Wissot: All that jazz is a big part of the sound of music in Vail (column) | VailDaily.com

Wissot: All that jazz is a big part of the sound of music in Vail (column)

Jay Wissot
Special to the Daily

I saw Count Basie and his orchestra play at Basin Street East on New York City’s Lexington Avenue in 1963. I didn’t realize at the time how special that evening was. I was mostly interested in impressing my date with the fact that I could take her to a grown-up nightclub where the liquor laws in the city permitted 18-year-olds to drink.

The fact that we were sitting 4 feet away from one of the greatest jazz performers and one of the most famous jazz orchestras of the 20th century didn’t register with me. What a shame. I missed out on taking in the experience with the focus and attention it so richly deserved.

I don’t have that problem now, thanks to Howard Stone, our very own music man and the impresario extraordinaire who brought jazz to the Vail Valley in 1995. I don’t think there is another place in the country where top-shelf jazz talent assemble from the beginning of summer to Labor Day weekend to deliver stunning performance after stunning performance. The Vail Jazz Foundation brings jazz to us year-round, but it is during the summer months that a veritable explosion of music fills the warm air, day and night, indoors and outdoors, in venues large and small.

The culmination of all that jazz is the Labor Day weekend Vail Jazz Party held in Lionshead Village. Now in it’s 24th year, the party offers ’round-the-clock performances from renowned jazz musicians and 12 talented young performers.

The 12 receive scholarships to the Vail Jazz Workshop. This allows them to learn from virtuoso artists and master teachers for 10 intensive days. The kids are selected after a national search, and the scholarships, paid for through donations to the Vail Jazz Foundation, pick up the tab for all their travel and living expenses. They learn by day and, over the course of Labor Day weekend, jam at night alongside their illustrious mentors.

Some of the young people go on to have careers as professional musicians; many do not. But every now and then, one of them emerges to critical acclaim and makes his or her mark on the jazz world.

Take Grace Kelly, for example. In addition to having an unforgettable name, she has established herself as a respected alto sax player in the jazz clubs of New York City. Grace is an alumnus of the 2008 Vail Jazz Workshop. She has returned on several occasions for the Labor Day festivities, but now as a paid professional.

I went online recently to check out her upcoming club dates. Her schedule included Joe’s Pub in New York City in April; Yoshi’s Oakland club in May; The Aspen Art Museum in June. And it all began for her 10 years ago this summer in Vail.

In addition to the Vail Jazz Workshop, Stone has brought two other jazz programs to the valley: Vail Jazz Goes to School and Jammin’ Jazz Kids. The school program introduces jazz to every fourth- and fifth-grader in Eagle County. Directed by local jazz legend and noted music educator Tony Gulizia, the kids learn about the history of jazz and the essential components of modern jazz bands.

The program extends throughout the school year. It began 20 years ago and has reached more than 18,000 local school children. Jammin’ Jazz takes place on Sundays in the summer at the Solaris Jazz Tent. It was set up for kids ages 4 to 12, who learn to play percussion instruments and experience what it means to engage in jazz improvisation under the able tutelage of professional jazz musicians.

Both education programs were intended to bring a greater understanding of and appreciation for jazz music to future generations of jazz listeners. I guess they want to make sure that when a couple of drinking age enter a jazz club, they are there for the music and not just the booze.


I thought about Howard Stone and Grace Kelly and the Vail Jazz Workshop one night at one of my favorite jazz clubs in New York City. It’s called Smoke and is located on the Upper West Side, not too far from Columbia University. It’s a really small place. Can’t hold more than maybe 75 patrons. But what it lacks in size it makes up for in intimacy, charm and warmth.

I was there on a Monday night, when local talent come to jam well into the morning hours. It must have been around 1 a.m. when this young man with a horn took the stage. He brought his trumpet to his lips, and out came a breathtaking rendition of “Bye Bye Blackbird.” A stunned hush enveloped the room. He had blown us into appreciative silence.

I noticed a really old guy staring intently at the young trumpeter from a table a few feet from mine. The longer I looked at him, the more familiar his face seemed to me. And then I had it. It was 88-year-old Jimmy Cobb, the legendary drummer, best known for accompanying Miles Davis, John Coltrane, “Cannonball” Adderley and Bill Evans on arguably the quintessential jazz record, “Kind of Blue.”

I stopped staring and began hoping that Jimmy Cobb would go up to this young man and offer to help him like Howard Stone has helped the Grace Kellys of the world.

Jay Wissot is a resident of Denver and Vail. Email him at jayhwissot@mac.com.

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