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The Vail Jazz Workshop shows off the next generation of Jazz

The Vail Jazz Workshop, now in its 26th year, brings 12 gifted high school students from around the country to practice and perform in Vail

The twelve high school students of the Vail Jazz Workshop perform at the opening night of the Vail Jazz Party. Their final performances take place this Sunday.
Steven Pope/Vail Jazz Party

Throughout the past week, the bottom floor of the Arrabelle Hotel in Lionshead has been flooded with the sounds of bass, piano, trombone, trumpet, saxophone and drums as twelve high school students trained under the tutelage of the some of the best jazz musicians in the world.

The Vail Jazz Workshop, now in its 26th year, is an elite education program designed to help launch the next generation of world-class jazz musicians. Every summer, twelve students are selected through an intensive application and audition process to come stay in the valley and spend ten days honing their craft with the Vail Jazz Workshop faculty.

The faculty members, led by bassist and educator John Clayton, include trombone instructor Wycliffe Gordan, drums instructor Lewis Nash, trumpet instructor Terell Stafford, saxophone instructor Dick Oatts and piano instructor Bill Cunliffe. The six instructors have multiple Grammy awards between them, and are all recognized to be at the pinnacle of their art form.



The Hogwarts of jazz music

Walking into the practice space was like walking into the Hogwarts of jazz music. Each of the students has their own unique talent and skill set, and when brought into the same room they automatically begin creating new sounds together, blending their musical gifts and giving each other space to take solos and try new things.

Matthew Fu, 17, is one of the two drummers that was accepted into the 2021 workshop.



“It’s mind-blowing how good all of these kids are, and they’re all my age and they’re all so honed at this level,” Fu said. “Playing with anybody new is always exciting, but especially if they’re at this level you get to find new ways of interacting and creating something for the art.”

The students play an impromptu jam session before their afternoon lessons in the Arrabelle Hotel.
Carolyn Paletta/Vail Daily

Bassist John Clayton created the workshop with festival founder Howard Stone in 1996, and has taught over 300 students through the program. The format of the workshop assigns two students to each instructor, allowing each student to have personal instruction and connection with their teacher.

“We can have a real intimate, focused discussion and work on the instrument because they are already at such a high level, and their eagerness and their desire to play music at a higher level – I mean it’s insane,” Clayton said. “There’s a lot of attention to detail because we’re working on helping them clarify their expression, so that there’s no barrier between what they’re trying to share and what we hear.”

Joining a life-long jazz family

The students arrived this past Saturday and began doing full days of instruction on Sunday. Laura-Simone Martin, 16, one of the two bassists selected for the program, has been studying under Clayton, a long-time idol of hers, all week.

“I was already playing when he first walked through the door, and I had to keep the groove but I was freaking out,” Martin said. “I told him, ‘I’m trying not to fangirl too much,’ but he said it’s just me – and then we were all chill, we were all good.”

All of the faculty members are huge names in the jazz world, and while their reputation can be intimidating up front, Clayton works hard to create a familial, supportive environment for the students to develop in.

The format of the workshop assigns two students to each instructor, allowing each student to have personal instruction and connection with their teacher. Here, John Clayton works with the two bass students.
Carolyn Paletta/Vail Daily

“This is the perfect loving environment for them to not feel embarrassed and to not worry about an oopsie, you know, because they feel that these people love me and they get me,” Clayton said. “It’s family, and that’s something that is felt as much as explained, and I think all the students have felt that through the years.”

Another important element of the workshop, beyond just the technical development of the music, is the ability for the students to gain insight into the world of a professional jazz musician, and learn the process that their idols have gone through to reach the level that they are at.

Terell Stafford has been the trumpet instructor of the workshop for 25 years. He is a Grammy award winner and five-time nominee, and he shows the students that the same path is open to them.

“Every day we tell our own stories, so they get to see that we’re real, and not a lot of things have come easy for all of us,” Stafford said. “But if you work hard enough, you can get to a level that is significant. When times are hard, that’s when it’s really time to believe and not give up.”

Students perform live at the Vail Jazz party

The students are not allowed to use written music during the workshop, and over the course of the week they learn around 12 new songs entirely by ear. At the end of the week, the students perform before a live audience as one of the main acts of the Vail Jazz Party.

Their debut performance was this Thursday, as the opening act of the five-day music festival. The students will also perform at 11:30 a.m. on Saturday at the Jazz Tent in Lionshead, and again on Sunday at 2 p.m. at the same location. They will also be incorporated in the late night jam sessions that take place Friday, Saturday and Sunday night at 10:30 p.m in the Vail Marriott Grand Ballroom.

“I can already see progress and I can’t wait to use it in real life when we’re playing and gigging at the jazz festival,” Martin said. “So many artists I look up to are going to be there, and it’s mind blowing that we’re all going to be in the same room, just hanging together.”

Martin performs at the opening night of the Vail Jazz Party alongside fellow bassist Aviel del Rosario and pianist Alex Perry.
Steven Pope/Vail Jazz Party

The students will get to play and interact with dozens of professional jazz musicians who are performing at this weekend’s festival, including alumni of the Vail Jazz Workshop who are now returning as professionals.

“It allows us to feel the joy of reflecting back on their journey, because we remember when they too were high school kids,” Clayton said. “It’s no longer a teacher-student relationship, at least in our eyes, it’s colleague to colleague, and that feels really good.”

Each one teach one

The workshop promotes an “each one teach one” mentality, in which mentorship is a service that gets passed on, and some of the students are already thinking of how to pay the knowledge they’ve received forward to the next generation. Martin was the only person in her middle school class who continued playing bass past the sixth grade, and as a young woman of color she hopes to inspire more young kids to get excited about the music.

“I realized why the bass players dropped out, it was because there was nothing to inspire them and nothing to push them,” Martin said. “I’ve been thinking about starting a new program where I foster young up-and-coming musicians in the fourth grade to sixth grade, because I want to be that person to tell those younger kids of color, and just girls in general, what they can do with this music.”

As the students wrap up a week overflowing with jazz music and immersion, they will bring the lessons of the Vail Jazz Workshop with them wherever they go from here.

“This is life changing,” Fu said. “Now I know for sure that no matter what I do, jazz is going to be a part of it. Even if I don’t pursue it professionally, I have to have the music in my life.”

If you go…

What: Vail Jazz All-Stars Shows

When: 11:30 a.m. on Saturday, Sunday at 2 p.m.

Where: Jazz Tent in Lionshead

More info: vailjazz.org/vail-jazz-party


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