Like any history, the history of jazz has been marked by some very notable females. There’s been Billie Holiday, Bessie Smith, Ellie Fitzgerald ... the list goes on. Of all the contemporary favorites bound to one day find a place on this iconic list, the 19th annual Vail Jazz Labor Day Weekend Party features some awe-inspiring potential candidates.
The five-day live music celebration is stacked with more than 30 of the country’s most highly acclaimed artists. From Shelly Berg’s History of Stride and Boogie Woogie to Byron Stripling’s tribute to Miles Davis, the weekend is, of course, bubbling with dynamic sets of straight-up jazz, but the lineup and styles also reach every possible corner of the rather vast umbrella of what we know as jazz music.
“You can really say to the few naysayers out there saying that jazz is dying, ‘Hey! Look at Vail,’” said Vail Jazz Party pioneer and director of education John Clayton. “What’s happened is, through the years, people have grown to trust (founder and developer) Howard Stone and trust his taste. There will be people the Vail Jazz supporters have never heard of, but they know they’ll always, always go home from a jazz performance and say, ‘God, that was great.’”
Among the greats at this year’s jazz party, here are five female artists who are unquestionable standouts.
Although some might consider gospel in a classification other than jazz, anyone who’s attended Niki Haris’ Gospel Prayer Meetin’ knows that the same elements that define the jazz genre are on fervent display.
“The word gospel means ‘good,’ and many voices speaking about one good. All races, all colors come together to be part of this spiritual celebration,” said Haris, who is a singer, songwriter, dancer and choreographer and will be performing several times throughout the weekend culminating in her 9:30 a.m. Sunday Prayer Meetin,’ featuring the Mile High Gospel Ensemble and, for the first time in history, including lyrics for the audience to not only clap along but raise their voices to.
“Jazz is about freedom of expression,” she said. “I’m so happy and proud that (Vail Jazz Party organizers) have taken a step out and made this gospel prayer spiritual meeting to be an integral part of this festival. Not only do they love jazz but they understand the core of it.”
Gospel is only one of Haris’ points of focus, as she has worked with everyone from Ray Charles to Mick Jagger and spent 18 years touring and recording with Madonna. Along with the Gospel Ensemble and several special guests, Haris delivers what’s arguably the highest energy performance of the whole festival, guaranteed to have everyone in the Jazz Tent on their feet, singing, clapping and swaying.
“I love the entire energy of the Vail Jazz Festival, but one of the best parts is that it is set in the most pristine, beautiful part of the country,” Haris said. “I always say God was having a great day when he made Vail, Colorado — or should I say she? The point is, this is the world we all want to see — everyone celebrating in their own way to whatever god they serve. We’re all here together.”
Performing several times throughout the weekend, Cyrille Aimee’s enchanting vocals have won her first place in the esteemed Montreaux Voice Competition and have also landed her on the list of the most acclaimed regular artists on the New York City jazz scene. With a French father and Dominican mother, Aimee has spent much of her life in both France and the Dominican Republic, and her singing style resonates with influences from each, with the hypnotic rhythms of traditional Domican beats and some spice of French gypsy swing. She also sings in four different languages.
Does the name Beyonce ring a bell? You may recall the international star’s unforgettable all-female band from such highlight reels as last year’s Super Bowl halftime show, and among this glittering group, Tia Fuller on saxophone was a standout. The Colorado native is also well-versed in piano and flute and co-directs Esperanza Spalding’s rising band, the Radio Society. Fuller was a student in the Vail Jazz Workshop in 1996 and is back at this weekend’s Jazz Party with the Vail Alumni Quartet to demonstrate to the valley just what heights she has reached with her talent and her career.
Another Vail Jazz Party favorite, Akiko Tsuruga has been known to spark audiences to attention by striding on stage in a traditional kimono and attacking her B3 organ as if it were the last night of her life. Since moving to New York City, the native of Osaka, Japan, has established herself as a crowd-pleasing mainstay at Jazz at Lincoln Center and has also won over many an audience headlining Birdland and Blue Note. She will be performing this afternoon and Monday in the Jazz Tent.
First lured by blues piano at the age of 14, Karen Hammack quickly embarked on her singer-songwriter career, incorporating elements of jazz, gospel, funk, soul and rock. He is now a master recording artist with a long list of original numbers that have been singled out for their heart-gripping sincerity.
Hailing from California, Hammack has worked with Jackson Brown, Michael McDonald, Bill Frisell and a slew of others. She recently released her latest, 14-track album, “My Beating Heart.” She delivers riveting solo performances today and Monday in the Jazz Tent and will also be the music director and pianist for Niki Haris’s Gospel Prayer Meetin’ on Sunday.
Shauna Farnell is a freelance writer contracted by the Vail Jazz Foundation.