Originally Published: June 1, 2011 8:42 p.m.
The moment that Mike Vax put his lips to a recorder when he was in just the third grade, his destiny called.
His music teacher, he recalls, brought this particular musical instrument to class one day, and he got "so turned on" that he learned a semester's worth of study in three weeks' time. When he advanced to the elementary school's orchestra a semester earlier than normal, his teacher put in his hands "an old, beat up coronet," the only instrument left in her cache.
"I fell in love with it immediately," he said. "The trumpet found me. I didn't have a choice."
That "beat up" coronet determined Vax's career. After he graduated from the Conservatory of Music at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, Calif., he set out on the road with Big Bands and played lead and solo trumpet with the Stan Kenton Orchestra. He also performed or recorded with such greats as Art Pepper, Freddy Hubbard, Louie Bellson, Cab Calloway and the Glenn Miller, Jimmy Dorsey and Harry James orchestras. He now leads the Stan Kenton Alumni Band, which keeps him on the road months out of each year.
Vax's passion for jazz only grew stronger over the years, so much so that when he bought a home in Prescott 10 years ago, he teamed up with the late Clare Willey and launched the first Prescott Jazz Summit. When Willey suddenly died soon after that first summit, Vax knew he had to carry on.
"I thought, 'If I don't keep this festival going, Clare Willey is going to haunt me the rest of my life.'"
This year will be the 11th Prescott Jazz Summit, which traditionally takes place in August. This year's dates are Aug. 26-28. In 2010, jazz musicians from all over the United States, along with local musicians, performed in an array of venues around Prescott, as well as participated in educational presentation at area schools.
Three concerts will kick off the 2011 summit.
The first, "Howlin' at the Highlands," takes place from 3 to 5 p.m. Sunday at the Highlands Center for Natural History.
The afternoon of jazz will feature Count Basie vocalist Dennis Rowland, and the Mike Vax/Jack Petersen Quartet, with Vax on trumpet/flugelhorn, Petersen on guitar, Joel Robin on piano and keyboard bass, Tony Vacca on saxophone and Cleve Huff on drums.
Sunday's concert "will be very laid back - no far out jazz tunes," Vax said. The audience can expect melodies from the 1930s, 40s and early 50s, Broadway show tunes and standard tunes, he said - "the great tunes from George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin and Richard Rogers."
Any profits from concerts at the Highlands Center will go toward bringing music into the schools through assemblies and workshops, Vax said. "The whole gist is education."
He said he learned from Stan Kenton and others he played with that if jazz music is going to survive "we must get it to young people, we must get them to hear it and they must hear it live." CDs and YouTube don't give "the same feeling, the energy of a live performance," he said.
That jazz music is America's true art form, the only art form invented in this country, is a belief that Petersen shares with Vax's same fervor.
"It's about feeling, how much you love it," Petersen said. "You have to feel it. It's all about feeling."
Ticket prices for Sunday's concert are $15 general admission and are available online at www.prescottjazz.com, at the Highlands Center gift shop and at the door. The ticket table opens at 2 p.m. For more information, call 928-830-2462. The Highlands Center is located at 1375 S. Walker Road, south of Highway 69 in Prescott.
Future concerts this summer prior to the Prescott Jazz Summit are at 7 p.m. July 9 and Aug. 13.