Twenty years ago if you asked someone on the street where they could listen to some great live jazz music, it’s unlikely they’d answer, “right here.”
Unbeknownst to some, the Vail Jazz Festival has been bringing the best in the genre right to our own backyard for the past two decades. Since its inception, the festival has grown from a small event with a few shows to a months-long concert series that doesn’t stop until Labor Day. The Vail Jazz Festival celebrates its 20th anniversary this summer, beginning this Sunday with the first of many live jam sessions at the Vail Farmers’ Market.
‘It started as innocently as throwing a party’
With a legacy more synonymous with skiing than saxophones, the Vail Valley is a surprising place for someone to start a jazz festival, but that’s what part-time resident Howard Stone did back in 1995. Stone is currently chairman of the board and artistic director of the Vail Jazz Festival. The tradition of jazz parties on Labor Day weekend in Colorado dates back to 1963 and were run by Dick Gibson. When Gibson retired in the early ’90s, Stone, a long time jazz fan, was left with an empty calendar and no way to see the greats without traveling out of state.
“When (Gibson) retired, there was kind of a blank in the schedule over Labor Day,” Stone said. “For a couple of years I would say, ‘What am I going to do? It’s Labor Day and there’s no jazz.’”
When the lemonade stand runs out, grow your own lemon tree. And so, Stone decided to start his own Labor Day concert series.
“On a lark I decide to recreate what (Gibson) had done,” Stone said. “In 1995, the first Vail Jazz Party was presented, and when it was over I said, ‘I know what I’m going to do with the rest of my life. It started as innocently as throwing a party and thinking, ‘Boy, this will be fun.’”
At the start, the music may have been sounded good, but attracting an audience took some practice.
“If you look at the artists who performed in the early days, they were the who’s who of jazz,” Stone said. “There just weren’t enough people there to support it. ... There were more than a few times I thought about quitting, thinking jazz and Vail didn’t go together. But I guess I’m stubborn and I love the music so much. So you continue to say, ‘One more year, one more year.’”
‘A world-class event’
Stone’s persistence paid off, and as locals and visitors began to tune in, the festival was able to expand from the Labor Day Jazz Party to a program that runs for 12 weeks. Edwards resident Norm Welch, a volunteer with the Vail Jazz Festival for 15 years, said the concert series has now made it to the top of the charts for jazz aficionados in the know.
“This is a world-class event,” Welch said. “I don’t think too many people understand that. It ranks right up with the (best) as far as quality is concerned.”
The festival has always stayed true to its tempo, offering a variety of jazz musicians and styles but never straying from its original sound.
“A lot of jazz festivals have realized the only way to get a large crowd is to have a big pop act, and we’re just not willing to do that,” Stone said. “(The festival) is a nonprofit; it’s about perpetuating the art form, so bringing in the Allman Brothers or whomever is not our mission.”
You’ll find few who’ll miss the rock riffs at this year’s festival, which features more than 40 different concerts and sessions. Not only are there multiple shows to chose from, many of which are free, each venue offers a different listening experience.
Live and improvised
Jazz organ trio The Organization (say it slowly to catch the pun) will perform for the first of the Vail Farmers’ Market concerts this Sunday. Hammond B-3 organ player Jeff Jenkins is looking forward to introducing new fans who might initially have come just to pick up some produce to his group.
“This particular (venue) is wonderful because it’s a beautiful atmosphere and it’s sort of casual,” Jenkins said. “It’s not a sit-down concert, and that’s nice because sometimes we catch people who are waking by. ... There’s this unexpected quality to it.”
The surprise of live jazz is what makes fans of the festival return again every year to hear those whose records they know by beat.
“There’s a level of improvisation and spontaneity inherent in playing jazz, which I haven’t really found in any other style of music,” Jenkins said. “To the listener it sounds really polished and like everything is supposed to be that way, but we’re actually making a lot of it up on the spot.”
Jazz players might not know all the notes before they step out on stage, but creating an ensemble that sounds effortless isn’t easy.
“What most people don’t realize is that to play well, it takes teamwork too,” Stone said. “In jazz the teamwork is much more fluid and exciting to listen to because you have to support the other players in ways that you didn’t know before you started the tune.”
‘Battle to bring music to places that didn’t have jazz’
One of the Vail Jazz Festival’s most significant contributions to the community comes in the form of musicians who’ve yet to make it to the main stage. For the past 19 years, the Vail Jazz Foundation has brought high school students from around the U.S. to study with well-known jazz musicians for the Vail Jazz Workshop. Many of these students have gone on to have successful careers in jazz music and even return to the festival to perform as adults. Stone knows that jazz isn’t the most lucrative career, but it’s the players’ passion for the music that keeps him motivated.
“If you think about a drummer who’s a really good drummer, they could probably go out into the world of pop and make 10 times what he or she would make playing jazz,” Stone said. “The people who play this music have made a conscious decision to trade fame and wealth for a sense of accomplishment from an artistic standpoint. They’re fulfilled as artists, and we as an organization are committed to supporting that.”
After many years of “fighting an uphill battle to bring music to places that didn’t have jazz,” Stone said, the Vail Jazz Festival has finally become famous in the jazz world and familiar with locals as well.
“I’ve met people in the community who say, ‘I didn’t realize there was a jazz festival,’” Stone said. “It happens less and less.”
When speaking with Stone over the phone, one can hear a little bit of jazz playing in the background. Once just the soundtrack to his own life, Stone’s favorite type of music has also become the soundtrack to summertime in the valley, all due to the Vail Jazz Festival. After 20 years, it’s doubtful this tune will change anytime soon.