Big band jazz is a hallmark of American culture, encompassing a wide range of exciting and sensual sounds – from sassy and brassy to velvety smoothness. Master trumpet player, and Dewey resident, Mike Vax, has lived his life immersed in the genre; he has played lead and solo trumpet with the legendary Stan Kenton and his Orchestra, in addition to the Clark Terry Big B-A-D Band. He has performed on more than 75 albums, with 20 in his name, and has appeared as a guest lead trumpet and soloist with symphony pops orchestras throughout the United States and Europe.
Thanks to Mike, Prescott is home to the Prescott Jazz Summit he founded in 1999. The colorful event from Sept. 30 to Oct. 2 draws jazz performers and enthusiasts from all over the United States. Following on the heels of summer concerts “Howlin’ in the Highlands” at the Highland Center for Natural History with Dennis Rowland and a “Tribute to Louis Armstrong, Al Hirt and the Legacy of New Orleans” at the Elks Opera House, the 2016 festival promises to be a jazz band blockbuster as well. (See below for details.)
Mike’s dedication to his craft paved the way for a lifetime of enviable achievements: performances with such jazz greats as Cab Calloway, Freddy Hubbard, Al Grey, Art Pepper, Louie Bellson and the Four Freshmen, to name a few. He’s also had the distinction of performing with the Glenn Miller, Harry James and Jimmy Dorsey Orchestras; the Beverly Hills Unlisted Jazz Band and the Dukes of Dixieland in New Orleans.
“Music has always been in my family,” says Mike. “We enjoyed listening to the big bands on the radio in the ’40s, and I also listened to the Metropolitan Opera with my grandfather, who was a huge opera fan. In school, I fell in love with the song flute [recorder] before I even got a real instrument.” He fell so hard, the music teacher quickly put him in the orchestra, giving him all she could manage to come up with – an old beat up cornet. In junior high, Mike switched to the trumpet, setting the stage for an extraordinary life.
His parent’s basement in Oakland, CA became the incubator for his burgeoning talent in. “I formed a band that included the accordion, guitar, drums and saxophone,” says Mike. Before long, he was immersed in a rich variety of musical organizations in high school, including band, orchestra and dance band.
Little did Mike know that two weeks at Stan Kenton’s Summer Camp at Indiana University at the age of 17, would alter his professional trajectory and light a fire that would never go out. “Kenton was the father of jazz education, and he started the whole idea of summer jazz camps,” explains Mike, who had the fortune of playing fourth trumpet for Kenton’s faculty band at the camp. “I was planning on being a symphony player before that, but after that experience, I decided I wanted to play with Stan Kenton. At the end of the camp, I told him I wanted to play in his band some day, and he told me if I wanted it bad enough, I would. … That changed my life.”
Band shells and bombshells
In 1966, Mike found himself at the unforeseen precipice of drama and danger. It all began after he was drafted and eventually landed in the Navy Show Band, which consisted of about 25 musicians. The band primarily traveled for the Navy to help recruit in the United States, but for five-and-a-half months out of the year they also traveled to South America for the State Department to support President John F. Kennedy’s Good Will campaign. Typical crowds for evening concerts were 15,000–20,000 people and the band did three to five concerts a day.
“In South America, the communists were trying to take over,” explains Mike. “Our bus was ambushed; they put bombs under the stage, which the secret service found. Another time a bus blew up outside. Sometimes they would throw bricks to stop our performances. In Chile, some people in the audience got so upset, they stomped one of the communists to death. Our orders were to keep playing no matter what they did to stop the performance.”
Life in the Navy Band became even more precarious. In the mountains of Chile, even with armored cars in front and back of their bus, band members had to dive to the floor in a second because of an ambush. “We had nothing to fight back with,” says Mike. “All we had was our instruments. We just kept going through the ambush and played that night. The upside of the experience was that the Navy Band was the first band in the history of the United States, not attached to a combat unit, to be awarded the Meritorious Unit Citation, a battle medal.”
A turn of events in 1970 put life into high gear for Mike and his high school aspirations materialized. While in the Navy Band at Treasure Island in San Francisco, he auditioned and landed the coveted job of playing trumpet in Stan Kenton’s band. Mike was elated, but a huge hurdle was at stake; the caveat was that Kenton wanted him to start before he was scheduled to be discharged from the Navy. “Stan called Washington,” says Mike, “and before I knew it, I was out of the Navy… four months early. I still to this day don’t know who he spoke to.”
The band played throughout the United States and Europe, from small jazz clubs to huge concert halls and famous ballrooms. “Kenton felt strongly about jazz education, so we coached high school and college jazz workshops three to four days a week in afternoons,” says Mike. “This was on top of our concerts in the evening.”
Burned out from the intensity of his career in l972, Mike realized how much enjoyment he garnered from working with students throughout the years. “I kept the contact info for every school we went to and I sent letters to about 300 schools,” he says. “Since then, my main source of income has been the workshops I’ve been doing with high school and college kids all over the world.”
Mike is blessed to live in a universe encompassing all the things he loves – making a difference with young people, working jazz clinics and camps, performing and spending time with his wife of over 40 years, Peggy. He’s done workshops and concerts in over 2,500 high schools, colleges and universities all over the world. He also founded Friends of Big Band Jazz, a nonprofit corporation that has awarded over $60,000 in scholarships to jazz camps and funds jazz programs in schools.
In 1997, Mike and Peggy visited a friend in the Prescott area and fell in love with the region. “We bought a condo in 1999 and some land for a future home.” That’s when Mike launched the Prescott Jazz Summit. In 2003 they sold them both and bought their current house, finally settling down in Dewey in 2010,when Peggy retired after 33 years as a middle school band director.
Currently, Mike leads his own groups: the Stan Kenton Legacy Orchestra, the Swing Shift Big Band in Prescott, the Great American Jazz Band, TRPTS (Trumpets) and the Mike Vax Quintet and Sextet. The Stan Kenton Legacy Orchestra tours every year for two to three weeks, performing in high schools, colleges, jazz clubs and concert halls.
“Mike has his own unique voice,” says lifetime friend and biographer, Mark Schwartz. “He doesn’t mimic others; he has learned and grown from others, but when he puts the trumpet to his lips, you know it’s Mike Vax.”
Prescott Jazz Summit 2016
WHO: Mike Vax – trumpet; Gary Anderson, Kim Richmond, Dave Russell and Tony Vacca – saxophone; Scott Whitfield – trombone and vocals; Jeff Colella – piano; Brian La Chance and Jack Petersen – guitar; Jennifer Leitham and Selwyn Reams – bass; Cleve Huff and Larry Kantor – drums; Ginger Berglund and Dennis Rowland – vocals
FRIDAY, SEPT. 30
Reception and Concert
WHAT: Music, food, prizes and other surprises
WHERE: York Dodge Chrysler Jeep Ram, 500 Prescott Lakes Pkwy, Prescott
WHEN: 5–7:30 pm
SATURDAY, OCT. 1
WHERE: Yavapai College, 1101 E Sheldon St., Prescott
WHEN: All day
Evening Gala Concert
WHO: Prescott Summit All-Star Big Band
WHERE: Yavapai College Performing Arts Center, 1100 E Sheldon St., Prescott
WHEN: 7:30–10 pm
TICKETS: $30-40 at ycpac.com/prescott-jazz-summit-all-star-band
SUNDAY, OCT. 2
WHERE: First Congregational United Church of Christ, 216 E Gurley St., Prescott
WHEN: 2 pm
TICKETS: visit prescottjazz.com or call 928-277-1576 or 484-558-0066
Evening Jam Session
WHERE: Murphy’s, 201 N Cortez St., Prescott
WHEN: 6:30–9 pm
TICKETS: Free. Call Murphy’s for reservations at
Visit prescottjazz.com for updates and details.