Aspen Times Weekly: How Jazz Aspen landed Stevie Wonder |

Aspen Times Weekly: How Jazz Aspen landed Stevie Wonder

by Andrew Travers
Stevie Wonder has released 26 albums since 1962. Many consider the groundbreaking "Songs in the Key of Life" (1976) to be his masterpiece.
Courtesy photo |

If You Go …

Who: Stevie Wonder

Where: Jazz Aspen Snowmass Labor Day Experience, Snowmass Town Park

When: Sunday, Sept. 4, 7:30 p.m.

How much: Sold out

Booking Stevie Wonder to headline the Jazz Aspen Snowmass Labor Day Experience quite literally took 26 years of work for the local music nonprofit.

The pop music legend tours rarely. This year he scheduled just five performances around the globe — four of them at venues much bigger than the cozy 11,000-head capacity at Snowmass Town Park. So how did Jazz Aspen land Stevie Wonder?

It turns out that the organization’s long history of supporting jazz education — stretching back to the days of its Thelonious Monk Institute Jazz Colony — is what convinced the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer, according to Jazz Aspen founder and president Jim Horowitz.

The organization has periodically invited Wonder here over the past two-and-a-half decades.

“We really never got to first base,” Horowitz told me earlier this summer.

Last winter they invited him again for Labor Day. Knowing that Wonder was not touring but was doing a handful of one-off festival spots, they thought they might actually have a shot this time around.

“It was driven by the conviction that we’ve gotten to the point where they wouldn’t laugh at this,” Horowitz says. “We thought, ‘We can’t possibly afford him. He’s playing for 35,000 people in Napa and 100,000 in New Orleans. But maybe we should just try.’”

They made an offer (the sum of which Horowitz declined to disclose, only to say that it was a record high for the organization) and actually got a response from Wonder’s management team, which began a dialogue. They asked about what Jazz Aspen was, about its history, about the Labor Day festival, and such.

“It was clear to us that they were considering it and that was already like, ‘Holy shit!’” Horowitz recalls. “They usually won’t say anything or they’ll just say no.”

But as the calendar turned to February, communication went dark for a week. Without a lineup locked in, and without a definitive yes or no from Wonder, Horowitz was getting nervous. Eventually he sent a note asking if Wonder was seriously considering headlining this relatively small festival in the mountains. The answer from Wonder’s manager, Keith Harris, said: “In this case I recommended he do this because of the music education and the history of supporting jazz artists like Ray Charles, Herbie Hancock, etc.”

The next day Wonder confirmed for the festival. Proud, Horowitz has taped the email to his wall.

“This for me, was 26 years of work,” he says. “Some people don’t get our bigger mission. But people that are in the industry know the difference and our track record is there. … The fact that he said, ‘Yes,’ and why he said ‘Yes,’ is huge.”

Horowitz sees bringing Wonder to town as a turning point for the organization that will open new doors to new talent and will expand the Labor Day Experience’s international profile. He compared it to booking Bob Dylan for Labor Day in 2002, after which the caliber of acts stepped up a level and soon included the likes of Neil Young and Tom Petty.

“It’s a game-changer for us,” he says.

Booking Stevie Wonder also is personal for Horowitz.

As a kid in Florida, his mother barred him from going to rock and roll concerts. Once he was in college, he was free to go see what he wanted. The first big one the budding piano player went to was a 1972 arena show by Stevie Wonder in Columbus, Ohio.

“I’d never been to a concert before, and the thing that I remember is that he played every single instrument on stage and he played them great,” he remembers. “I’d never seen anything like it. He was young and gorgeous, and I was like, ‘Oh my God!’”

Forty-four years later, in April, Horowitz went to see Wonder headline the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. Wonder’s day at the festival was canceled due to torrential thunderstorms and flooding. But — thanks to a tip from a French Quarter waitress — he and his wife joined a few hundred very lucky people at a see a secret show that night featuring Wonder at the Royal Sonesta Hotel.

Unsurprisingly, Wonder ripped through an astounding set in that intimate space, as local music fans are expecting him to Sunday night.

“He’s not someone who shows up and gives a bad show,” Horowitz says.

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