Vail Jazz Party returns for Labor Day weekend |

Vail Jazz Party returns for Labor Day weekend

The five-day Vail Jazz Party is jam-packed (pun intended) with over 35 hours of music performances. The grand finale of the summer festival will mix some of the best jazz artists in the world.

Dance party in the Jazz Tent led by Wycliffe Gordon's Nu Funk Dance Machine Party.
Jack Affleck

The Vail Jazz Party, a five-day event that closes out the annual Vail Jazz Festival, begins Thursday evening at the Jazz Tent in Lionshead Village. The Jazz Party will present over 35 hours of live music performances at various locations through Labor Day, featuring dozens of the world’s best jazz artists playing together in collaborative shows.

The Vail Jazz Party is the brainchild of Vail Jazz founder Howard Stone, and it has been the grand finale of the summer festival since 1995. What is unique about this event, beyond just the magnitude of performances, is that the participating musicians are mixed together in multi-artist jam sessions with people they have never played with before. This creates once-in-a-lifetime musical arrangements that blend sound and talent from all corners of the jazz scene to produce something truly unique.

Stone decides which artists to mix together in different arrangements, and he compares the process to that of a chef experimenting with ingredients to produce new flavors.

“These are some of the greatest jazz musicians of our time, and they don’t really get to play with their colleagues, so what happens is I am kind of like a chef, and I say, ‘Why don’t we try a little more of this seasoning, or a little more of this ingredient?’” Stone said. “I’ll think to myself: these two people, who have never played together, will make great music together. So then I go and I musically introduce them in Vail.”

At past Jazz Party performances, a few of these musical pairings have been so successful that the artists went on to record an album of their work together. Attend any of the sessions, and you are guaranteed to experience a sound that has never been heard before.

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Stone’s dedication to the music has earned him the respect and trust of the world-class performers that he invites to play, many of whom return year after year to partake in the thoughtfully constructed medley of the Vail Jazz Party. Adrian Cunningham, an award-winning multi-instrumentalist and vocalist originally from Sydney, Australia, has been playing in the Jazz Party for the past four years.

“Howard is the godfather of Vail Jazz,” Cunningham said. “He’s someone that not only knows the logistics, but really knows and understands the music.”

The members of each arrangement are given the chance to choose their own sets, and they rehearse together one time before taking the stage together in front of a live audience.

Impromptu jazz performance in Vail Square.
Jack Affleck

“I don’t have to be limited with the songs that I choose because I know that they’re all going to be amazing musicians,” Cunningham said. “It’s great because you’re taken out of your comfort zone a little bit with musicians you may not know or repertoire you may not be overly familiar with, but the vibe is so good and the musicianship is so strong that it’s always a really rewarding experience. For me, it’s probably the best level of musicianship out of the festival touring that I do in the US.”

Tickets for the Vail Jazz Party are sold for individual sessions, and there is also an all-access Performance Pass available that provides early entrance to all music sessions throughout the weekend. The schedule is divided into afternoon and evening sessions, each of which includes three separate performances.

The performance lineup features established groups such as the Joel Frahm Quartet, the Jeff Hamilton Trio and the Emmet Cohen Trio, new artist combinations designed by Stone that intermix soloists with the group performers, and a variety of special shows.

The special shows include a Friday afternoon funk performance, a Saturday evening tribute to Louis Armstrong and the music of New Orleans, a Sunday morning gospel prayer show led by singer Niki Haris, a piano duo and a centennial tribute to Charlie Parker, Dave Brubeck and Clark Terry on Monday afternoon.

Thrown in among these established jazz musicians will be the members of the Vail Jazz Workshop, 12 gifted high school students from around the country who have been selected to study for 10 days in Vail under the tutelage of the distinguished Vail Jazz Workshop faculty members.

Multi-instrumentalist Adrian Cunningham is one of many world-class artists who return year after year to perform at the Vail Jazz Party.
Steven Pope

Thursday’s opening night is the culminating performance of the student’s time in Vail. The students will perform at 6 p.m., followed by a performance by the alumni of the workshop and finishing with a show by the faculty members themselves.

“You literally get to see the progression from the very beginning of someone’s career in jazz, to the alumni who are right there in the heart and the meat of their career, and then the instructors, many of whom are Grammy-nominated artists touring the nation, come onto the stage and they just blow you away,” said Vail Jazz Executive Director Amanda Blevins.

The six alumni of the workshop will perform again in a special Sunday evening session called “Side by Side,” where they will play alongside the faculty members they once learned from.

“Last year was the 25th anniversary of our workshop, and we didn’t really get the chance to celebrate, so I want to pay homage to the faculty,” Stone said. “I want to put these people side by side, because these are like their children, and they’ve so impacted their lives that they should all be standing on the stage at the same time.”

The students will also be invited to sit in on the late night jam sessions, a purely improvisational performance that will take place each night at 10:30 p.m. on Friday through Sunday.

“For a 15-year-old kid who’s a trombone player to now be playing in a jam session with Wycliffe Gordon, who’s maybe the greatest living jazz trombonist, and they’re playing in front of the audience and it’s a total jam — that’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Stone said.

Late night jam with Niki Haris, a Vail Jazz Party favorite.
Jack Affleck

The Vail Jazz Party could not happen last year due to the pandemic, and it promises to have a special vibe, with old friends reuniting and artists getting to connect and create together after working alone for so long.

“It’s going to be the first time that I’ve seen so many of these guys in like two years, so it’s going to be a really amazing reunion, and with the community too,” Cunningham said. “Vail is such a great community of people. They’re really hip, they love the music, and you’re all in this little mountain town together so it’s a hang, it’s a party.”

For Stone, the ability for artists and community members to hang and take the time to get to know each other is one of the most special elements of the Vail Jazz Party, and he is thrilled to be bringing people together to share the love of jazz once more.

“There’s something that happens in Vail that I don’t think happens in very many other places,” Stone said. “Because it’s relatively small, and we keep it that way, there’s a sense of getting to be a family and there’s a palpable feeling of love and respect. If you talk to any of the artists, what they’ll tell you about Vail is that it’s a knowledgeable audience, they’re treated with a great deal of respect, and the hang is just fantastic.”

To learn more about the Vail Jazz Party and to purchase tickets for the sessions, visit

If you go…

What: Vail Jazz Party

When: Thursday, Sept. 2 – 6

Where: Jazz Tent in Lionshead Village

More info:

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