Culture in the Vail Valley

When Jazz Hands have a mind of their own

Sometimes a person gives voice to his or her life calling before a plan even registers within one’s brain. Such was the case for Vail Jazz Festival Founder Howard Stone. Stone, a lifelong music fan who had attended numerous jazz parties organized by the late Dick Gibson, decided on a whim to throw his own jazz party in Vail on Labor Day Weekend 1995. Gibson, a musician, jazz fan and businessman, had been organizing Labor Day weekend jazz parties around Colorado since the 1960s, bringing in dozens of the nation’s top jazz musicians. He is even credited with masterminding the jazz party format.

“He developed this wonderful way of presenting music,” Stone says of Gibson. “His format was to bring in musicians, have them stay at the same place and perform jam session after jam session. It was a regular event over a number of years, in Colorado Springs, Aspen and Vail. Toward the end of his 30 year run it was in Denver. I was fortunate to go to many of them. I was really taken by it.” When Gibson passed away, while numerous copy-cat jazz parties sprung up throughout the nation and the world, Stone felt the void in Colorado.

“So, ’93 came along and there was no Dick Gibson jazz party. Then ’94 came and there was no jazz party,” Stone says. “It was a night in January 1995 and I went over to a guy’s house who was a resident of the Vail area – Les Shapiro. We were drinking wine and sitting in his living room listening to music. He said, ‘Boy, I really miss the jazz party.’ Between the two of us and the alcohol, we said, ‘Which one of us should do the jazz party in Vail?’”


It was Stone who grabbed the torch. He organized the inaugural Vail Jazz Labor Day Weekend Party in 1995 with 27 highly acclaimed musicians and numerous Grammy Award winners. The star-studded cast included John Clayton and his brother Jeff Clayton, Phil Woods, Tommy Flanagan, Jack McDuff, Slide Hampton, Bobby Hutcherson, James Moody, Joe Wilder and Jeff Hamilton. “It all started with too much wine in 1995. We lost a lot of money. But we had some of the greatest musicians on the planet there,” Stone recalls. “Something happened that basically is the heart of the story. When the weekend was over, there was a fateful meeting between myself and John Clayton.” That meeting would seal Stone’s future as well as that of the Vail Jazz Festival. When Stone met with Clayton, it was the Grammy-winning bassist who wondered aloud whether the Vail Jazz Party would be just another wonderful, but one-off, event.

“He said in all earnestness, ‘Do you think you’ll ever do this again?’ I can remember it like was yesterday,” Stone says. “I don’t know where it came from, but out of my mouth, came, ‘John, this is what I’m going to do with the rest of my life.’”

Stone went on to hear himself say that for the following year’s iteration of the Vail Jazz Party, he would like to add an educational workshop element, bringing in a handful of the nation’s top teenage jazz protégés. Clayton agreed to help.

Fast forward 24 years and arrive at the year-round extravaganza that is the Vail Jazz Festival. Evolved to include a whopping 70 world-class live performances including the Vail Jazz Winter Series, Club Series and Vail Jazz @ Vail Square, all of which feature an eclectic array of nationally and internationally acclaimed artists. As well, throughout the summer, free weekly performances at the Sunday Vail Farmers’ Market and Art Show, Riverwalk in Edwards and the Remedy Bar at the Four Seasons Hotel in Vail bring together top regional musicians.

The festival culminates with the Vail Jazz Party that still takes place over Labor Day weekend. The five-day event continues to feature a collection of as Stone said of the pilot event, “the greatest musicians on the planet” with an array of headliners each showcasing his or her unique style and talents for a harmonious explosion of group performances, multimedia tributes and one-of-a-kind jam sessions throughout five days and nights.


The Vail Jazz Party House Band John Clayton on bass, saxophonist Jeff Clayton, trumpeter Terell Stafford, pianist Bill Cunliffe and drummer Lewis Nash lead the charge. They also serve as mentors for an intensive Vail Jazz Workshop that precedes the party and is a highlight of Vail Jazz’s year-round educational programming–just one of the programs that strives to engage and captivate young minds in their most impressionable state of development.

And that’s where Vail Jazz Goes to School and Jammin’ Jazz for Kids, headed by local piano phenom, Tony Gulizia, comes in. Both programs deliver the inspiring sounds and stories of jazz music’s rich history and touch the lives of over 1,400 students each year, focusing on two critical areas of jazz education, introduction to the music and mastery-level performance.

Gulizia believes that the perfect time to foster jazz education is at an early age. “Kids in elementary or middle school can become a little more aware of jazz music while they may be getting ready learn to play an instrument,” he explains. “A hot number for Jazz Goes to School is Henry Mancini’s theme to The Pink Panther, Gulizia continues. “The kids hear a walking bass, they hear the swing style, they hear improvisation in one song. It has it all.”

It’s the Vail Jazz Workshop that brings 12 teenage musicians, carefully selected from a pool of nearly 200 applicants together, that is the pièce de résistance for the seasoned mentors: they pair two young musicians with a pro mentor for a week of intensive playing-by-ear training that builds to the Vail Square Thursday evening performance that kicks off the Vail Jazz Party. The teenagers transition from workshop students to Vail Jazz All Stars, launching a triple bill followed by workshop alumni-turned professional musicians and a blowout performance by the Vail Jazz Party House Band. Then it’s off to the clouds with the stars teaming up in spontaneous and transcendental sets.

It’s this performance, at Vail Square, that is a favorite of jazz party pioneer and mainstay, Jeff Hamilton. “You go into this mode of playing, making everyone sound as incredible as they possibly can,” he says, enthusiastically. “You feel like you could play forever.”