The Vail Jazz Party brings non-stop music to Vail through Monday

By Vail Jazz

Depending on how you feel about the genre, 35 hours of listening to jazz sounds like either a dream come true or a great way to cure insomnia.

“People think they don’t like jazz,” said part-time Vail resident and longtime jazz fan Rosemary Heller. “(But those) people have never really been to a jazz performance. I think it’s really important to see live jazz performed so that they can see the interaction between the musicians, see how exciting and dynamic it is to see music created right in front of them.”

This Labor Day weekend, jazz will be played and made live from early morning to late evening during the Vail Jazz Party, which closes out the Vail Jazz Festival’s 20th anniversary summer. The Vail Jazz Party lives up to its name with concerts, tributes, jam sessions and more for a five-day, non-stop jukebox of jazz music. There’s a song or a riff for everyone at the Vail Jazz Party, and for the hardcore fans, the difficult part isn’t deciding what to attend, but what one must leave out.

“People always say to me, ‘There’s so much’,” said Howard Stone, chairman of the board and artistic director of the Vail Jazz Festival. “They almost get crazed about it. I advise people to take the program and pick the stuff that really looks interesting to you. Out of the 35 hours of music over the weekend, you could choose to listen to 10 or 15 hours. A lot of people during the daytime will come to the tent and they’ll listen to an hour or two of music, then go for a hike, then come back and listen to more music.”

Jazz stars of today and tomorrow

The Vail Jazz Party got going with the Thursday evening session at the Jazz Tent in Vail Square with alumni from the Vail Jazz Workshop, which brings some of the most talented high school students to Vail every summer to learn and listen from professional jazz musicians. John Clayton, education director for the Vail Jazz Foundation, said these prodigious players might not be able to vote, but they’ve already won over many Vail Jazz Party crowds in the past.

“Standing ovations, almost every time,” Clayton said. “More than anything, (the audience) is just blown away by the level of the music, that just happens to be played by people under 20 years old.”

One workshop alumni who performed Thursday is Justin Kauflin, who’s made a big name for himself since his high school days. In his early 20s, Kauflin, a blind jazz pianist, found a mentor in legendary trumpeter Clark Terry. This relationship is chronicled in the documentary “Keep On Keepin’ On,” which will be screened today at 2 p.m. at Antlers at Vail. The film follows Terry, then in his late 80s, as he starts to lose his vision while teaching Kauflin. Because of this, the two begin to connect on a level deeper than music.

Clayton said Kauflin’s captivating key strokes were evident early on.

“(He) was quite shy, but he stepped up to the plate when it was time to perform,” Clayton said. “I don’t know if it’s so much about his style. If you stop and think about what draws you to music at a concert, it’s always the heart, it’s always the soul. So what if you hear really fast cool notes, so what if you hear something that’s really loud. But when someone moves you inside, you never forget that. I think that’s what people experience when they hear someone like Justin.”

Live, jammin’ and jivin’

After the “Keep On Keepin’ On” screening, tonight will feature a tribute to Terry. This is one of four tribute sessions throughout the weekend. Famed vocalist Sarah Vaughan will be honored Saturday night and Benny Goodman will be remembered in melody on Sunday evening. There will also be a drum session tipping the beat to drummer and bandleader Mel Lewis on Saturday. The tributes mix live music with video footage of the stars’ past performances.

“Current members of the jazz audience only know their names but never had a chance to see them perform live,” Stone said. “The tributes are a way to interact with the audience but at the same time educate them. … Everyone knows Benny Goodman, everyone knows he was the ‘King of Swing,’ but what’s the story behind that? What did he sound like live? What did he look like while he was performing?”

In between listening to jazz greats from the past and the potential future, the Vail Jazz Party offers plenty of opportunities to see some of the best jazz musicians of the present. Throughout the weekend there are morning, afternoon and evening sessions, and even late-night jam sessions that go into the wee hours just for the night owls. These jam sessions are a free-wheeling ride of improvised tunes and sonic surprises. Well-known jazz vocalist Curtis Stigers said when it comes to jazz, the singer isn’t always the one who gets the spotlight.

“In the jazz world, the jazz singer is like the red-headed stepchild,” Stigers said. “He doesn’t really fit into a bunch of players.”

Still, someone has to sing the words, and the jam sessions are a chance for Stigers to stretch those vocal chords in a new way. Oddly enough, Stigers said a vocalist practices scatting for jam sessions by mimicking other instruments, like the horn.

“The nice thing about jazz is we all share the same language,” Stigers said. “We can all speak jazz to each other on stage.”

For Clayton, a legendary jazz bassist in his own right, a jam session is a chance for musicians to “let their hair down,” he said.

“It’s not organized, it’s not calculated,” Clayton said. “Think of when you’re a child playing with other kids in the playground. You don’t have an agenda. You show up at the playground and there’s the jungle gym, there’s the swing, there’s the slide and there’s the sandbox. You just do your own thing. … That’s why they call it play, not work.”

Spiritual sounds in the mountains

Even if you stay up for the late night jam sessions, make sure to set your alarm for Sunday morning’s Gospel Prayer Meetin’, set for 9 a.m. at the Jazz Tent at Vail Square. Featuring vocalists Niki Haris and Ann Hampton Callaway, the gospel music session is often the most popular concert of the entire Labor Day weekend. Haris spent decades performing for pop audiences, both as a backup singer for Madonna and as a solo artist with her own club hits. Haris’ father was a jazz pianist and she initially returned to her jazz roots to be closer to him.

“Jazz was a way my father and I could bond again through music,” Haris said. “Whenever I’m on stage singing jazz, I’m so grateful that people still want to hear me. It was (first) a way for me to connect with my father and I happened to know the songs. Now it’s time for me to do the music justice and not have it just be an homage to my dad.”

Haris also grew up with gospel and calls it the “good news” spoken from a chorus of voices.

“I always took a spiritual approach to all the music I sing, including jazz,” Haris said. “If it’s not touching and reaching me on a real, visceral and cellular level, if it stays too much in my head, it doesn’t work for me. I sing from a place that’s from my heart.”

Haris said the best thing about the Vail Jazz Party is listening to jazz and gospel while surrounded by the mountains, which she calls “God’s natural music.”

“You can just walk in Vail and there’s music everywhere,” Haris said. “That’s the reason to go to this festival. You’ve got Mother Nature’s music and you’ve got Coltrane. (To me), that’s called heaven.”

The idea of music in your ear while looking out at the mountains does sound pretty heavenly. When you think about it, we can always listen in on the mountains, but hearing live jazz from some of the best musicians in the world only comes one weekend a year. Even if you only plan to listen for a song, a session or perhaps the whole 35 hours, the Vail Jazz Party will keep on playing until the last minute of summer. Just don’t party too hard; school starts up for some the day after.