One note at a time |

One note at a time

Cassie Pence
Preston Utley/Vail Daily Nick Jozwiak listens intently as jazz great John Clayton explains the art of playing by ear.

VAIL – The future of jazz is taking one giant step forward this week as an all-star lineup of jazz greats teach musical secrets to 12 gifted high school students hand-picked participate in the intensive Vail Jazz Workshop.”These are the kids that have the fire in their belly and are committed to the music. They will go on to get scholarships to colleges and go to the top music schools. They will become professionals,” said Howard Stone, founder of the Vail Jazz Foundation, which has organized the workshop since 1996 every year in conjunction with the Vail Jazz Festival.John Clayton, jazz educator, bass virtuoso and co-leader of the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra and the Clayton Brothers Quartet, is the director of the workshop. Joining him as instructors are Jeff Clayton, saxes and woodwinds; Terell Stafford, trumpet; Bill Cunliffe, piano; and Lewis Nash, drums. “These students are chosen. People have to invite you to audition, and that’s a huge thing in itself,” said Stafford, who is the director of the jazz department at Temple University in Philadelphia. Stafford said he wishes his students at the university had the desire these young kids have because it would make his job a lot easier.”It’s a dream come true for a teacher,” Stafford said.

What’s distinctive about this set of teachers is they share the same concept of music, rhythm and harmony. If the students aren’t comprehending the concept, because the teachers are a musical group, they can play the concept to drive home their meaning.”For me it was an opportunity to come work with John Clayton. He’s very good and has played with a lot of people,” said Max Stehr, 17, who plays bass at the Alabama School of Fine Arts in Birmingham, Ala.The teachers are also mentors. Every morning the workshop begins with a “rap session,” where the teachers share about their professional lives and give the students a chance to ask questions. It is often an anti-substance abuse talk.”It is more like a 12-step meeting. There’s not much cross talking,” Jeff Clayton said. Transcribing the musicThe five teachers are high-calibur performers in their own right, but it is their style of instructing that makes the workshop truly unique. There is no sheet music in these classrooms. The instructors are teaching them by oral tradition or by transcribing the music. One note at a time, the instructors are training the students to learn jazz standards by listening and repeating the sound with their instrument.

“We transcribe because it makes us more aware than others,” Jeff Clayton said. “Our ears get better.”Jeff Clayton said while your listening, you’re looking for little things people can’t write down on paper, like vibrato style.”Don’t transcribe the things that you like, only transcribe the things that you love,” he said to a student during private instruction. Jazz is a unique art form in that its roots are improvisation. Jazz artists of the 20th Century listened to each other, heard the music and then took those ideas and improvised on them to create individual sound. “That’s ear training, and that’s very, very hard to do,” Stone said. “That’s why our program is geared the way it is because we want to carry on that tradition. I sit in awe of these 15-, 16-year-old kids who work out these unbelievable complex arrangements on tunes that their just learning.”The jazz credo

Jeff Clayton teaches now because someone once taught him. These kids are special, he said, because they have the ability without the ego, so they’re able to be instructed.”A credo with jazz is to be open and free with information,” he said. “Only through information will you become a great player.”Sophie Faught of Franklin Central High School in Indianapolis is learning to improve her tenor sax solos. She felt her solos were stagnant to the point she was tired of hearing herself play. So she and Jeff Clayton made a list of several approaches to try out to change her sound.”Back home, I wouldn’t be able to explore the subtleties of music that I do here because the players aren’t as advanced,” Faught said.From behind closed classroom doors, the diligent students sure sound like jazz professionals, but their innocence is revealed when asked about future music plans. Most of the young musicians had the same humble answer.”I want to do what I love, play jazz,” said Alphonso Horne, who plays trumpet at Douglas Anderson School of the Arts in Jacksonville, Fla. The 2004 Vail Jazz Workshop scholarship recipients will perform as the Vail Jazz All-Stars during the Vail Jazz Festival Saturday at 3:30 p.m. and Sunday at 4:30 p.m. at the Cascade Resort and Spa’s Centennial Ballroom. For more information go online at or call 1-888-VAILJAM.

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