VAIL — Twenty years ago, the Vail Jazz Festival planted its heels into Vail with a soaring but humble brigade of trumpets, bass, drums and guitars, launching an event that nobody would envision snowballing to the proportions it has reached this season.
Growing from a Labor Day weekend lineup of performances to a summer-long event featuring weekly performances by some of the country and even world’s top jazz musicians, the Vail Jazz Festival is poised to blow the doors off in celebration of its 20th anniversary.
“Jazz started in New Orleans and it’s truly a gumbo. It’s a living music — a changing, breathing creature,” said Howard Stone, Vail Jazz Festival founder. “For this 20th anniversary season, our lineup is not just a New Orleans gumbo, it’s a world gumbo with more energy and variety than we’ve ever had.”
Beginning at the end of June, 12 weeks of performances include free jazz every Sunday at the Vail Farmers’ Market and Restaurant Kelly Liken, along with hands on, educational workshops — Jammin’ Jazz Kids. There are also the Thursday evening Jazz @ Vail Square performances with a lineup that will have long-time jazz die-hards brimming with anticipation and young jazz skeptics readily admitting that the genre is worth exploring.
The names immediately recognizable to the former group include iconic guitarist John Pizzarelli, who made his inaugural appearance at last summer’s Vail Jazz Festival, and who will kick off the season on June 27 with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra as a collaboration with Bravo! Vail, a collaboration that also brings a series of three jam sessions — all of which sold out last season — on July 2, 12 and 23.
The Jazz @ Vail Square performances have truly evolved into an event of their own, filling the jazz tent in Lionshead with a brimming crowd every Thursday evening and the entire side of town with uplifting melodies. Advanced tickets to each show are $15 for general admission or $25 for VIP preferred seating.
Jazz @ Vail Square
July 3: The series kicks off with the return of hypnotizing guitar duo Frank Vignola and Vinny Raniolo. Appearing in Vail for the first time last summer, Vignola and Raniolo have a knack for enthralling a crowd with their lightning fast fingers covering a litany of tunes from classics such as “Stardust” to Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven,” all while conducting their own silly choreography and drawing laughs from the crowd. Keep an eye out for the duo on the jazz float in Vail’s Fourth of July parade.
July 10: Also returning are the foot-stomping, dance-inspiring rhythms of conga drummer Poncho Sanchez and his Latin Jazz Band.
July 17: Young singer and jazz pianist Tony DeSare is quickly becoming known for making the keys dance while belting out original compositions, as well as for upbeat renditions of his favorites, from a gamut that runs from Billy Joel to Harry Connick Jr. This event marks the Vail debut of his quartet.
July 24: Long-time Vail Jazz favorite and world-renowned pianist Marcia Ball returns to light up the keys with New Orleans-infused, high-energy melodies.
July 31: Imagine New Orleans Brass Band colliding with the strains of Eastern Indian horns and percussion. The young and energetic Red Baraat grabbed NPR’s attention for a Tiny Desk Concert and are sure to have Vail Square thumping.
Aug. 7: Jamaica’s Monty Alexander brings his jazz piano along with the classic grooves of his full band, the Harlem-Kingston Express, from their regular setup at Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York City to a very special show in Lionshead.
Aug. 14: Guitarist-vocalist John Pizzarelli returns for his own riveting performance along with his quartet, including brother Martin on bass.
Aug. 21: Expect to dance — swing-style. Artist to be announced.
Aug. 28: It’s a triple bill for the square’s grand finale. The kings of Vail Jazz, The Clayton Bros., wrap up Jazz @ Vail Square with a white-hot performance preceded by the future of jazz embodied in the nation’s very best, carefully selected ensemble of Vail Jazz All-Stars and the now-famous All-Star alums.
Vail Jazz Party
Labor Day weekend
The grand finale of the 20th anniversary party brings an onslaught of more than 40 of the world’s finest jazz musicians, including the genre’s most renowned pianists Benny Green along with the return of Monty Alexander, drummers Jeff Hamilton and Ernie Adams, trumpeter Byron Stripling, saxophonists Ken Peplowski and Grace Kelly and vocalists Curtis Stigers and Ann Hampton Callaway. The weekend will include multimedia tributes to Benny Goodman, Clark Terry and Sarah Vaughn with singer Niki Haris at the helm for the annual Gospel Prayer Meeting event, and a true star power lineup of Vail Jazz All-Star alums, including the remarkably talented blind pianist Justin Kauflin, featured in the gripping documentary “Keep on Keepin’ On,” to be viewed over the festival weekend.
“Each of these artists is a jazz powerhouse in his or her own right,” said Robin Litt, Vail Jazz Foundation executive director. “To get this many of them in one place, on one weekend, is something that just doesn’t happen anywhere else.”
For more information or to purchase tickets to any of the festival’s upcoming events, visit vailjazz.org.
Shauna Farnell is a freelance writer contracted by the Vail Jazz Foundation.