VAIL — You’ve heard of young musical prodigies, seen movies about them discovering their uncanny knack to play a particular instrument like a professional adult when they are only 5 years old and surmount obstacles such as poverty, loss and relocation. But just imagine the energy and combined prowess that abounds when you get 12 of such characters together as one well-tuned team ready to play their hearts out.
The summer grand finale of the Vail Jazz Festival is the five-day live music Labor Day Weekend Party. Bringing in the country’s top contemporary jazz artists, to ensure a future of continued stardom, every year the festival selects 12 teenagers from across the country for an intensive, 10-day workshop with mentors John and Jeff Clayton, Bill Cunliffe, Wycliffe Gordon, Lewis Nash and Terrell Stafford. The Vail Jazz Workshop is funded through individual donations by supporters of the Vail Jazz Foundation. After the intensive training, the 12 students transform into the Vail Jazz All-Stars and perform throughout the weekend party, which kicks off tonight for Jazz @ Vail Square and again on Saturday and Sunday.
The workshop is primarily focused on rounding out the students’ already soaring talent with the ability to play by ear, using memorization and no sheet music.
“It’s about balance. The person who can play by ear and read music and understand theory — they have more choices.” says John Clayton, who has been involved with the Vail Jazz Workshop since its inception 18 years ago.
Teaching the nation’s best young musicians and seeing them go on to become successful professional recording artists, he says the talent pool continues to skyrocket every year.
“On that first day at the workshop when we get a feel for their level, through the years, our eyebrows go up higher and higher,” he says. “We look at each other and say, ‘Wow. Not only are they doing stuff we could never do at their age, but they’re doing stuff we can’t even do now.’ Still, we offer them things they haven’t been exposed to and that they can really take with them even if they can — and I’m exaggerating a little bit — play rings around us.”
Hearing a ‘pulse’
Of course, every one of the students arrives with an inspiring story behind his talent. Drummer Adrian Cota’s begins when he was 2 years old, listening to his father’s Latin band rehearse at their home in Sinoloa, Mexico. Surrounded by a family of musicians, the young Cota would spend so much time listening and would get so absorbed that one time he fell asleep on one of the speakers.
“The reason why I chose drums is I always hear a pulse. I think it started when I was very little. I always liked to be precise — that’s how I see myself. I like pulse, something that’s always there,” says 17-year-old Cota, who started his senior year of high school last week.
Driven by his desire and supported by his family who wanted him to have a real opportunity to steer his talent into the spotlight, Cota left Mexico three years ago to live with an uncle in Los Angeles. He has made great strides so far, not only selected as a drummer for the Grammy Band Jazz Combo and receiving full scholarships for several residency and jazz programs — including to this year’s 18th Annual Vail Jazz Workshop — but Cota has also managed to adopt a full command of the English language during his short time in the U.S.
“I couldn’t speak that much English when I got here. I learned most of it here,” he says. “I knew it was something that I really needed. There was no other option. I had a lot of struggles with it, but I got better. I told myself I’m going to learn English. When you want something and know you need it, it just happens.”
It’s with that same drive and commitment that Cota aims to one day be surrounded by his whole family — who visited him for a few days before he made the trip to Vail — and lead his own band.
“You might think I’m getting a little deep right now, but everything is related to love. I moved here and knew it was going to be hard,” Cota says. “But I had a dream. I knew I was going to accomplish it. I would like to be together with my family. If they were here it would be amazing. But my dad is the director for our own family band in Mexico. He’s pretty well-known there. I really want them to be here at some point. I want to stay here and make music.”
As far as being selected for the Vail Jazz Workshop, Cota is still in awe that he was even considered for it.
“I was really excited first of all that I got recommended. Lewis Nash is one of my favorite drummers. I saw him in concert once. That inspired me a lot,” he says. “When I auditioned and I got in, I couldn’t believe it. It’s such a beautiful feeling to really want it and then get it. I was prepared, though. If I didn’t make it, I would be glad just that I got the interview.”
Playing at Carnegie Hall
Raised in New Orleans in the care of his grandmother, 17-year-old trombonist Jeffrey Miller comes from a different background but his story is equally inspiring. He too, is driven by a love for music … and a good bit of talent, too.
“Music is literally my life,” Miller says. “So, the only thing I really do besides music is school. I go to Ben Franklin High School for my academics and then NOCCA in the afternoon. Ben Franklin has a pretty rigorous curriculum, so I can be pretty hard to juggle that and my music. For example, since my sophomore year, I’ve been performing every Wednesday night with Delfeayo Marsalis and the Uptown Jazz Orchestra at Snug Harbor from 8 p.m. to sometimes midnight. You can see how that would be challenging to do that and go to school the next day.”
Miller still manages to “do the regular teenager stuff, like movies and dating,” but he has some notches on his belt that a scarce few 17-year-olds posses, playing with jazz greats and also appearing on the HBO series “Treme.” But the performance at Carnegie Hall is his standout achievement to date.
“There are a lot,” he says of his musical highlights so far. “But if I had to choose, it would be performing at Carnegie Hall when I was 15 with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. It was a sold-out concert and I was just so thankful from the plane ride out there to the performance itself because not many people get to say that they’ve played Carnegie Hall, let alone at 15. I don’t mean to sound cocky or anything, but I was just so thankful and blessed. And it was my very first time in New York at all, so that in itself was a new experience for me, you know?”
When asked where he sees himself in the future, Miller doesn’t mince words.
“You know, standard rich and famous-type stuff,” he says, but is then quick to delve into his more profound ambitions and also gush with gratitude to his one-woman support team.
“I’m not in it just for the money, of course,” Miller says. “I want to change the world with my music. I want my music to make people feel happy, or emotional … just any way they want to feel. But the only reason the money wouldn’t be such a bad idea is because of my grandmother. Since my mom passed when I was a year old, she’s been raising my twin sister and me. Really, without her, I definitely wouldn’t be who and where I am today. She is the one who always supported my endeavors and sacrificed so much so that I’d be where I am today and the least I can and will do is make sure I pay her back for all the time, money and love she’s selflessly given to me. I want to be rich for her. I want to change the world for her. I want her to be happy, and I want her to see that all her hard work and sleepless nights were in no way in vain.”
Don’t miss the Vail Jazz Workshop All-Stars, which in addition to Cota on drums and Miller on trombone, are comprised of Ashwin Prasanna on drums, Kyle Tilstra on trombone, John Michael Bradford and Fernando Ferrarone on trumpet, Cole Davis and Nashir Janmohamed on bass, Jamael Dean and Micah Thomas on piano and Alejandro Ramirez on alto saxophone. Following their performance Thursday, their mentors themselves will play a set.
Shauna Farnell is a freelance writer contracted by the Vail Jazz Foundation. Email comments about this story to firstname.lastname@example.org.