Jazz Aspen’s June Experience moving from Benedict Tent to multiple venues downtown this summer

Latin jazz percussionist Poncho Sanchez and an eight-piece band performing at the JAS Cafe at the Cooking School of Aspen in July 2016. The JAS Cafe's success was part of the inspiration for the changes to the JAS Junefest format.
Lynn Goldsmith/Aspen Times file

The Jazz Aspen Snowmass June Experience is leaving the Benedict Music Tent in 2019 and planting its flag in downtown Aspen.

After a decade at the 2,000-seat West End concert hall that also is home to the summer-long Aspen Music Festival season, Jazz Aspen is reimagining its June event as a four-day, multi-venue festival featuring as many as 15 artists playing more intimate venues in the walkable downtown core.

Jazz Aspen President Jim Horowitz said Tuesday that the shows will be comparable with the ones featured in the nonprofit’s popular JAS Cafe series, which hosts artists working in jazz and related genres at pop-up venues like the Little Nell hotel and the rooftop cafe at the Aspen Art Museum.

This reimagined Jazz Aspen June Experience will run from June 20 to 23. Jazz Aspen will host concerts at the established JAS Cafe venues at the Nell and the museum, with hopes of confirming the Aspen Cooking School, St. Regis, Belly Up, Harris Concert Hall and adding other stages to the mix.

“We are looking for unique collaborations,” Horowitz said. “Hopefully a lot of things will pop out, in terms of collaboration, that we’re not thinking about yet.”

The festival’s long-running collaborative concert with the Aspen Music Festival, scheduled for June 29 with a yet-to-be-announced program, will stay at the Benedict.

In 2020, as Jazz Aspen celebrates its 30th anniversary, the festival is planning to host the downtown June Experience in conjunction with Benedict shows.

Festival organizers expect to tally a cumulative attendance that is on par with the crowds it has hosted since 2009 at the Benedict, only spread across multiple venues seating a few hundred people or less.

The decision, Horowitz said, was based on the popularity of Jazz Aspen’s seasonal JAS Cafe, which runs through the summer and winter high seasons. Horowitz said he and his team began mulling the June festival shift as they realized the season-long attendance of the JAS Cafe, totalling some 8,000 concert-goers, was nearly doubling the 4,5000 typically attending the June Experience at the Benedict.

“What’s driven this is the explosive growth of the JAS Cafe series,” he said. “It’s changed the way we approach June fundamentally.”

Horowitz imagines a long weekend full of concerts, with attendees walking from show to show.

He compared his vision for the multi-venue downtown festival to the old days of the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen, when comics took over venues throughout town, and the way that the Food & Wine Classic fills the downtown core, when, as Horowitz put it, “You can’t be in town and not know it’s going on.”

He imagines people planning out a full festival experience, hopping from low-key afternoon panel discussions to vibrant concerts late into the night.

“We’re taking 2019 to establish ourselves downtown,” he said. “To let the town and the venues be the star, where you can’t go one block without running into music or hearing something. Music everywhere.”

The move downtown coincides with the nonprofit’s recently launched JAS Center plan for the Cooper Avenue pedestrian mall, which aims to open a music venue and education center there by 2021.

The new approach in 2019 will not include the big-name pop stars that the June festival has long relied upon to draw crowds.

“There will be no Joe Cockers or Tony Bennetts on the roof of the art museum,” Horowitz said.

The trade-off, he said, is rather than a handful of pop star headliners — last year they were Leslie Odom Jr. and Lyle Lovett — the festival will boast a greater number of artists from a variety of genres.

“It feels fresh for us, but it’s not out of thin air,” he said. “We’re taking venues that people know and programing them together over a couple days rather than every couple weeks. It’s like taking a whole season of the Café and cramming it into one weekend.”

Events will run from afternoon through early morning, including artist talks and staggered concerts featuring artists from jazz, soul, Latin, blues, funk and world music. Free performances, in the mold of the popular “lawn party” at the Benedict, also will continue downtown, according to Horowitz.

The lineup of June Experience artists is expected to be announced later this winter.

This move is the fourth change of venue for the June festival since it was founded in 1991. It had been held in the Benedict and surrounding environs of Aspen Meadows since 2009. Previously it was produced in Snowmass Village and in Rio Grande Park in Aspen.

Festival organizers have tinkered often with the format — adding the free lawn party concerts in recent years and, in 2018, bracketing two nights of concerts in the Benedict with JAS Cafe shows downtown and adding a free gospel concert on Sunday morning in the tent.

“It’s a metamorphosis that’s been underway for a while,” Horowitz said of the latest format.

General admission passes will allow attendees to access all venues. Some single-show tickets also will be made available.

The donor/VIP accommodations, which in recent years have offered patrons catered meals and an open bar in a tent on the Benedict grounds, will include a cocktail party or dinner at a different location downtown each night. VIP perks also will include reserved seating and artist meet-and-greets.

People who have already purchased “Blind Faith” passes for the festival — which offer a discounted price on tickets before artists are announced — may choose a three-day pass to the new festival, a full refund or a credit toward future Jazz Aspen tickets.

Jazz Aspen’s other big summer festival, the Labor Day Experience, is sticking with its long-established format in Snowmass Town Park. Headliners including Sting and John Mayer have already been announced.


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