Vail Jazz Workshop among America’s most promising outlets for young musical prodigies

It’s true that the key ingredient behind history’s most respected jazz musicians is innate talent. Of course, passion, heart and focus also play a role, but at some point along the way, each musician has learned from another.

The United States has famously produced many of the world’s greatest jazz artists through a slew of famous and elite programs and schools, but the Vail Jazz Workshop has flown under the radar as a springboard for young, prodigal musicians, although it has quietly helped shape the future of jazz for the past 20 years.

This summer, the Vail Jazz Workshop celebrates its 20th year and, as a telltale token of its success and growing reputation, a whopping 140 nominations were submitted for the workshop’s 12 slots.

It’s always a tough pick, said Howard Stone, founder of the Vail Jazz Foundation, which brings the lucky 12 to Vail every summer, providing full or partial scholarships. Stone has even shopped for dress shoes with at least one workshop student and run out to purchase a trumpet for another whose instrument could not hold up to the demands of the program, as many participants come from poverty-stricken backgrounds.

Look at any of the 238 artists that have attended the Vail Jazz Workshop over the last two decades and the vast majority has gone on to notch jaw-dropping accomplishments.

For example, Vail alumni and recent Labor Day Jazz Party returnee Tia Fuller is the band leader of Beyonce’s notoriously talented all-female band. Obed Calvaire drums for the San Francisco Jazz Collective and performs with Monty Alexander, Wynton Marsalis and many others. Saxophonist Grace Kelly has been featured on CNN, NPR and in Glamour Magazine, and of course you’ve all heard of Grammy-winning pianist Robert Glasper, who won the 2013 Grammy for Best R&B album and nabbed his second Grammy this year for Best Traditional R&B Performance.

“Getting to study and meet the incredible faculty was an experience I can’t quite put into words,” said Kelly, who returned last Labor Day weekend as part of the Vail Alumni Quartet.

“I learned so many important lessons musically at Vail and the most important thing is they didn’t teach out of music books. They taught right out of their life experiences,” Kelly said.

‘YOU HAVE THE POWER’

Vail Jazz Workshop faculty members are also the talent behind the Vail Jazz Party House Band — John Clayton, Terrell Stafford, Bill Cunliffe, Wycliffe Gordon, Lewis Nash and new this summer, Dick Oatts replaces 20-year Vail Jazz saxophone instructor Jeff Clayton, who is now living in Australia.

Unlike programs set up more like masters lessons, the Vail Jazz Workshop is focused on rounding out the students’ existing talent with the ability to play by ear, using memorization and no written music during the 10-day program.

“It’s about balance. The person who can play by ear and read music and understand theory — they have more choices,” said John Clayton, who effectively masterminded and launched the Vail Jazz Workshop 20 years ago along with Vail Jazz founder Howard Stone. “On that first day at the workshop when we get a feel for their level, through the years, our eyebrows go up higher and higher. We look at each other and say, ‘Wow. Not only are they doing stuff we could never do at their age, but they’re doing stuff we can’t even do now.’ Still, we offer them things they haven’t been exposed to and that they can really take with them even if they can — and I’m exaggerating a little bit — play rings around us.”

With six instructors and 12 students, each young musician gets ample one-on-one mentor time in the workshop, and in Fuller’s case, the introspective coaching she received from Clayton has truly shaped her career.

“What I value most from John Clayton is his ability to show you that you have the power,” Fuller said. “Whenever I’ve asked him a question about my playing or a problem, he always turns the question right around on me and I have had the solution the whole time.”

All students are nominated for the program by individuals who have taken stock of their talent … often a high school music teacher or band leader.

“It’s amazing to have a program that reaches out to the kids who would not be able to afford to participate in such an event,” said Calvaire, who learned to play drums by ear in his family’s church while growing up in Miami. “At 16, you’re still looking for a voice and looking for ways to find your musical journey and path, and that program really helps you find it.”