‘Unrehearsed brilliance’ at the annual Vail Jazz Party on Labor Day weekend

In the early 20th century, musicians began combining Caribbean and African drumming, creating a new sound ingrained in American history: jazz.

“Jazz is America’s unique musical art form,” said Owen Hutchinson, development manager for Vail Jazz. The genre has become a quintessential part of American culture, making the Vail Jazz Party, taking place Thursday through Monday, Sept. 7, a fitting way to celebrate the Labor Day holiday weekend.

The party is the culmination of the 12-week Vail Jazz Festival, which runs from June through September. Approximately 30 world-renowned jazz musicians, such as John Clayton and Roberta Gambarini, will play over the long weekend. Eleven sessions of multiple sets span the five days of festivities and allow the audience to see jazz legends, young professionals and the most talented jazz students in the country.

IMMERSED IN IMPROV

Each set is performed by a collection of musicians who have never before played in that specific mixture. Each combination of artists will improvise in front of an average audience of more than 500 people. This focus on spontaneity that has long characterized jazz is one of the party’s features that brings jazz lovers back to Vail each year.

Clayton, a bass player and former student of bass legend Ray Brown, said on-stage improvisation and connecting with old friends and young musicians off stage are the best parts of performing in Vail.

“That connection is inspiring” he said, suggesting that it helps develop his creativity. “I have to dig into a deeper place and combine my efforts and experiences” to play with these musicians.

While this creative process may seem like it will yield unwieldy results, Hutchinson said the results of the combinations and different styles are “unrehearsed brilliance.” And the continued success of the Jazz Party corroborates that stance.

The on-stage communication that makes jazz so unique is one of the features that Clayton associates with the genre. One of his earliest musical memories is of watching Brown on stage with other musicians in a Los Angeles club, communicating with their bodies and eyes.

“They were communicating with each other and having a joyous time,” Clayton said. This approach to music affects his playing even today, as he learned early to associate fun with music.

MUSICAL HIGHLIGHTS

The Jazz Party weekend will provide audiences with endless opportunities to see musicians having fun.

  • Opening night, Thursday, welcomes back artists Bill Cunliffe and Lewis Nash, among others.
  • Friday is largely dedicated to celebrating women in jazz and begins with a showing of the award-winning documentary “The Girls in the Band.” After the film, there will be a multimedia tribute to women in jazz. Seven female performers, including Gambarini, Sherrie Maricle, Niki Haris and Lauren Falls, will perform and discuss their forerunners.
  • Saturday, Sept. 5, focuses on the contribution Brown made to jazz and the influence of drum rhythms.
  • The Gospel Prayer Meetin’ performance on Sunday, Sept. 6, will highlight the importance of gospel sounds to jazz. Since many of the artists developed in a gospel setting, Hutchinson said, this will be a high-energy and fun show.
  • The Jazz Party ends on Monday, Sept. 7, with an all-day session showcasing some of the festival’s greatest artists, including Gambarini, George Cables and others.

Along with fun, the Jazz Party also provides “edutainment,” or entertaining learning opportunities, said Robin Litt, of the Vail Jazz Foundation. Several performances throughout the five days are in a multimedia format, educating the audience about the lives of jazz legends through music, video and still footage. Litt said she hopes these shows will allow the audience to leave performances inspired to learn more.

FUTURE OF JAZZ

The Jazz Party also provides opportunities to hear the future of jazz. Clayton said he enjoys listening to the young musicians at the festival because of their varied and contemporary musical vocabulary, incorporating hip-hop and New Orleans-based sounds.

“I love a lot of what they do,” Clayton said, “and I want to grow in that way, as well.”

To encourage the future of jazz, Vail Jazz offers the Vail Jazz Workshop each year during the Jazz Party. Twelve high school students are invited to study in Vail with the professionals playing in the festival. These students go through a rigorous audition, and the workshop aims to provide a focused, technical education different from what they receive at home with their regular teachers. Through this process, Clayton also hopes to solidify their passion for jazz.

“They already come in love with the music and with the idea of pursuing the music at the highest level they can, and they’re only in high school! But they’ve already got that focus,” Clayton said.

With a professional per every two students, these young musicians receive the attention they need to take their music to a higher level. The teachers are also dedicated to breaking some of the constraints with which many contemporary students approach music. Because of an increased dependence on sheet music in universities and conservatories, many students never develop the confidence to improvise.

But at the Vail Jazz workshop, no sheet music is allowed and independent creativity is encouraged. Playing on stage with professionals reinforces this skill, which, according to Litt, is a “very inspiring experience for the students because they’re seeing a life in jazz.”

The Vail Jazz Party is also a place for adults who don’t yet appreciate jazz to learn that it’s more than the classic ballad crooner sounds of Bing Crosby and Sinatra or the free-form elevator music pervasive in shopping malls. It includes genres such as swing and Dixieland, with danceable beats and high energy. So whether you are a jazz skeptic or aficionado, a traditionalist or contemporary jazz listener, there is something for everyone to enjoy at the Vail Jazz Party.