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.
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.”