Vail Jazz Alumni: When the going got tough, Owen Broder staged an online jazz festival

The Covid-19 epidemic makes life miserable for everyone, and musicians are no exception. Their ability to make a living from performances abruptly vanished last spring. “The music industry was effectively shut down,” says saxophonist Owen Broder, a graduate of the 2007 Vail Jazz Workshop who now lives in New York City. To help out-of-work musicians financially, Broder and vocalists Thana Alexa and Sirintip Phasuk in April organized what Rolling Stone termed “the first jazz festival of the quarantine era” over the internet.

Called “Live From Our Living Rooms,” the series of live-streamed concerts featured the likes of pianist Chick Corea, guitarist Bill Frisell and bassist Christian McBride. These events were followed in late June by the online DC Jazz Festival in the nation’s capital, also produced by “Live From Our Livings Rooms.” During July 1-12, Broder and his friends will put on the virtual         Creative Summit, featuring educational webinars hosted by jazz professionals each afternoon and live concerts every evening (on July 12, starring 2002 Vail Jazz Workshop alum and pianist Gerald Clayton). Broder says that as of late June, these projects had raised $84,000 to distribute to musicians.

Owen Broder’s path to the Vail Jazz Workshop began at age 4 in Jacksonville, Fla., when he started playing piano. A few years later he also took up clarinet, and in sixth grade, when he became interested in jazz, the saxophone. By middle school, he was composing music, although “certainly not something that I would be proud of.” In high school, Broder attended the North Carolina School of the Arts, where he met saxophonist Eddie Barbash, a 2005 attendee of the Workshop. Broder’s chance to go to Vail came two years later.

The Vail Jazz Workshop, celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, each August pairs a dozen high school jazz virtuosos with six experienced jazz musicians, including pianist Bill Cunliffe, trumpeter Terell Stafford and drummer Lewis Nash, for a week of intense learning. Songs and arrangements are taught by ear—no sheet music is allowed. Each morning, one of the pros speaks to the students about his life in music, the ups and downs and what to expect if they follow this path. By its very nature, the Workshop takes place out of public view. But at its conclusion, the young musicians present two public concerts during the Vail Jazz Party, held until this year on Labor Day weekend. This year’s Workshop will take place virtually, over the internet.

Broder remembers the Workshop as a full-immersion experience. “There were moments of tough love that pushed me out of my comfort zone,” he told Vail Jazz board member JoAnn Hickey. “I was motivated to pursue my weaknesses and develop those areas. To be honest, I felt a little bit out of place. There were students who were the faces of young jazz at that time. I was honored to be there working with these people who at age 16 had grabbed the nation’s attention in some ways.”

Two faculty members made a lasting impression on the teenager. Bassist John Clayton, director of the Workshop, “defined for me how to run an ensemble with care and empathy. I like to pass this on to ensembles I work with today.” Clayton’s brother Jeff became Broder’s saxophone instructor. “My sound was one aspect of my playing that leaped forward that summer. Jeff pushed me to make my sound bigger and fuller. That was apparent when I got home. He instilled in me diligence and attention to the weaker aspects of my playing.”

Among the scores of music camps that beckon to aspiring musicians, Broder feels that the Vail Jazz Workshop has unique elements. One is that it is limited to only 12 students. As Broder puts it: “You are able to get close to people who are so invested in music. Very quickly you develop a really strong sense of an ensemble.” Another is John Clayton’s teaching style—“the way he would teach us by ear. He would come up with these arrangements and we would learn them without sheet music, which was a bonding experience.”

Broder went on to earn a bachelor’s degree from the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y., and a master’s degree from the Manhattan School of Music. His current quintet, Cowboys & Frenchmen, co-led with fellow alto saxist Ethan Helm, has recorded two albums, most recently “Bluer Than You Think.” Its name inspired by a short film by David Lynch, the band describes itself as having one foot firmly planted in the jazz genre “while the other one is busy trying to kick down the genre’s door.”

Until the coronavirus is beaten back, the band’s in-person performances are on hold. But through it all, Broder says he remains grateful for the opportunity\ to grow musically in Vail: “I feel very lucky to have been a part of it and to benefit from the education that took place there.”

To learn more about Vail Jazz and the Workshop, visit www.vailjazz.org. To learn more about the Creative Summit July 1-12, go to www.livefromourlivingrooms.com.