail Jazz: Tony G

The valley’s piano man has made a musical impact on multiple generations

When Tony Gulizia shops for groceries, it’s rare that he’s not recognized by someone who remembers taking his class at Vail Jazz Goes to School. Sometimes he’s accosted by an 11-year-old who he taught earlier that week; sometimes it’s a parent who took his class two decades ago, sometimes it’s a college student from one decade back. At this point, Gulizia’s impact bridges generations.

For the last 21 years, the Nebraska native has imparted musical education to more than 15,000 local students.

“The whole philosophy of the program is to get kids to appreciate jazz music,” says Gulizia, who moved to the Vail Valley from Omaha, Neb. 26 years ago and has become an integral part of the area’s cultural tapestry. “Of course, over the years, you get some students who take that appreciation over the edge. My gosh, that’s been one of the highlights of my career, seeing students who started in the program and are now pursuing studies or their own careers in jazz.”

Gulizia has given many children their first glimpse of music, not to mention their first glimmer of passion toward pursuing it. Some of his students have gone on to study jazz in college, land scholarships at schools such as Juilliard and have followed his early lead into careers as professional musicians.

Tony Gulizia passes on the rhthm at a Jammin’ Jazz Kids session.

Vail Jazz founder Howard Stone hired Gulizia more than two decades ago to head up Vail Jazz Goes to School, a four-part program offered free to every fourth and fifth-grader in Eagle County. The sessions begin with the basics of jazz, including history and the influence of African rhythms. Students are then introduced to the families of jazz instruments – strings, woodwinds and percussion and learn about syncopation, improvisation and the 12-bar blues. The program culminates with a concert at the Vilar Performing Arts Center in which Gulizia and fellow mentors perform original songs composed by the students.

All classes are hands on and highly engaging, hence the clear memories that students carry years later when they run into Gulizia at City Market.

“We try to make the classes really educational, but also entertaining and enjoyable,” Gulizia says. “It’s amazing to be in Eagle County, a place you wouldn’t immediately think would be such a strong place for jazz education compared to big cities. But to see a class of 80 students at Edwards Elementary, kids who are leaving the classroom and saying, ‘thank you for what you did, I’m going to go home and listen to more jazz’… it’s really rewarding.”

In addition to Gulizia, the Vail Jazz Goes to School education team is comprised of drummer Joey Gulizia, a starring member of Mannheim Steamroller, Andy Hall on bass, Mike Gurciullo on trumpet and Michael Pujado on drums/percussion. After nearly two decades of dedicated instruction, beloved Vail Jazz educator and woodwinds specialist Roger Neumann passed away last November.

When he’s not wearing his instructor hat, Tony Gulizia can be found playing piano at various restaurants and bars throughout the valley nearly every day of the week. He performs Tuesdays at The Remedy in the Four Seasons Vail (where he is also a summertime Vail Jazz fixture along with drummer Brian Loftus – BLT – every Sunday evening), plus several days at The Westin Hotel in Avon and is in the midst of his 26th year at Grouse Mountain Grill.

“I definitely have a lot of love for what I do,” Gulizia says. “I love working with people. Music is something very special in anyone’s life, whether you’re an avid or an occasional listener. It literally soothes the soul. It was 26 years ago that I moved here with my wife and kids. Before you knew it, word got around that there’s a new crazy piano guy around. I feel very fortunate that I’ve had such a great run.”

 

Let’s Dance

“Let’s dance” may be a call to action, but it was also the name of a short-lived, but very popular radio program (Dec. 1934-May 1935) that launched the career of Benny Goodman. The format of the New York show was unique in that it was five hours long with three rotating bands, but only three hours of music were “aired” in each time zone. Starting at 10:30 p.m. on the East Coast, the last three hours of the program were heard on the West Coast beginning at 9:30 p.m. and it actually had a much larger audience in the Pacific time zone due to its earlier start time.

While the program was extremely popular, a labor dispute at Nabisco, the show’s sponsor, caused it to cease all sponsorships, and the show was canceled. That summer Goodman took his band on the road, but was met with limited success, as the audiences were indifferent to the band’s performances because they played “stock arrangements” that were not all that “swinging.” Goodman was broke and close to quitting, but that all that changed on the night of Aug. 21, 1935, when the band opened at the Palomar Ballroom, a famous dancehall in Hollywood. The crowd came to dance, but when the band played the same material they had been playing that summer, the dancers were non-responsive and it looked like the end was in sight for the band. However, it was Goodman’s drummer, Gene Kruppa, that turned it all around. Between sets that night he said to Goodman, “If we’re gonna die, Benny, let’s die playing our own thing.” Goodman went “all-in,” opening the next set with Fletcher Henderson’s swinging arrangements of “Sometimes I’m Happy” and “King Porter Stomp.” The dancers went wild, bursting into applause and gathering around the bandstand to watch the band play. What Goodman learned that night was that the crowd was there because they had been listening to Goodman on “Let’s Dance” and they were waiting for the opportunity to do just that … to swing dance. At the end of the three-week engagement, Goodman’s position as the “King of Swing” was firmly established.

So what is swing dancing? Well, let us start with the music that is danced to: “swing” is jazz that has a propulsive drive with musical accents related to a fixed beat. When you hear it, you know it, as you instinctively want to click your fingers and tap your feet and the music has that “swing feel.”

The origins of swing dancing can be traced to Harlem in the 1920’s and 30’s. Known variously as the Jitterbug, Balboa, Shag and Boogie Woogie, and many more colorful names, the most widely adopted of which was the “Lindy Hop.” Its roots go back to African rhythms meddled to European dance conventions – partner dancing. Besides providing sheer joy to the participants, it allowed the dancers to improvise with aerials and other techniques that captured the imagination of young people who did not want to dance like their elders. Sound familiar?

The Lindy Hop got its name from the famous aviator Charles Lindbergh, whose 1927 solo flight from NY to Paris brought “Lindy” world fame for his “hop” across the Atlantic. Shortly thereafter, a newspaper reporter asked a dancer what was the name of the wild dance the crowd was performing, he responded, “the Lindy Hop,” and the name stuck.

Ground zero for the Lindy Hop was the Savoy Ballroom, located at 141st and Lenox Ave. in Harlem. Known as the “Home of Happy Feet,” the cavernous dancehall could accommodate 4,000 dancers and was opened seven nights a week with an admission charge of $.60 after 6 p.m. and $.85 after 8 p.m. It had an elongated dancefloor anchored by two bandstands – one at each end of the dance floor. When one band stopped to take a break, the dancers moved to the other end of the floor and without missing a beat, the next band began to play. The Savoy was the scene of many band competitions, or “cutting contests,” as they were known. The most famous swing-era bands led by Count Basie, Chick Webb, Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, and many more, did battle at the Savoy and it was the inspiration for the great swing-era tune, “Stompin’ at the Savoy.”

Most importantly, the Lindy Hop and the Savoy played an important role in the beginning of the desegregation of the races in America. Annual attendance was 700,000 with an estimated mix of 85% black patrons and 15% white patrons, but some evenings it was 50-50. White dancers went uptown to the Savoy to be part of an evolving dance scene, which would ultimately become a dance craze that would sweep the nation and lead to the tearing down of barriers between the races. The Savoy was in reality a social experiment, not just a dancehall, especially when contrasted with another very famous Harlem establishment only a few blocks away, The Cotton Club, a “whites-only” venue. It was controlled by the “mob” and catered to the wealthy, featuring top black entertainers with an all-black service staff. Decorated with a jungle motif, it reeked of overt racism and the best that can be said for it was that it launched the careers of jazz greats such as Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway and Lena Horne.

So let’s dance!

Vail Jazz presents “Swing! Swing! Swing!” at 8 p.m. Friday, March 30 at the Ritz-Carlton Bachelor Gulch. The evening of swinging dance and live music from the Tony Gulizia Sextet celebrates the 20th anniversary of Vail Jazz Goes to School.  

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Howard Stone is the founder and artistic director of the Vail Jazz Foundation, which produces the annual Vail Jazz Winter Series and the Vail Jazz Festival. 

 

Vail Jazz Goes Swingin’ at The Ritz

The Tony Gulizia Sextet set to deliver a rare evening of swinging dance tunes

Ah, the 1950s … poodle skirts, big bands and unabashed swing dancing in ballrooms. Here’s your chance for a taste of it. Blast back to the best of the big band era on Friday, March 30 at the Ritz-Carlton Bachelor Gulch with Swing! Swing! Swing!

Pianist Tony Gulizia heads up the evening of powerhouse live music and dancing, performing big band classics from Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington and Count Basie, to name just a few.

“It’s going to be a great night of American jazz dance music from the big band era,” Gulizia says. “I get a lot of comments from folks saying there is no place to go dance in the valley, especially swing dance. You’d be surprised how often couples jump up to dance in a restaurant or bar. They’ll have all kinds of space for this event. It’ll be a fun night.”

In anticipation, local musician Kathy Morrow has been shining her dancing shoes along with some of her students at Avon Recreation Center, where she co-instructs a ballroom dance class of East and West Coast swing, foxtrot, waltz, rumba and cha cha with Scott Hopkins.

“We never get the chance to dance to big band music,” Morrow says. “I think I was born 50 years too late, but I dream of being part of that scene. It’s kind of a bygone era and not easy to bring back, since ballrooms are hard to come by. I love to move, love to dance. Tony can really, really swing. This is a great opportunity.”

In addition to Gulizia on piano, the sextet includes his brother Joey Gulizia on drums, Mike Gurciullo on trumpet, Andy Hall on bass, Michael Pujado on percussion and Roger Neumann on saxophone.

The high-energy set list will span the gamut of big band and swing favorites from the 1920s through today. Don’t be surprised to hear classics that beg for the Charleston an tunes from jazz giants like Louis Armstrong, Frank Sinatra, Louis Prima and more.

All told, the live music extravaganza will roll through 100 years of jazz classics.

Swing! Swing! Swing! marks the 20th anniversary of Vail Jazz Goes to School, a Vail Jazz educational program that enlightens fourth and fifth graders about the art and history of jazz music as well as providing an opportunity to actually play and create music.

Since its inception 20 years ago, Tony Gulizia and members of his sextet have served as faculty for Vail Jazz Goes to School, imparting musical wisdom to roughly 22,000 local boys and girls. The program has served as a springboard for musical studies and professional careers for numerous students.

“I’ll bump into kids who are adults now. They’ll say, ‘I remember you from Vail Jazz Goes to School. You really opened my eyes to music and to how diverse jazz is,’” Gulizia says.

Swing! Swing! Swing

Friday, March 30

Ritz-Carlton Bachelor Gulch

The Tony Gulizia Sextet (Joey Gulizia on drums, Mike Gurciullo on trumpet, Andy Hall on bass, Michael Pujado on percussion and Roger Neumann on saxophone) delivers an explosive live performance featuring American jazz from the big band and swing eras at 8 p.m. March 30 at The Ritz-Carlton Bachelor Gulch. Pre-show dinner specials will be offered at Ritz-Carlton eatery (970.343.1168 for reservations). Free parking and complimentary shuttle service is provided for all attendees to and from the Bear Lot at the base of Beaver Creek. Tickets are $40, or $75 for VIP, which includes a pre-show champagne toast and premiere seating with table service. All proceeds benefit Vail Jazz Goes to School. For more information, call 970-479-6146.

Click here for tickets.