Vail Jazz Alumni: The superhighway that led two alumni to Grammy Award nominations this year

By Fred W. Frailey
Vail Jazz Foundation

The closing hours of the Vail Jazz Workshop are filled with tearful goodbyes, hugs and backslaps, akin to the last day of high school—as if these dozen jazz wunderkinds will never see each other again after their grueling (and bonding) 10 days in Vail. Little do they realize their journey together is just beginning.

Over the past quarter-century, Vail Jazz has created a jazz superhighway, paved with the raw talent and hard work of almost 300 Workshop alumni, ranging in age today from 17 to almost 45, who now cross paths constantly, playing together in clubs, bands, on albums and even soundtracks. And graduates are also being recognized in the music business for their work.

A case in point is the new animated Disney film “Soul,” produced by Pixar, which features a jazz soundtrack built in large part around Vail Jazz Workshop graduates Tia Fuller (saxophone, 1996), Marcus Gilmore (drums, 2002) and Eddie Barbash (saxophone, 2005). Premiered at the London Film Festival last October, “Soul” is about Joe, a Black music teacher who wants to succeed as a jazz pianist. Offered his first job in a band, Joe accidentally falls down a deep manhole on his way to the gig and enters the afterlife. The film is about his quest to have another chance at life, and many of the characters are themselves jazz musicians.

Fuller, for instance, is the musician behind the animated character and saxophonist Dorothea, who has joined Joe in the afterlife. Fuller reports that as she and her fellows recorded the soundtrack, Pixar cameras filmed both their hands and their faces, the purpose being to replicate in the animation precisely how they fingered their instruments and changed facial expressions as they played.

“With this film, children will now grow up to see that it’s not taboo to see a Black woman play the saxophone, or an Asian woman play the bass or trombone, and that jazz is deeply embedded into the fabric of our music history and is as ‘cool’ as the popular music of today,” Fuller said. (In case you’re wondering, the soundtrack is eminently listenable.)

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As for recognition by peers, two Workshop alums are among the six nominees for what is considered the most prestigious jazz Grammy, Best Instrumental Jazz Album. They are pianist Gerald Clayton, who attended the Workshop in 2002, and trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, from the class of 2000. Clayton is also nominated for Best Instrumental Jazz Solo, also a high-visibility award. The Grammys will be awarded on Sunday, March 14, in Los Angeles.

Gerald Clayton is the son of Vail Jazz legend John Clayton.
Devion DeHaven

Clayton, 36, is the son of bassist and Vail Jazz Workshop director John Clayton. Both of his Grammy nominations stem from his quintet’s 2019 recording “Happening: Live at the Village Vanguard,” released last July. The instrumentation of his group is unusual because both horn players are saxophonists. But on the song “Celia,” for which Clayton got the Best Instrumental Jazz Solo nomination, the horns lay out and Clayton is accompanied only by fellow Vail alums Gilmore on drums and Joe Sanders (2001) on bass. In his review of the album, JazzTimes critic Thomas Conrad called “Celia” “a 10-minute onslaught of virtuoso pianism.”

Akinmusire (pronounced ah-kin-MU-sir-ee), 38, is nominated for his album “On the Tender Side of Each Calloused Moment.” Akinmusire is firmly in the jazz avant garde, as this snippet from Steven Arroyo’s review of the album on Pitchfork makes clear: “Ambrose Akinmusire’s fifth studio album opens underwater and drowning. Midway through ‘Tide of Hyacinth,’ Akinmusire starts to clip the ends of phrases on his trumpet; the pulse speeds up behind Justin Brown’s tense drumming; Sam Harris’s piano grows into threatening waves; Harish Raghavan’s bass notes escape in small clusters like bubbles frantically rising to the surface. As the track runs out of time, the featured vocalist and percussionist Jesús Díaz enters, singing in the West African dialect Yoruba with a soothing tenor as if to beckon you towards a light.”

Ambrose Akinmusire's Grammy-nominated album also recieved favorable reviews from Pitchfork, a notoriously hard-to-please music outlet.
Christie Hemm Klo

With a strong, clear tone from his horn and a vivid musical imagination, Akinmusire has easily won the DownBeat magazine Jazz Critics Poll for trumpet the last three years.

This is Akinmusire’s first Grammy nomination and Clayton’s fifth and sixth. But they face strong headwinds from the late Chick Corea, also nominated in both categories. In his half-century career, Corea has won 23 Grammys, more than any jazz musician except trumpeter and composer Quincy Jones. The pianist died Feb. 9, after Grammy voting ended.

Ambrose Akinmusire attended the Vail Jazz workshop in 2000.
Christie Hemm Klo

These are only several examples of the musical superhighway that Vail Jazz Workshop graduates travel. Each August, the Workshop pairs the 12 best high school musicians with six seasoned jazz pros who prepare them not just to play better music but also to adopt positive attitudes to live beneficial lives.

When later they meet and realize they were at the Workshop during different years, it’s natural they would accept each other as accomplished musicians and want to perform together, as Marcus Gilmore and Joe Sanders did on Clayton’s Grammy-nominated album. By the same token, pianist Justin Kauflin (2003) and bassist Katie Thiroux (2005) met when they returned to perform at the Vail Jazz Festival and have since toured together. Drummer Obed Calvaire attended the third Workshop in 1998 and so impressed teachers John and Jeff Clayton that they later brought him into the Clayton Brothers Quintet. Calvaire is now with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra.

The 2021 Grammy Awards marks Gerald Clayton's fifth and sixth nominations.
Devion DeHaven

On and on it goes down that superhighway. After all, these men and women were among the best of the best in jazz at their age. In Vail, they were shown how to take their music and their character to higher levels.

“The Workshop aligned us with masters of jazz so we could know what it feels like to be among the greats,” said Fuller. “It instills not only excellence in musicianship, but most importantly, excellence in character.”

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