The 12 concerts that defined Jazz Aspen’s first 30 years

Jazz Aspen Snowmass is marking its 30th anniversary this weekend, though not in the fashion music fans expected. Instead of the annual June Experience taking over downtown Aspen venues for a jammed weekend of shows, the festival is all-virtual due to the coronavirus pandemic. The in-person celebrations will wait until the 2021 editions of the June and Labor Day fests.

To track the organization’s three decades of history, we asked its founder and CEO Jim Horowitz to pick the moments he believes have defined Jazz Aspen.

1. Jazz in Marciac

August 1989

JAS 25th Annv. Book photos, Jazz in Marciac, 2011

“This is where the dream began,” recalls Horowitz. A visit to the tiny French town’s outdoor jazz festival – hosted in tents on a rugby field – inspired the concept for what would become Jazz Aspen.

2. Ramsey Lewis Trio

June 1991

The Original Ramsey Lewis Trio, 6/23/91 Jazz Aspen’s first festival.

The inaugural June festival included a reunion of jazz pianist Ramsey Louis’s group at the Benedict Music Tent, along with the local debut of Tuck & Pattie and free shows in Wagner Park.

3. B.B. King

June 1993


“This completely and overnight put us on the map,” Horowitz says. After two years at the Benedict in Aspen, the festival was lured to Snowmass Village – hosting shows in a tent at the rodeo grounds and in the Snowmass Conference Center, where King headlined. Major events were sparse in Snowmass then, but Horowitz believes the move gave the renamed Jazz Aspen @ Snowmass an identity, and B.B. King gave it a new legitimacy in audience’s eyes.

4. Tony Bennett

December 1993


The legendary crooner played a holiday Jazz Aspen show at the new Ritz-Carlton, capping a year where Bennett regained relevance through his Red Hot Chili Peppers collaboration and when Jazz Aspen scored a key behind-the-scenes breakthrough: gaining a major sponsor in the Colorado-based Janus Funds. The mutual fund would bankroll a new Jazz Aspen pop music festival over Labor Day weekend, attract new donors and in 1996 become the organization’s first title sponsor. Horowitz credited the Janus relationship for creating a “culture of giving” around the nonprofit, with robust fundraising from a local and national network of corporate and individual donors. Bennett would return to Jazz Aspen several times in the decades to follow.

5. Christian McBride & Ray Brown

Summer 1996


Jazz Aspen’s work in music education efforts bloomed with its first jazz academy in 1996, drawing teachers like bassists Ray Brown and Christian McBride, who today serves as artistic director of the JAS Academy.

6. The Headhunters

June 1997

Herbie Hancock
Herbie Hancock & the Headhunters, JAS June Festival, Fri. June 19, 1998.

The legendary Herbie Hancock reunited with his early ‘70s band for Jazz Aspen, holing up in the Silvertree Hotel for four days of rehearsals before a triumphant festival performance.

7. Diana Krall, Natalie Cole, Bonnie Raitt

June 2000


“Our tenth-year June festival was a critical and artistic triumph,” Horowitz recalls of the three-night “three divas” run. at The tenth June festival. “it was magic from the first note to the last, and no one wanted it to end.”

8. Bob Dylan

Labor Day 2002


Relocated to Buttermilk for the year, due to construction in Snowmass, the festival drew record crowds and its first international press for booking Dylan. This still buzzed-about show made Labor Day an attraction for heritage and classic rock acts, while making the music industry take notice of the festival.

9. The Black Eyed Peas

Labor Day 2009

JAS Labor Day Festival 2009
Sat. Sept. 5

Playing Snowmass Town Park at the height of their global popularity in 2009, Horowitz calls this “a top ten all time show, a triumph on every level.” Falling amidst the Great Recession, Horowtize noted, the show actually did not sell out.

10. Cyrille Aimee & Diego Figureido

January 2012


The JAS Café started in 2011 at the Little Nell, bringing cool and intimate seasonal jazz club to town that drew international talent like this French-Brazilian duo, who sold out a Sunday night midwinter show that set the standard for a decade of JAS Café. “It was an instant hit and it turned JAS into a year-round presenter,” Horowitz says.

11. Stevie Wonder

Labor Day 2016

JAS Labor Day Festival, Stevie Wonder, Sun. Sept. 4, 2016

“Despite years of presenting many iconic artists at JAS, Stevie took things to another level, including expectations for the caliber of artist JAS was capable of delivering,” Horowitz recalls. “It was, simply put, probably the single biggest show in the history of JAS, if for no other reason than the expectations it created for future and equally epic performances by other legendary artists.

12. Sting & John Mayer

Labor Day 2019

Sting, JAS Labor Day Festival, Sunday, Sept. 1, 2019

John Mayer, JAS Labor Day Festival, Saturday, Aug. 31, 2019

In the post-Wonder years, Jazz Aspen has sold out multiple nights over Labor Day and landed artists – like these two superstars – who had been on their wish list for years. These back-to-back performances yielded “yet another level of expectation” for Labor Day, says Horowitz.

AND … The JAS Center

Coming December 2021


The next chapter is in downtown Aspen above the historic Red Onion, where the JAS Center is due to open at the end of next year and begin hosting concerts and jazz instruction. Horowitz believes it will begin a new era for Jazz Aspen, saying “the successful conclusion of this grand project will be one of the biggest game changers in JAS history.”