Vail Jazz Workshop Alumnus Christian McGhee: Perfecting the art of creating great music on the spot

Vail Jazz Workshop alumnus Christian McGhee has expanded his musical repertoire as a composer and multi-instrumentalist.
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Editor’s Note: Over the past 27 years, over 300 teenage musicians have been transformed by the Vail Jazz Workshop. Many have gone on to become professional musicians, six of whom returned to Vail this Labor Day weekend to perform as Alumni Sextet at the Vail Jazz Party. Vail Jazz shares their stories here.

With his big winning smile and affable attitude, it’s impossible not to believe Christian McGhee when he says he’s in love with the Vail Jazz Workshop – the annual 10-day intensive jazz education program for 12 pre-teens. – North America’s most talented academics. , capped off by their performance at the Vail Jazz Party over Labor Day weekend.

One of two drummers in the Workshop contingent in 2014, McGhee’s Vail Jazz debut was warmly received by enthusiastic audiences, and with good reason: McGhee, then just 16, had already been playing drums for 14 years, with a host of “exceptional musicians”. soloist” awards to his credit. Now 23 and working on his master’s degree at the Manhattan School of Music on a full scholarship, the St. Louis native lives in New York and is an in-demand touring and session drummer. He has performed with jazz personalities such as Joshua Redman, Joe Lovano, Sasha Berliner, Sean Jones, Tia Fuller (another Vail Jazz Workshop alumnus) and Warren Wolf, and at prestigious venues such as the Newport Jazz Festival , Dizzy’s Club at Jazz at Lincoln Center, SFJazz Festival and Blue Note NYC. Most recently, McGhee has performed with trumpeter Keyon Harrold’s 1997 Workshop band.

Since participating in the Vail Jazz Workshop, McGhee has expanded his musical repertoire as a composer and multi-instrumentalist, mastering piano and keyboards as well as drums. It has also branched out into a wide variety of genres, including film and documentary music.

One of McGhee’s goals in attending the workshop as a teenager was to better understand the drummer’s role in energizing a band. Judging by the long and impressive list of major festivals and venues where he performed, he seems to have succeeded.

McGhee cites Jeff Hamilton and Lewis Nash among his main drumming influences, the latter being his mentor while attending the Workshop. “But I can’t leave out,” he hastens to add with a warm smile, “Marcus Gilmore and Obed Calvaire, who both set the bar pretty high in the drumming world.” Gilmore and Calvaire, now both highly acclaimed drummers, predeceased McGhee as students at the Vail Jazz Workshop by 12 and 16 years respectively. McGhee also recounted his excitement at working with all of the jazz legends – Festival instructors and performers – during his time at the Atelier.

“I learned a tremendous amount in my 10 days at the workshop,” McGhee said, “and my eyes were really opened to what separates great players from good ones. Part of that is developing the skills and the confidence to create great music on the spot, like Wayne Shorter or Miles Davis.

At the heart of the Vail Jazz Workshop, now in its 27th year, is the art of ensemble playing and improvisation, without relying on written music. No wonder the workshop, unique in this teaching philosophy, recently received the prestigious Jazz Education Achievement Award from Downbeat Magazine.

And now McGhee is relishing his return to Vail to play in a sextet of Workshop alumni over Labor Day weekend. These musicians from different years of the Atelier will take the stage at the Vail Jazz Party together as “Alumni Sextet”, along with members of this year’s Atelier class, the instructors of the Atelier and other world famous jazz musicians performing throughout the weekend.

Through it all, McGhee continues to cherish what he learned as a budding musician when he first came to Vail.

“Among the big lessons I took from the workshop,” McGhee said, “was the idea of ​​always playing like it was the last time you played… the importance of giving it your all every time. you get to play.”

“Vail made it easy for us,” McGhee added. “The support and sense of community…not just at the Festival, but in the community at large…made us all feel like we had family there. I can’t wait to perform in Vail again; it’s such a special place.”

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