Vail Jazz Party Marks its 25th Anniversary During Labor Day Weekend

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The Vail Jazz Party House Band—Wycliffe Gordon (left), Terell Stafford, Lewis Nash, Dick Oates, John Clayton, Bill Cunliffe—performs Aug. 31 during the Vail Jazz Party’s 25th anniversary edition.

(Photo: Jack Affleck)

For the Vail Jazz Party’s 25th anniversary edition during the Labor Day weekend, eight women of advancing years made their 10th group trip to the Colorado mountain town from Southern California. This pilgrimage gets a little more difficult every year. Challenges like hip replacements can slow them down, and the change from sea level to an 8,150-foot elevation involves making use of the canned oxygen for sale throughout Vail.

Still, they wouldn’t dream of missing it.

“We come for the unique experience,” one woman said. “Where else can you see the best musicians in the world perform for five days in so many mix-and-match settings?”

“And right here in God’s garden,” added another, gesturing at the majestic mountains, the white-barked aspen trees, the tall blue lupine flowers.

While the women and I spoke, drummer Lewis Nash sat down with a burrito to eat and chat with them. That intimacy between audience and musician, along with a focus on straightahead jazz—all in Vail’s extraordinary natural setting—are the defining principles of the festival.

“What’s happened is that this place has become synonymous with a very serious commitment to the art form,” said Howard Stone, Vail Jazz Party founder. “Many great festivals have to be commercialized because they have large venues and need more popular acts to sell a lot of tickets. We stayed smaller and true to the art form—our main venues are a 500-seat ballroom and a 300-seat jazz tent. And the ballroom is at a hotel where musicians and the audience stay, and can’t help running into each other all the time. So, it’s a jazz love fest.”

The event is a throwback to a throwback. Its mainstream jazz emphasis reflects Denver businessman Dick Gibson’s famed Colorado jazz parties, which started in 1963 and had a 30-year run of nostalgic revelry. When Stone launched the Vail Jazz Party in 1995, he initially followed Gibson’s nonstop programming model, too, but found it was simply too much music.

“They didn’t even take dinner breaks,” Stone said. “People would just get up and go get a sandwich and bring it back into the ballroom. It was pretty crazy.”

Stone reduced the number of concerts and put musicians onstage in more intentional configurations than Gibson’s sometimes random eight and nine-piece experiments. There was some trial and error: Stone tried a special concert at the ski gondola stop on Vail Mountain’s summit; he nixed it when he saw older woodwind players struggling to play at 11,000 feet. Over the years, he grew Vail Jazz into a summer-long jazz festival with various weekly events, culminating with the Labor Day jazz party. This year’s featured about 30 musicians performing at 13 afternoon, evening and late night sessions, including special tributes to Oscar Peterson and the Beatles, along with multimedia presentations on the history of jazz flute and jazz’s role in the civil rights movement.

Nearly every party attendee quoted me the dictum that jazz is America’s greatest art form. The Vail audience is so faithful to the tradition that shows can have a religious revival ambiance.

At a Vail Jazz Party House Band show on Saturday afternoon in the Vail Square Jazz Tent, the sextet started with Lee Morgan’s “Petty Larceny” before moving on to Ben Webster’s “Did You Call Her Today?” During John Clayton’s lyrical arco solo in the bass’ upper register, he dropped to an unexpected low note, and its warm resonance elicited a collective moan of pleasure from the crowd. Lewis Nash did some scat singing from the drum set, and the audience nearly levitated with ecstasy.

For musicians who otherwise only meet in passing at airports between one-off festival dates, Vail is a welcome change. House Band member and trumpeter Terell Stafford has played the jazz party for 23 years; pianist Bill Cunliffe has made it to 24 editions.

“It’s a hang,” said trombonist Wycliffe Gordon, who’s worked the jazz party for 19 years himself. “I don’t get to play with these musicians much, but in Vail we play together for days and days, in lots of different groups.”

With so many performances, these outstanding musicians don’t feel the need to demonstrate lofty virtuosity in every moment onstage. They can afford to relax into whimsy—as when Gordon played a solo on his mouthpiece before seguing into slide trumpet during one set.

The House Band members serve as faculty for the 24-year-old Vail Jazz Workshop, which selects a dozen high school musicians by audition to spend 10 days in intensive study. Clayton, who’s made it to all 25 years of the party, spoke onstage about the students’ 13-hour days. Along with learning music by ear and doing ensemble work, he said students are given faculty “rap sessions,” which happen to reflect jazz party values: “We really wanted them to know who we are as people ... how we grew and just all of our experiences, which we find really important, because they don’t normally get that. You know, growing up, we [older] musicians were blessed enough to not have to deal with a fear-based education. It was always have fun, bond together, play that music, support each other and do your thing. Enjoy it.”

The students got into the spirit of camaraderie, naming their original composition “No Cell Zone” in playful tribute to Howard Stone’s smartphone aversion. For patrons, there’s much pride in seeing workshop alumni like Tia Fuller or Gerald Clayton grow into their careers.

“An Asian-American girl played the saxophone here 10 years ago; she was Grace Kelly,” a woman from the Southern California group enthused. “Last week, I saw her on television!”

Besides three late-night jam sessions, Sunday’s program was when Vail Jazz’s music best lived up to its “party” designation. In the morning, Detroit vocalist Niki Haris held her Gospel Prayer Meetin’ in an expansive new festival venue, the Ford Amphitheater: the gospel jazz of Haris, Denver’s Mile Hi Gospel Choir, and a dream horn section (Gordon, Stafford, trumpeter Byron Stripling, and saxophonist Adrian Cunningham) had the audience testifying, sometimes in tears. That afternoon, Gordon led a horn-rich band for his Nu Funk Jazz Machine Dance Party II, which found some friendly common ground between James Brown’s classic funk and the hip-hop inflected style of ’80s Brooklyn. As the first downbeat landed, dancers poured into the jazz tent and didn’t stop moving until the final note—a glimpse of a younger crowd that might support the jazz party for the next 25 years.

Even the Southern California crew came for the funk, though the ladies were seated in chairs just off the dance floor, appreciating every moment of the festivities.

“This is only the second year we’ve had this dance feature at our jazz party,” one said. “It’s wonderful.” DB




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