By Christine Benedetti | May 22, 2015 | Culture
After a quarter-century of laying down Aspen’s backbeat, Jazz Aspen Snowmass keeps the groove alive.
The Benedict Music Tent, at Aspen Music Festival and School, has been the stage for some of JAS’s biggest acts since the very beginning, in 1991.
When Jazz Aspen Snowmass started its annual music festival, it was one of only two events of its kind in the country. Nowadays, music festivals are on a meteoric rise. All across the US, music fans can find curated weeks and weekends filled with everything from rock to hip-hop to bluegrass. Increasingly, festivals are also blurring these distinctions by mixing genres together in one collection, catering their programming to fans of multiple styles, and becoming more inclusive. Even festivals of jazz, one of the more guarded genres in music today, have opened their doors, and realized the benefits.
“I never thought, I’ll start a jazz festival and it will be 100 percent jazz all the time, every show,” says Jim Horowitz, JAS president and CEO.
Jazz Aspen, as it was then called, began in 1991, modeled after a similar program in Marciac, France. It spanned two days and featured a sit-on-the-lawn-and-sip-wine affair at Aspen’s Benedict Music Tent. That year, the Ramsey Lewis Trio, Tuck & Patti, and Nancy Wilson performed.
“It was to be one weekend at the beginning of the summer on the music festival grounds,” says Horowitz. “That was as far as I could see or dream at that point.”
Two and a half decades later, the weekend at the tent is still a cornerstone in JAS programming—but now one of many. Besides the two-week festival in June, the nonprofit hosts its three-day Labor Day Experience featuring some of the country’s hottest chart-topping acts, along with an intimate jazz club in the basement of The Little Nell called JAS Café. The festival has also adopted a philanthropic role. To date, it has raised more than $6 million for music education in local schools and introduced initiatives like Pays to Play, which gives kids a chance to take introductory private music lessons, and Step-Up, which helps them graduate their instruments as they improve.
Although Horowitz has largely stuck to jazz—he is himself an accomplished pianist who opened the anniversary season with a December performance at JAS Café—the genre crossover has led to performances by Kid Rock, Kanye West, and Widespread Panic. (Snowmass Town Park, which holds up to 12,000, allows JAS to entice big names in the industry; in Aspen, the 2,000-capacity Benedict Music Tent lends itself to more intimate shows.)
“I’ve always had a very close relationship with JAS,” says four-time Grammy-award winner and jazz bass virtuoso Christian McBride. He first visited as a clinician with JAS Academy, helping orchestrate camps for teenagers planning to study jazz, and hit it off with Horowitz. He was asked to lead the program the very next year as artistic director. He held the position for 10 years, stepping down in 2010.
“So many of the world’s leading musicians came through that summer camp,” he says. “It really was an incubator for musicians early in their careers.”
That includes drummer Ulysses Owens Jr., who now plays in the Christian McBride Trio, which will take the stage (though without Owens) at JAS Café on July 22 and 23. McBride will also deejay the festival’s major fundraiser on July 17, Le Freak Lounge, which will feature ’70s hitmakers Chic (and is named for their 1978 disco burner).
The JAS Café, which started in the winter of 2010, is a “game changer,” says Horowitz. Shows there have become fixed dates on Aspen’s jazz calendar, though Horowitz will continue to develop its year-round presence. (JAS will introduce a venue to its Café series this summer with three weekends of performances at the new Aspen Art Museum.) In addition, the June and Labor Day festivals have developed their own vibes and identities while still complementing the whole of JAS’s summer scheduling. But it’s that diversity, says Horowitz, that adds to the richness.
“Music can be delivered in a lot of different settings, from small to large,” he says. “And that’s what makes music beautiful.” 970-920-4996
PhotograPhy by Leigh VogeL/getty images