Vail Jazz: A jazz tradition in Colorado
Inside the Vail Jazz Festival
There are certain things that naturally go together; Colorado and skiing, for example. However, there is another pairing that might not be so obvious: Colorado and jazz. When Vail Jazz presents its 25th annual Vail Jazz Festival during the summer of 2019, it will continue a Colorado jazz tradition that is 56 years old and was nurtured right here in Vail.
The first jazz party
The story begins in 1963 when Dick Gibson, a Denver businessman, gathered together jazz musicians and friends in a hotel in Aspen over the three-day Labor Day weekend in order to have a party. That weekend he created the first Jazz Party, a format that combined jazz musicians and fans in an intimate atmosphere with various combinations of musicians performing in jam session type performances over the long weekend.
Gibson’s inaugural Jazz Party was a huge hit and was the talk of the town in Denver. He was encouraged by many attendees to do it again and he presented an encore over the following Labor Day weekend in Vail.
Gibson was friends with Vail locals Marge and Larry Brudick, Bettan Laughlin and Billy Whiteford. They joined with him to present the next edition at the Casino Vail (the original “nightclub” in Vail Village), the largest venue in Vail in 1964. Another great success was realized in Vail.
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Gibson ultimately moved the party out of the mountains down to the Front Range, where Colorado Springs and Denver were the host cities of Gibson’s annual Jazz Party for years.
An important reunion
During his 30-year run, Gibson presented an all-star lineup each year that featured some of the greatest musicians in the world. At a time when rock began to overshadow jazz, his annual gatherings became a very important reunion of sorts between fans and players in the most relaxed and awe-inspiring venues one could imagine.
The fame of the Jazz Party was so great that a documentary film was made about it, “The Great Rocky Mountain Jazz Party,” and the film captures the magic of Gibson’s Jazz Party.
A big deal
The fame of his Jazz Party spread with attendees traveling to Colorado from throughout the world to attend the annual event. With limited seating at the party, jazz fans were put on a waiting list and after several years on the waiting list, my wife and I were fortunate enough to attend many of the ensuing Jazz Parties.
When Gibson retired, I was inspired to start the Vail Jazz Festival, motivated to carry on the great Colorado jazz tradition that Gibson had created. Now Vail Jazz embarks upon its 25th season, so Gibson’s musical legacy lives on in Vail.
Gibson died in 1998 and the “Mississippi Rag” observed in his obituary: “The (Jazz Party) concept … reinvigorated the jazz scene and led to the creation of jazz parties elsewhere.”
It is reported that there were as many as 150 other Jazz Parties throughout the United States in the 1990s and of course, Vail became home to one.
Howard Stone is the founder and artistic director of Vail Jazz, the presenter of the annual Vail Jazz Festival each summer and an annual Winter Jazz Series, both of which feature internationally renowned artists. In addition, Vail Jazz presents educational programs throughout the year with a special focus on young musicians and young audiences. Many of Vail Jazz’s performances and educational programs are presented free of charge. This column is adapted from the original archived edition, republished to commemorate Vail Jazz’s 25th Anniversary season in 2019. For information about upcoming performances, visit http://www.vailjazz.org.