Remembering Vail music icon Tony G
The man who never refused a gig spent three decades entertaining local crowds and teaching young musicians
In Vail, the name Tony G is synonymous with jazz music, but for the man himself, who died peacefully on Saturday, a look back at the Vail years might conjure stronger associations with his other passions, like family, fishing and making Italian sausages.
After all, Tony Gulizia had been a jazz fixture in Omaha for more than 30 years before arriving in Vail.
In hearing about Tony G’s death, jazz guitarist Dave Stryker recently took time away from his busy tour schedule to comment on the impressiveness of that career, which lasted another three decades in Vail after beginning 34 years earlier in Omaha.
The Dave Stryker Trio is currently on tour with Steely Dan, opening for the band on the 2022 Steely Dan tour.
“I was probably about 15 or 16 when I went to my first jam session at a nightclub in Omaha called the Generation Gap, this would have been in 1974 or 1975, and he was playing piano,” Stryker said of Gulizia.
Stryker started jamming with the group — it was his first sit-in on a jazz session. Along with Tony was saxophone player Bobby Thompson and Joey Gulizia, Tony’s younger brother.
And even at that early date, Stryker said, Tony G had already been playing live gigs in Omaha for a decade and a half.
“The Gulizia brothers were an Omaha institution,” Stryker said. “Their father was a musician and they started super early … they had a family band with Tony playing accordion.”
Joey Gulizia remembers the year, 1958, when Tony started playing accordion in their Omaha living room. Tony was 8 years old. A year later, Tony was playing accordion at gigs in Omaha with his father, a trumpet player, and Joey was singing.
“We would go to senior centers, and hospitals and perform for people,” Joey said.
A few years later, with Joey on saxophone, the band got serious.
“I was 10 years old and Tony was 13, and we were playing three nights a week in bars in South Omaha,” Joey said.
It’s the type of career even the Omaha legends find remarkable.
Omaha saxophonist Matt Wallace, who has toured with Maynard Ferguson in over 70 countries, calls it a “cradle to the grave” musical upbringing.
“The Gulizia brothers were doing grade school by day and jazz clubs at night,” Wallace said.
The most commercially successful song Tony G helped write, Wallace said, would probably be a Maynard Ferguson song on the album “High Voltage 2.” The song, “Omaha,” debuted in 1989, and before recording it in the studio, Wallace played it at a music festival emceed by Bill Cosby.
Cosby loved the song and made a joke about it to Wallace, saying, as recounted by Wallace “10 years from now somebody’s gonna walk up to you and say ‘You’re the guy that wrote that tune, what was it? Indianapolis! I love that tune.'”
Omaha was also the theme of an album Tony G helped write and record in Vail at Restaurant Kelly Liken.
When Tony G moved to Edwards in 1992, he quickly became a known friend to many in the valley with a personality that oozed infectious energy.
Tony’s college sweetheart, Liane, was now his wife and their three children yearned for the mountains and the outdoors as Tony had as a child, resulting in many trips to Colorado with his father.
Those trips continued for the family in Omaha; Tony’s son Nick says he remembers trips to Colorado with both his father and grandfather as a child.
Chief among the memories is the family fishing together, one of Tony’s passions. During those trips, “We would go fishing every single day, every single morning,” Nick said. “He always wanted to make sure his family was doing well, and balancing the gigs with family life.”
Eventually, the Colorado trip became permanent for the family when they moved to Edwards in 1992. Liane taught music at Edwards Elementary.
Tony found a gig right away at Grouse Mountain Grill, where he remained for 29 years. In addition to singing and playing piano, he serenaded guests at their table with his accordion. The gig quickly became a regular nightly performance.
When Dave Stryker visited the Gulizia brothers in Vail in the 2000s, he found Tony playing 9-10 gigs per week.
Nevertheless, Tony found time to record an album with his brother, Stryker, Victor Lewis on drums, Mark Luebbe on bass, and Bill Wimmer on saxophone at Restaurant Kelly Liken in Vail in 2009. The album is called “Project Omaha.”
“He never said no,” said Vail-area drummer Jake Wolf. “If he was available, he never refused a gig.”
Wolf said one of Tony G’s most impressive “all in a day’s work” moments came in 2012, when he opened for Snoop Dogg at Avon’s SnowBall Festival before high-tailing it over to Avon Elementary to play for then-Gov. John Hickenlooper.
Tony G, unsurprisingly, was accompanied by a large group of students throughout the whole affair. Among the students was a young drummer named Mario Alverez, who is currently traveling the globe with the U.S. Navy.
“He was so blessed to be able to play with some of the great musicians of the valley,” said Mario’s mom, Ingrid Alverez. “It had such a positive influence on his life. And his brother Liam now plays music as well.”
Wolf said Tony G was the first person he called that day to help with his “School of Rock,” which often received help from the man who never refused a gig.
“The Avon School of Rock was totally inspired by his Vail Jazz Goes to School program so he was always my first and second call for help,” Wolf said.
Tony G mentored the Vail Jazz Foundation’s Vail Jazz Goes to School for 25 years, and the Vail Jazz Foundation says the program will be long remembered as part of his legacy.
“Tony lived and breathed jazz,” said Amanda Blevins, the foundation’s executive director. “He treasured his students and understood the supreme importance of educating young people at a very early age in the intricacies and joys of jazz music. We are grateful for his contributions, his passion, and his charisma and will remember him fondly while carrying on his legacy through Vail Jazz Goes to School.”
Tony was also the piano accompanist for the Eagle Valley Children’s Chorale for seven years, with Liane as director. The family’s tendency to home in on educational projects came from their experience in Nebraska.
“We became very interested in music education and signed up with the Nebraska Arts Council way back in 1979,” Joey said. “We started to do artists in residence in schools throughout the state of Nebraska … we tried to do things where we could be supportive to young musicians and be a role model and show them that yes, you can actually make a living doing this.”
But in Colorado, while Tony G made a living from music, he also lived for his other passions. His son Nick said they made a regular fishing and hiking spot out of the Lake Creek area nearby.
On those fishing and camping expeditions, Liane said Tony would catch, clean and cook fish, but he wasn’t known to eat them. He had more taste for Italian sausages, which flourished later in life when he started a sausage business, Salsiccia Gulizia, selling traditional Italian sausage at the farmer’s markets in Minturn and Vail.
Along with the sausages came a serenade from Tony G, who would always bring his accordion to his booth.
Joey said Tony’s lifelong skills on the accordion were a testament to his upbringing in another era.
“In the 1950s, especially for people like us who had a small house and didn’t have room for a big piano, a keyboard to learn on was an accordion,” Joey said. “And it’s really a great foundation of music to learn on, with an accordion you learn about bass clef and treble clef and you learn about chords.”
Tony leaves behind Liane and sons Nick, TJ and Marc, along with grandchildren Clyde, 13; Ellis, 11; Olivia, 7; and Louisa, 5.