Vail Jazz Festival spotlights a misunderstood style with education and music all summer.
By Phil Lindeman
The Vail Jazz Festival, a longstanding staple in the area’s summer music scene, isn’t your typical weekend-long festival.
Sure, there’s the marquee event spread across the four days leading up to Labor Day on Sept. 3, an 18-year-old tradition that attracts a handful of jazz’s most promising, inventive musicians to town each summer. But nowadays, as the signature project of the nonprofit Vail Jazz Foundation, the festival is a multi-month celebration of what foundation executive director Robin Litt calls “an American art form.”
“It’s fun to have people come out and enjoy what jazz is: an American experience,” says Litt, who works with foundation founder and artistic director Howard Stone to select musicians for nearly three months of concerts. “It has seeds elsewhere, but it really came into its own in America. You see that influence in the vast types of playing.”
The festival began in early June and ends on Labor Day. During that time, visiting and local musicians will give 40 separate performances – including three early-summer sets with renowned orchestra musicians from the Bravo! Vail Valley Music Festival – spread across five distinct venues that make the festival format unlike any other. The events are often free and highlight the most unique aspects of Vail: The weekly Sunday-night sets at Restaurant Kelly Liken pair perfectly with Liken’s sought-after harvest menu, while small jazz groups play in the Solaris plaza during the Vail Farmer’s Market on Sunday afternoons (the same place Liken finds local veggies to craft her evening menu). Such variety makes an ideal backdrop for jazz, a style known for unhinged rhythms, dissonant tones and boundless improvisation.
“Our mission is to perpetuate jazz and really reach out to young audiences, young musicians,” Litt says. “We do that by delving into a lot of genres, even some you wouldn’t expect, like swing or blues. Variety has always been a success with our festival events.”
Spreading an American sound
Like many of the artists and music lovers who return year after year to the festival, Litt is an avid jazz fan, and “variety” is commonly used by her and others to describe its appeal. Curiously enough, though, the musical form continues to be misunderstood in its birthplace. Tony Gulizia, a former full-time music teacher and pianist who headlines the band at Restaurant Kelly Liken, admits many newcomers are daunted by the unpredictability of jazz.
“The Vail Valley exposes people to a lot of different styles and events they don’t get anywhere else,” Gulizia says. “You never know what to expect when we have such a large pool of musicians in the area.”
Gulizia’s performances on Sunday evenings begin at 8:30 p.m. and end around 11 p.m., with a choice of cocktails or the harvest menu dinner as an entrance fee. He often leads two sets with his intimate group, the Tony Gulizia Trio, rounded out by as many as four or five longtime friends and musicians. He also invites a rotating guest artist and has worked with big names, including a recent set featuring Curtis Stigers, an internationally-known saxophone player with the top-10 hit “I Wonder Why.” In late July, he teamed with local vocalist Kathy Morrow, and has also unearthed such odd sounds as Lionel Young, a jazz and blues violinist from Denver.
Although the Tony Gulizia Trio tends to stick to recognizable standards – music from Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, John Coltrane and the like – Gulizia isn’t opposed to mixing things up.
“When people come to see the trio, they’re going to be exposed to a wide gamut of jazz, from Latin jazz to jazz standards to contemporary,” Gulizia says. “The thing I love about jazz music is the variety. I’ve learned the word ‘jazz’ can sometimes turn people off, but there is so much going on with it that I guarantee you’ll find something to enjoy.”
Along with his weekly sets, Gulizia also heads up the foundation’s cornerstone educational program. Known as “Jazz Goes to School,” it’s a sort of passion project for founder Stone, who was distraught to see jazz fall out of favor with young listeners in recent decades. Gulizia meets with every fourth and fifth grader in Eagle County School District, and covers the roots of jazz, basic improvisation rules and what makes jazz an important art form.
“It’s a fabulous program I’m glad to be a part of,” Gulizia says. “It’s one of the only of its kind in the United States. Howard is able to bring musicians in and we’ve been able to sustain the program for nearly 15 years. We’re always trying to educate.”
The festival’s most popular recurring events are the free Thursday evening performances at Vail Square in Lionshead. Set outside of the Arrabelle at the base of the mountain, they run weekly until Aug. 30 and attract a slew of renowned artists. July featured artists like The Falconaires, an 18-piece group from the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs that is one of the most decorated military bands in the country. This week brings the Tommy Igoe Sextet, a versatile jazz band led by the New Jersey native Igoe, who has played drums for Art Garfunkel and the original run of Broadway’s “The Lion King.”
As Litt and Gulizia mention, most casual listeners don’t associate swing with jazz. This misunderstanding is a hurdle the professional musicians of The Falconaires encounter when they travel the globe, from recruiting gigs in Florida to peacekeeping missions in the Middle East.
“People think of military bands and immediately imagine a marching band,” says Tech. Sgt. Marcel Marchetti, a trumpet player who toured with Celine Dion and Faith Hill before joining The Falconaires. “This is a big band and the No. 1 comment I hear is, ‘We had no idea you’d be as good.’”
At its Vail performance – what Marchetti calls a “highlight” of his year – the uniformed group entertained nearly 500 listeners with big-band standards, including many from Glenn Miller, who was an Air Force Major before becoming one of America’s most storied composers. The unexpectedly rich tradition of The Falconaires is a near-perfect metaphor for jazz. As an ambassador for the music, Gulizia is confident each festival performance will attract new converts to an old style.
“Once people understand jazz a bit more, they realize it’s not a painting you look at over and over,” Gulizia says. “It’s a one-time event – you can take a standard and make it different every time. People realize it’s a unique, impromptu, spontaneous thing. We communicate through music.”