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Jazz on Three Summer Days, a Chat with Vita Muir

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photograph by Wendy Carlson for Litchfield Magazine

Summer 2011 marks the 16th anniversary of the Litchfield Jazz Festival, of which jazz DJ Dave Hershorin of New Orleans WWOZ radio says, “It’s what other jazz festivals wish they could be.”  Litchfield Magazine recently named LJF founder Vita Muir one of the 50 most influential people in the county.  RI’s Betsy Miller recently spoke with her:

Betsy Miller: How did you start this festival?

Vita Muir: I used to have a chamber music series in my living room.  Then I brought classical music to jails and hospitals and finally realized that the audience for this music was literally dying out. So I made the transition to jazz. I wanted to choose a form that I felt would go into the future.  Once we decided to go in that direction, I felt re-invigorated and couldn’t wait to get started.

RI:  So, how did you get yourself up to speed?

VM: Everything I do is a research project.  I hooked up with lots of people who could mentor me.  I traveled to New Orleans and met a guy who took me around.  I talked with Ken Woods on Long Island Jazz Radio.  I got people to send me CDs of musicians they thought I should hear.  Then I made myself two rules.  First, I wouldn’t book anyone I hadn’t heard live at least three times.  And, second, I’d always mix edgy new jazz with the more traditional true blue variety.  Our first festival featured Rufus Reed and a new kid named Diana Krall.

RI: In sixteen years, I’m sure you’ve booked some great acts.  Does someone else do that work now?

VM: No way.  I love to curate the Festival.  It’s my favorite part of the job.  I do a lot of “dog work” just so I get the pleasure of deciding what acts to show.  And we’ve had some great ones:  Ahmad Jamal, McCoy Tyner, Herbie Hancock, Marion McPartland.  Last year our headliner was Dave Brubeck.

RI: Who’s in the line up for this year?

Rural Intelligence ArtsVM: The Vijay Iyer Trio will be playing some cutting edge music.  The Bronx Horns play Latin Jazz and salsa.  Then we have the Dr. Lonnie Smith Trio.  He plays the Hammond B3 organ and has been around for years.  Now, his early stuff is being sampled in rap, dance and house groove pieces.  We also have Trombone Shorty.  He was nominated for a Grammy this year and has been in four episodes of Treme, the HBO series about New Orleans.

Also, we are very fortunate to have received the last Jazz Masters Grant from the NEA.  That allowed us to bring the Jimmy Heath (above in photo by Steven Sussman) Big Band and the Roy Haynes Fountain of Youth Band to the Festival.  Both those guys are in their 80s and have a huge jazz history between them.

RI: The jazz camp for young musicians that is a companion to the festival is a unique opportunity for students interested in jazz—the one truly American art form—to work with masters.  How did that come about?

VM: My passion is changing children’s lives though the arts.  The Jazz Camp cranks out 400 kids each summer who are interested in pursuing this art form.  We distribute $106.000 in scholarships and expose them to some of the greatest people in jazz.  Many of our performers this year will either teach classes or participate in clinics held during the weekend

Rural Intelligence ArtsRI: Tell us about your artist-in-residence Matt Wilson.

VM: Matt has appeared here 17 times in 16 years.  He’s an extraordinary drummer who has played with everyone from Wynton Marsalis to Dewey Redman and Cedar Walton.  He teaches at the camp and will be acting as M.C. in the “Artists Talks” Tent.  He’ll also be part of the Dena DeRose Trio and lead his own Quartet plus Strings.
RI:  What is your background?

VM: I studied writing and science in school.  I documented the medical results of the Apollo program before I came here.

RI:  Do you have a wish list of performers?

VM: I would like to hire a young man named Ambrose Akinmusire. He won the Monk competition this year.  I’d like to have Billy Hart, a drummer who is up there in years.  Donny McCaslin, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, and Benny Green.

RI:  What about jazz from other countries?

VM: I’m listening to lots of Brazilian performers.  We have a Cuban teacher at the camp, and I’m always interested in African jazz.  But they already have to be stateside before we can get them here.

RI:  Any other projects?

VM: We’re trying to get money together for a compilation CD.  We’ve got 16 years of material.  And I am starting a new research project on the effects of music on autism.  I also have a Poetry Project and we’re trying to build a fund for future jazz campers so that they can go on in perpetuity.  It’s all part of supporting jazz and children.


The 16th Annual Litchfield Jazz Festival
Kent School
Kent, Ct.
August 5 - 7
3-day VIP pass/$350; 1-day VIP pass/$150.00
Tickets/$22 - $83

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