Vail Jazz Workshop alumnus Kyle Athayde: Jazz is all about family

Alan Tanenbaum, Special to the Daily
Today, Kyle Athayde is a multi-instrumentalist and teacher who resides in the San Francisco Bay Area and leads a big band that tours nationally.
Kerwin Lee/Courtesy photo
IF YOU GO… What: Live music by Vail Jazz Workshop Alumni Where: The Jazz Tent at the Arrabelle and the Hythe Grand Ballroom in Lionshead When: Sept. 1&3 as Sextet, Sept. 2-5 in various ensembles Cost: Individual/multi-session ticket prices vary More Info: Visit

Many of today’s jazz musicians got their first taste of music growing up with a parent or sibling who sang or played an instrument in the family home.  For Kyle Athayde, a Vail Jazz Workshop trumpet alumnus returning to Vail this Labor Day weekend to perform as a member of the “Alumni Sextet” at the Vail Jazz Party, music has truly been all about family.

One of Athayde’s three sisters was the concertmaster with the Rochester Philharmonic. Another played cello, trombone and bass. And the third, Eliana, is a bassist who attended the Vail Jazz Workshop in 2007, two years after Kyle did. The Workshop, now in its 27th year, is a 10-day immersive learning experience in Vail for 12 of this continent’s most talented pre-college age jazz musicians, and culminates in the students’ performances throughout the holiday weekend.

Rounding out Athayde’s musical family roots are his mother, who taught violin and viola at home while he crawled around on the floor listening to her students play Bach and Mozart; and his father, a jazz pianist and noted educator who played the Smithsonian Jazz Collection on a boom box in the elementary school boy’s room when he went to sleep and woke up. You might say that music has always been in Athayde’s blood.

Today, Athayde is a multi-instrumentalist and teacher who resides in the San Francisco Bay Area and leads a big band that tours nationally. In middle school he played drums and trumpet, and as a seventh grader he started playing vibraphone. When the Latin Jazz Youth Ensemble of San Francisco was slated for a 2001 local performance in tribute to legendary vibraphonist Cal Tjader, the ensemble needed vibe players and asked Athayde’s father for referrals. His father provided some names, then played a recording of Tjader’s “Mambo Inn” over the phone and had his son play along. The youngster got the gig.

When Athayde was in high school in Lafayette, California, his family started the Generation in Jazz Festival (now the Lafayette Summer Music Jazz Workshop) where he learned about the Brubeck Institute Summer Jazz Colony, which Athayde then attended. He also picked up several Downbeat awards and participated in the Grammy Band and Next Generation Band – which took him to Montreal, Japan and Croatia.

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The summer before his senior year, Athayde recalled, “I had the best, most memorable high school jazz experience — which was the Vail Jazz Workshop.” The Workshop, he said, “had the kinds of things that you’re used to doing in honor bands, only better. It wasn’t just good teachers, it was the Clayton brothers. It wasn’t just a cool place, it was the gorgeous place. It wasn’t just good players, it was the best players.”

But what left its mark the most about the Workshop, Athayde said, was the family-like atmosphere that surrounded it. From the host family that took him in and prepared “Mexican eggs” and desserts that he remembers to this day, to the down-to-earth and caring approach of the Workshop’s instructors and the welcoming vibe of the community, Athayde recalls the entire experience as “the most down-home it could have been.”

Take trumpet mentor Terell Stafford, for example, a “monster” of a player and a great teacher, Athayde said, “who cared so much about all the students.” During an evening performance at that year’s Vail Jazz Party, the applause Athayde received for a trumpet solo was overshadowed by the crowd’s enthusiasm when his colleagues hit high notes that Athayde could not reach. Afterward, Stafford sat with him for 45 minutes and helped him understand “how individual music is, and there’s nothing that you’re supposed to be able to do for anyone else.” And then Stafford helped Athayde improve his high notes.

“It was the perfect balance of consoling me and pushing me,” Athayde said.  “It’s that dichotomy of how everything should be the best possible, but it should get there through kindness and compassion.” Surrounded by his Vail Jazz Workshop family of mentors, Athayde found his groove.

After completing the Workshop, he attended The Juilliard School in New York City as a jazz trumpet major, and following graduation he stayed in the Big Apple for 12 years. “Everyone in New York who is anyone went to Vail,” Athayde said. It was there that he formed his big band.

A few years ago, Athayde returned to the San Francisco area where he continues to lead that band, did a duo recording with Workshop colleague and pianist Sullivan Fortner, and stays active composing, arranging, and writing by commission. Close to home, he has also been assisting his father as director of curriculum for the family’s jazz workshop. No wonder, since for this talented musician, jazz is all about family.

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