Jazz vocalist Veronica Swift made her first Telluride Jazz Festival appearance at the age of 10 with Dave Adam’s Young Razzcals Jazz Project and saxophonist Richie Cole. A former Telluride Student All-Star, Swift, now 25, is recognized as one of the top young jazz singers on the scene.
While Saturday will be her 11th performance in Telluride, Jazz Fest was the first time Swift sang for an audience of thousands.
“This crowd's energy really took me in and made me feel at home through the 10 years I've been appearing here,” Swift said. “It’s home.”
This summer marks the 25th anniversary of the student all-star program, which is directed by Professor Bob Montgomery, who’s led the program since its inception, and Josh Quinlan, a graduate of the inaugural program.
Each year the all-star program conducts a nationwide blind audition for talented students who submit recordings of their playing. The directors select up to 12 high school and college-aged applicants who arrive the week of the festival for rehearsals and evening jam sessions, before performing together throughout the weekend.
By the time Swift was 14, she’d appeared at Jazz Fest four times and looked up to the all-star ensemble students who performed every year.
“By the time I was 15 or so, Bob said I was ready to audition. So I did All-Stars ages 15, 16, and 17, and I met some of my very closest friends in that band,” she said.
Peter Bell, a long-time board member and executive director of the Telluride Society For Jazz for the past three years, believes that the student all-star program is the “heart and soul” of the festival.
“You’re giving young musicians the experience of being a real, professional, touring musician, coming together with people they’ve never played with before, sight-reading on the spot,” said Bell, who has sponsored the program for 20 years.
Bell added that jazz is music that is passed down from generation to generation by musicians playing with each other.
“It’s not learned from books,” he said. “It’s only learned by doing.”
Which is exactly how Swift learned to sing jazz music, having grown-up as the only child of two renowned musicians — the late jazz pianist Walter Howard “Hod” O’Brien, and jazz singer Stephanie Nakasian.
“As a child I was on the road with them,” Swift said. “While they were playing at clubs, I was running around backstage writing and making up stories. Touring with my parents and remembering the experiences with them is grounding to me. So is Telluride.”
After earning a bachelor’s degree in jazz voice in 2016 from the University of Miami’s Frost School of Music, Swift appeared as a headliner at Jazz Fest for the first time with the Eric Gunnison Trio.
While she’s still a young jazz vocalist, Swift said the music and its lyrics are timeless and she arranges her own songs to differentiate them from other recordings of a song.
“I pick songs that have lyrics that are relatable to people my own age, singing about life events such as moving to the big city and trying to make a new life,” she explained. “Or about returning to one's hometown and finding things are not how they used to be. Everyone at any age goes through this.”
Bell said Swift has a beautiful interpretation of song and she’s selective about the songs she performs.
“She really has feeling for lyrics,” he said. “When you think about all the great female vocalists, whether it’s Sarah Vaughan or Ella Fitzgerald or Billie Holiday, you can hear influences of them all in Veronica and yet her voice is very much her own.”
Swift will release her latest album "Confessions" Aug. 30, which she describes as “a musical diary.”
“This album literally tells my story,” Swift said. “About managing a new career that is taking off, as well as dealing with the problems that it brings in terms of trying to have a social life. Each song marks a different part of my story.”
Once the album is released, Swift will begin a world tour.
“I'll be hitting Shanghai for the Jazz at Lincoln Center club there, major cities in Australia, Paris, London, Rome, as well as major venues here at home like SFJAZZ Center, Blue Note and Monterey with Chris Botti,” she said. “Life is treating me very well.”
Montgomery will lead the Telluride Student All-Star’s 25-year reunion band performances today (Friday) at 3 p.m. at the Society Stage in Elks Park and on the main stage in Telluride Town Park at 2:30 p.m. Sunday. The student all-stars will perform on the main stage at noon on Saturday and again on Saturday at 2:30 p.m. in Elks Park.
Swift is scheduled to perform on Saturday afternoon at 1:30 p.m. on the main stage and Saturday night at 10 p.m. at the Liberty for a Jazz After Dark show. For more information, visit telluridejazz.org.