Vail Jazz Alumni: How female bassist Eliana Athayde gained her groove |

Vail Jazz Alumni: How female bassist Eliana Athayde gained her groove

Eliana Athayde has had numerous mentors, but the lessons from Vail are imprinted to her core

By Shauna Farnell
Special to the Daily
Eliana Athayde attended the Vail Jazz Workshop in 2007. Now, as a professional musician who tours the world and records/performs with a multitude of artists from a broad swath of genres, Athayde remembers lessons learned from Vail Jazz Workshop instructors.
Special to the Daily

Over the past 25 years, nearly 300 teenage musicians have been transformed by the Vail Jazz Workshop; a large majority have gone on to become professional musicians. This is one of their stories.

The youngest child in a family of musicians growing up in the California Bay Area, Eliana Athayde sampled a series of instruments from the time she was a little girl.

“There was always music around the house and not in a forced way. My parents would be giving lessons in the house, so anyone who came in was playing music. It just felt like that’s what everyone does,” Athayde said in a recent interview with Vail Jazz board member Alan Tanenbaum.

First, she tried the violin, her mother’s instrument. It was not the one for her. Then she moved to her father’s specialty, the piano. Not it. How about the saxophone? Nah. Then she picked up the bass. A bond was sealed.

Since then, Athayde and her bass have been on countless journeys together, through a variety of jazz landscapes as well as classical, bluegrass, folk, country, indie rock and some totally unchartered territories.

“There are very few styles of music that don’t involve the bass,” she said. “I love learning what makes a bluegrass bass line sound authentic and then what makes a country bass line sound authentic. When country started, it was a more pop version of bluegrass with a little bit less soloing. I love bass lines. I love the subtle differences and I love [figuring out] where was all that in relation to jazz? And how did that relate to the classical music before it? I think the more genres you can cover, the deeper understanding you get to have with music.”

Besides the early musical lessons Athayde received from her parents and siblings, Bay Area pro saxophonist Mary Fettig, the first woman to join Stan Kenton’s famous jazz orchestra, was a major influence in Athayde’s education.

“Even though I didn’t stick with the saxophone, she was this hugely influential presence in my life, this lady who’s just a monster of a musician and was coming up in this time when it was even harder to be a lady musician,” Athayde said. “The first time I walked a bass line was in Mary Fettig’s after school combo. She would teach ear-training classes and theory classes. She was a big presence in my community. We all learned a lot from her.”

Eliana Athayde grew up in a family of musicians in the California Bay Area.
Special to the Daily

It was Fettig who recommended Athayde (and before her, her older brother Kyle) for the Vail Jazz Workshop. Athayde attended back in 2007. The learn-by-ear training with the saxophonist came in handy here, where Vail Jazz Workshop instructors — John and Jeff Clayton, Lewis Nash, Bill Cunliffe, Wycliffe Gordon and Terell Stafford — did not (and still don’t) allow books or sheet music.

“Anyone who knows John knows that he’s a huge proponent of learning by ear, which is so great because that is where this tradition comes from,” Athayde said. “That has still stuck with me. When I’m on a gig or if I’m just playing with friends and they’re calling tunes, I still have that little John Clayton bug in my head that’s like, no, no, we’ll just figure it out by ear. It’s jazz.”

Such lessons were imparted with both a passion and compassion that Athayde will never forget.

“It was these really kind people who just loved music walking in the room, listening to what you’re doing, thinking about what they could do to help you,” she said, recalling a specific time during the workshop when she and the other students were playing Cedar Walton’s “Bolivia.”

“We were playing it — I’m sure it was OK but maybe not great — and Lewis Nash walked into the room and stands there and listens to us for a minute,” Athayde said. “Really politely, Lewis was like, ‘If I may, could I sit down and play the drums?’ He starts playing and it’s so amazing. He’s like, ‘Yeah, this is what I played with Cedar.’ We’re just these kids sitting here playing ‘Bolivia’ and Lewis Nash played it with the man who wrote the song. That was pretty incredible, and how kind he was about it, too … just pure support and love of music.”

The takeaway: “Be in the music.”

Now, as a professional musician who tours the world and records/performs with a multitude of artists from a broad swath of genres, Athayde carries this wisdom with her to every stage and studio, wherever and whenever she plays.

“That has always stuck with me — feeling it in your body,” she said. “If you can get into that, all the other styles of music feel like, oh yeah, I can go there. That’s easy. I’ve trained my ears. I know how to groove … thanks to Vail.”

For more information about Vail Jazz, visit

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