Vail Jazz Workshop is sculpting the next generation of stars

By Vail Jazz

VAIL — When Isaiah Thompson’s parents decided he “needed a hobby” at the age of 5, unlike many small kids who are led to a piano bench, he did not think it was a chore to sit down and play. Not only did he not dread his weekly classical lessons, he relished them.

It wasn’t until he was about 11 and heard famed cornet player Nat Adderley play jazz music that Thompson was introduced to what he now knows is his life calling.

“I wanted to figure out how to do that,” says the 17-year-old New Jersey native, who now equates playing the piano — something he does every day for at least two hours — to finding true solace.

“It calms me,” he said. “When something sad or bad happens, going to the piano is the first thing I do to take my mind off things. It’s the one thing I can go to that makes me really happy and calm.”

Thompson is one of 12 teenagers selected from at least 125 young musical prodigies nominated for the Vail Jazz Workshop, the Vail Jazz Foundation’s 10-day intensive program directed under the mentorship of the Vail Jazz Party House Band — John and Jeff Clayton, Lewis Nash, Terell Stafford, Bill Cunliffe and Wycliffe Gordon. It culminates in a series of Vail Jazz Party performances, the teens transforming from workshop students into to the Vail Jazz All-Stars.

“I’ve heard of the Vail Jazz Workshop and Festival in the past few years, but I didn’t realize how great this festival was. I’m so grateful to be part of the workshop this year,” says Californian Kanoa Mendenhall, 16, who is well-versed on the cello, trombone and the Japanese shamisen but has truly found her heart in the bass.

“When I started playing classical cello, in my free time, I would actually pretend to play jazz bass lines,” Mendenhall says. “Sooner than later, my father, a jazz pianist, taught me how to “walk” a blues scale on the cello. I think what drew me to the bass was the deep sound it produced and the role it had in the band supporting others. It took some time to start playing the bass (because) I’m quite short, but eventually I graduated from pretending to be a bass player to getting a real bass in middle school. That was one of my happiest moments.”

All 12 of the workshop students, in spite of their youth, already have resumes that read like accomplished pros. They’ve all taken top honors at some major national competition or other, led charity coalitions and play in high-profile youth bands. Pianist Chris Fishman has played at Disney Hall, tenor sax player Morgan Guerin has played the Atlanta Jazz Festival, trumpeter Anthony Hervey has won the Louis Armstrong Award. Kevin Jiang is lead trombonist for Jazz at Lincoln Center Youth Orchestra. Drummer Christian McGhee earned outstanding soloist recognition at more than one major jazz festival. Trumpeter Michael Werner has toured France and the Netherlands with a brass ensemble. Saxophonist James Robertson is a featured artist at the Atlanta Jazz Festival. Bassist Chris Palmer plays local restaurants and jazz clubs with his own quartet. Mendenhall has won multiple Outstanding Soloist awards. Drummer Jared Silverstein as well as Thompson have even played Carnegie Hall and trombonist Nick Lee has toured through Japan with Monterey Jazz Festival’s Next Generation Jazz Orchestra.

When speaking of his experience with Next Generation, Lee, 17, said, “It was amazing. The musicians in the big band were all incredible, and we did cultural exchanges with a few high school big bands in the cities we visited. It’s also a really special feeling to know that we inspired so many young Japanese musicians.”

These accomplishments are but a small sample from each teenager’s lengthy resume. But they all have very specific goals for the Vail Jazz Workshop, now in its 19th year, which among many others skills, teaches students the art of playing and improvising by ear, without any sheet music.

By the time the week is up and the big stage awaits, both students and mentors have struck profound chords.

“Some of it gets to be pretty emotional because you see the students at the beginning of the week and share so much throughout the week. You get to watch incredible relationships blossom in five days,” said Terell Stafford, who has been a mentor and a performer at the Vail Jazz Party for all but three or four of the festival’s 20 years. “By the time you get to performances, you just feel so proud and motivated. So when it’s time to play, you feel all the energy and warmth. You just want to give it all. At many festivals, you just play your set. This is about playing your set in front of people who have shared so much with you and you’ve shared so much with them.”

The last Jazz @ Vail Square of the season features a triple bill grand finale at 6 p.m. tonight. The evening begins with the 12 teenage prodigies performing as the Vail Jazz All-Stars, then the Alumni Quintet — comprised of former students and current stars Justin Kauflin, Katie Thiroux, Bryan Carter, Grace Kelly and Alphonso Horne and culminating with the mentors themselves — The Vail Jazz Party House Band. The evening kicks of the 20th anniversary Vail Jazz Party, running from today through Monday with nonstop live performances featuring more than 40 nationally acclaimed contemporary jazz artists. If you miss the Vail Jazz All-Stars today, they will perform for free on Saturday and Sunday at 11:30 a.m. in the Jazz Tent in Lionshead. For more information, visit www.vailjazz.org.

Shauna Farnell is a freelance writer contracted by  Vail Jazz to write this story. Email comments to cschnell@vaildaily.com