Jazz as a religious experience

By Vail Jazz

When my wife Cathy and I began dating, I explained to her that I had loved jazz since I was kid and that something inside of me intuitively responded to the music in a way that I couldn’t explain. She in turn advised me that she had grown up with opera and classical music and she was equally as passionate about them as I was about jazz.

We agreed that if the relationship was going to survive (it has, 50-plus years and counting), each of us had to be willing to enter the other’s musical world. I remember one of our first dates when she took me to see and hear one of the greatest pianists of the mid-20th century, Rudolf Serkin. “Groovy Rudy,” as I instantly renamed him, played a concert of Beethoven sonatas on a Steinway 9 foot concert grand piano. When I left the concert hall I recall thinking that I had died and gone to heaven. Here was another world of music that I knew nothing about and was eager to learn about. Yes, I knew that the world of classical music existed. But I also knew that ice fishing existed and I, to this day, haven’t tried it yet and probably won’t in this lifetime.

Over the years Cathy has shared her vast knowledge and passion for opera and classical music with me and my life has been enriched beyond anything I could have imagined that faithful night when I heard Groovy Rudy play so sublimely. While I have grown to love opera and classical music, I am first and foremost a “jazzer.” I have to confess (pun intended) that when I hear jazz it is a religious experience.

Over the ensuing years, I have been extremely fortunate to have heard many different genres of music which have opened my ears and expanded my world and with each new listening experience I am so grateful to have entered a new domain full of exciting sounds and melodies. I now understand that music is a universal calling that transcends time and place.

When I am listening to music, especially jazz, my sub-conscious mind allows me to feel a sense of well-being and pleasure that transports me to another place. Is this a religious experience? I don’t know, but I know I love going there. On a conscious level, I constantly marvel at the creative processes of the geniuses that compose the music and I am in awe of the technical wizardry of the players who appear to effortlessly command their instruments to deliver up exquisite sounds. For me, when great music is being played, the supreme being is present.

I should confess at this juncture that I have tried and failed miserably to play an instrument. Actually I am a two-time loser. Starting with the piano as a kid, I actually advanced to Piano Book No. 6 by the age of 9. I had to abort my brief career as a pianist immediately following my debut in a recital with the other students of Miss Ione V. Fencestead. Unfortunately my lack of talent was all too obvious as I destroyed “In the Hall of the Mountain King.” Re-starting with the alto sax when I was an adult, I had visions of standing shoulder to shoulder with Charlie Parker in the pantheon of great jazz musicians. I was not put off by the numerous requests from my family and our neighbors to practice at another location, but when our dog ran away from home, I knew I had to put my alto sax down for good. The truth is that I really loved that dog.

Ultimately, therefore, I have resigned myself to be a dedicated listener. Unfortunately in this world of multi-tasking I am afraid that this is becoming a lost art. When I attend a music performance and see someone in the darkened room with their eyes glued to the glowing screen of a cell phone, reading and texting away, I feel sorry for them. As the great Art Blakey said: “Music washes away the dust of everyday life.”


This year the 21st Annual Vail Jazz Festival will present 52 separate jazz performances with hundreds of musician creating music for our audiences. Come join us and get the religion!

Howard Stone is the founder and artistic director of The Vail Jazz Foundation, which produces the annual Vail Jazz Festival. Celebrating its 21st year, the Vail Jazz Festival is a summer-long celebration of jazz music, culminating with the Labor Day weekend Vail Jazz Party. Visit vailjazz.org for more information.