Celebrating 25 years, Vail Jazz looks toward next 25 years with James Kenly as executive director | VailDaily.com

Celebrating 25 years, Vail Jazz looks toward next 25 years with James Kenly as executive director

Founder Howard Stone looking to set Vail Jazz up for future generations

Vail Jazz has worked to build a staff to help provide sustainability within the organization. Vail Jazz performances return in June.

Meet the Vail Jazz staff

James Kenly: Executive Director

Amanda Blevins: Development Director

Cara Loux: Festival Producer

Chris LeBoeuf: Marketing Manager

Brittney Wong: Development Manager

Connor Williams: Education and Festival Coordinator

Mary DiLuccio: Administrative Coordinator

Vail Jazz has come a long way since its inception 25 years ago, and the organization will be celebrating its founder Howard Stone and his wife, Cathy, all summer long.

While the seven-person staff at Vail Jazz — still led by Stone’s vision — is focused on presenting the biggest and best Vail Jazz Festival this summer, behind the scenes the organization is preparing for its next 25 years with the appointment of James Kenly as executive director.

Stone, a lifelong jazz fan with connections across the country, has essentially served in the role of executive director for 18 of Vail Jazz’s 25 years, with Mia Vlaar and Robin Litt briefly filling the role of powerhouse executive director’s pushing Stone’s vision for a couple of years.

“And then Howard and the board decided that Vail Jazz should outlive Howard. This should be something that the Vail Valley gets to have forever,” Kenly said in March before the final performance of the Vail Jazz winter season at the Sonnenalp in Vail. “And in order to do that, it had to grow and develop to be not so reliant on Howard.”

Both Stone and Kenly praise Vlaar and Litt for their tenures with the organization, a transformative seven years for Vail Jazz.

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“They took an organization that was effectively at zero and brought it into something substantial,” Kenly said. “They dug in and added a lot of bricks to the foundation.”

‘Ready to take on the next 25 years’

For two years, Kenly has been working toward this “dream” position.

“It’s a relationship built on trust, and it’s easier to trust someone when you’ve spent two years watching them perform,” Stone said of Kenly. “He’s demonstrated his willingness to work extraordinarily hard. He’s tireless. There’s a lot of people that come to this valley, but they don’t come up here to work.”

James Kenly and his wife, Kristen, are raising their family in the Vail Valley. Kristen is a teacher at Vail Mountain School, and James was recently named executive director of Vail Jazz. (Photo Special to the Daily.)

While Kenly is certainly a hard working leader — he can be seen early Sunday mornings throughout the summer setting up the Jazz Tent at the Vail Farmers’ Market — his Vail transplant story is similar to others. Along with his wife, Kristen, Kenly left life on the East Coast to escape to Colorado.

Growing up with a career in music management, Kenly considers his role with Vail Jazz a “dream job.”

“This is what I hope to do for a very long time,” he said.

From Stone down to Kenly down to the staff, the love for jazz and spreading the music radiates from the small staff that makes up Vail Jazz.

“I would stack up the seven people at Vail Jazz against any organization in this valley,” Stone said. “If you look around at the average age of our staff, they’re going to have the vision moving forward. The legacy is in tact, and it’s up to these guys to build upon.”

That legacy, spanning 25 years, includes memorable educational programs, world-class performances and more.

“Howard’s done a quarter century — and that’s all anyone should ask of anyone,” Kenly said with a laugh. “So we’re creating some sustainability in the staff and we’re ready to take on the next 25 years.”

‘That energy is infectious’

Amanda Blevins, director of development at Vail Jazz, has been working with Kenly since she started with the organization nine months ago.

Stone credits Kenly for bringing Blevins on board, but boasts that he himself was the one to seal the deal. Kenly and Blevins met through a mutual friend and met for coffee.

“We ended up talking for four hours over coffee,” Blevins said. “He’s pretty inspiring to work with and is such a great leader with a vision. He’s definitely pushing us forward and has such a fresh approach.”

Amanda Blevins is the director of development for Vail Jazz and is part of a seven-person team working with executive director James Kenly. (Photo Special to the Daily.)
Amanda and James

Chris LeBoeuf, marketing manager at Vail Jazz, was drawn to the organization because of the atmosphere created by Stone and Kenly.

“That energy is infectious and always there,” he said.

It’s amazing to think, Kenly says, that this staff of seven has jobs because of what Stone did 25 years ago. He said he was asked recently if Vail Jazz is going according to his plan.

“I laughed and said, ‘What plan?’ Twenty-five years ago, I had too much wine to drink one night and said why don’t I put on a jazz festival, and that’s literally how it happened,” Stone said. “And each year we added something, and now it’s a professionally managed organization with these young people with great vision and the capacity to understand what it takes.”

For Stone, and much of the staff at Vail Jazz, music is a huge part of life.

“I’m not a religious person,” Stone said, “but when the music starts, I think I get what someone gets in church — something takes over and I see all of the possibilities, and my soul soars.”

Under new leadership yet still led by Stone, Vail Jazz will continue to soar — a benefit for audiences in the Vail Valley.

Vail Jazz community

In addition to the staff at Vail Jazz, the organization thrives thanks to relationships built by Stone.

Tony Gulizia has been with the program for 21 years, running Jazz Goes to School, performing Sunday nights at The Remedy in Vail as well as at the farmers markets.

“When I think of Vail Jazz, the three people that come to mind would definitely be Howard, James and Tony G.,” Blevins said, adding that her husband remembers when Gulizia came to his school in the valley years ago, as well as her mother-in-law.

From left, James Kenly, Tony Gulizia and Connor Williams enjoy a moment during a busy Vail Jazz summer schedule. (Photo by Steve Pope.)
James, Tony, Connor

John Clayton is another musician who helps Vail Jazz operate. Clayton, a Grammy winner, helps lead the Vail Jazz Workshop — a program that brings 12 of North America’s most gifted and promising young talent to Vail for a 10-day workshop, culminating with a performance. In its 24th year, Clayton has helped mentor more than 250 musicians, many of whom go on to be leaders of the industry and returning to the Vail Jazz Festival as professionals.

“Jazz Goes to School couldn’t happen without Tony, and the Workshop couldn’t happen without that faculty,” Kenly said.

Vail Jazz is currently working on tracking down all 262 Workshop alumni for a project about the organization’s impact on the music industry.

More than 50 volunteers support Vail Jazz with over 700 hours each year. When Kenly first started, he noticed the dedication and passion from the volunteers, many of them longtime locals and supporters of Vail Jazz.

“Volunteers are such an important part of Vail Jazz,” he said.

With ticket sales accounting for 25 percent of the organizations overall operating budget, these world-class performances and educational opportunities are strongly supported by donors.

“We have a community of people who really care about each other, the music and the musicians,” Kenly said.

Vail Jazz is where it is today thanks to everyone who’s had a part in it over the past 25 years, Kenly says.

“There have been people who have done years of grinding to try to make it sustainable, and we’re finally there I think and we’re kind of realizing the fruits of all their labor,” Kenly said. “We have a team we need to do what we do well, and we have a blast.”

Assistant editor Ross Leonhart can be reached at 970-748-2984 and rleonhart@vaildaily.com. Follow him on Instagram at colorado_livin_on_the_hill.

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