René Marie and John Clayton crown Vail Jazz Party

This year's Vail Jazz Party offered a much-needed escape, especially after a sudden late summer heatwave that hovered over the entire East Coast. Despite its high-altitude levels, (which, frankly, took some getting used to), with Colorado's mountainous backdrop and idyllic charm, one was simply transported as they relished in the weekend-long festival.

Founder and lifelong jazz fan Howard Stone said that concept for the Vail Jazz Series came to him in 1995, during a "snowy night [with] too much wine." Stone also added that one of the main goals of the series is to "find young musicians, inspire them, and teach them to carry on the music that we love so much." The annual Labor Day weekend festival has since grown into a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organisation, dedicated to increasing audiences and creating educational opportunities for young people.

Some of its offerings include a jazz workshop series, comprising some of the country's top high school students, a music program called 'Vail Jazz Goes to School' for students based in Eagle County, and a free concert series offered several times throughout the year. This 24th edition of the Vail Jazz Party was a rousing culmination to over 12 weeks of live music through its summer Jazz Series, one that was needed (now more than ever), given the country's current political climate.

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The growth of the Vail Jazz Series is attributed to several factors, one of them being John Clayton (above). A student of Ray Brown, Grammy award-winner Clayton is not only one of the music's most sought-after double bassists, but also one of the country's leading jazz educators. For more than 20 years, Clayton has served as Director of the Vail Jazz Workshop. At the festival's kickoff on Thursday evening, Clayton sat alongside me in the front row and watched his students and alumni, like a proud father, share some of the lessons gained from his constant tutelage.

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Following an opening set from the Vail Jazz All-Stars, this year's Jazz Workshop students, the Vail Jazz Alumni Quintet (above) took to the Jazz Tent at Vail Square, the festival's main stage. For over two decades, the alumni band has been a great indicator of who will become the next crop of jazz voices. This latest installment of the alumni band, which featured bassist Zach Brown, saxophonist Hailey Niswanger and trombonist Jeffery Miller, did not break tradition. Notable past alumni who have since gone on to make their own mark in jazz include trumpeters Ambrose Akinmusire and Christian Scott [aTunde Adjuah], saxophonist Grace Kelly, and keyboardist James Francies. As Vail Jazz Party House Band closed out the first night, they not only set the overall tone for the festival, but more importantly, offered audiences a shining example of what decades of hard work and dedication to one's craft looked like, in the form of brothers John and saxophonist Jeff Clayton, trombonist Wycliffe Gordon, trumpeter Terell Stafford, drummer Lewis Nash and pianist Bill Cunliffe.

Another one of Ray Brown's prize pupils is none other than pianist Benny Green. As Green made frequent appearances throughout the weekend, his adeptness on the instrument was almost overshadowed by his modesty as he paid homage to an endless list of former teachers, band leaders and influences, including Brown, Art Blakey, and the underrated genius of pianist Walter Davis, Jr.

On Sunday evening, Byron Stripling's live set at the nearby Vail Marriott combined an interactive lesson plan with live performance, providing audiences with added insight into the genius that was trumpeter Harry "Sweets" Edison. A former lead trumpeter and soloist in the Count Basie Orchestra, Stripling learned firsthand from not only one of the orchestra's founding members, but also the go-to trumpeter for Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday and Frank Sinatra.

Another crucial element to any jazz festival are the late night jam sessions. Held from Friday through Sunday night at the Vail Marriott, the jam sessions offered much of the lineup, including Clayton, Green and vocalist René Marie (picture top) an opportunity to not only expound on ideas merely introduced during their live sets, but to also create a platform that encourages both aspiring and seasoned musicians, alike, to perform alongside one another and allow nothing but their inspiration to guide them. With fewer performance venues and more chances to catch this year's lineup, the Vail Jazz Party was truly designed with the jazz aficionado in mind.

– Shannon J Effinger

– Photos by Jack Affleck

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