Aspen Times Weekly: Jim Horowitz is back on stage |

Aspen Times Weekly: Jim Horowitz is back on stage

by Andrew Travers

If You Go …

What: ‘JAS 25th Anniversary Kickoff,’ featuring the James Horowitz Trio with guests Stacey Kent, Jim Tomlinson and Jimmer Bolden

When: Dec. 19 & 20, 7 & 9:15 p.m.

Where: JAS Café Downstairs at the Little Nell

Cost: $35

Tickets and more info:

JAS Café Winter Series

Nicole Henry, Jan. 2 & 3

Bria Skonberg, Jan. 16 & 17

Sara Gazarek, Jan. 30 & 31

The Headhunters, Feb. 12 & 13

Frank Vignola & Vinnie Raniolo, Feb. 26 & 27

Poncho Sanchez, March 13 & 14

Jon Cleary & His Trio, March 20 & 21

Tickets and more info:

Twenty-five years ago, as Jim Horowitz struggled to launch what would become Jazz Aspen Snowmass, he stepped away from his piano.

He had been working as a professional jazz pianist since he graduated from college in 1976 and settled in Washington, D.C., where Horowitz found a niche accompanying vocalists in jazz clubs. But when he came to Aspen in 1989 on a quixotic quest to start a mountain jazz festival, he stayed quiet about his past as a performer.

“I decided I was not going to try to be a piano player in Aspen, Colorado in any way, shape or form,” Horowitz recalls. “I pretty much didn’t even talk about it, because I knew it would be an uphill battle starting something and I didn’t want anyone thinking I was doing this as a way to pursue my personal ambitions, which I wasn’t. So I basically hid it. It was a blank slate.”

Over the last quarter century, his organization has grown from a small three-day summer festival into a year-round bedrock of the local arts community – expanding into two summer festivals, hosting A-list pop stars and classic rockers over Labor Day and booking a free summer concert series, while funding music education programs and jazz bands in local schools. It launched a “jazz colony” and expanded to California before being gutted by the Great Recession, only to be reinvigorated by embracing its origins as a Rocky Mountain haven for jazz, in the form of the JAS Café.

Other than a few exceptions over the years, Horowitz has kept true to his pledge not to be a piano player in Aspen. The 1968 Steinway Model M piano he bought at age 23, and played through his career in Washington, has remained in his home, but playing it has been a private pleasure.

As Jazz Aspen Snowmass begins its 25th season, however, Horowitz is taking center stage, opening the winter series at the JAS Café Dec. 19 and 20 with four piano performances, joined onstage by friends and fellow musicians.

“It’s a gathering of friends and a chance to hit the reset button and get back to my personal roots,” Horowitz says of the show, “because without those roots, JAS wouldn’t have happened.”

Jazz Roots

In Washington, Horowitz supplemented the meager income of a gigging jazz pianist by giving music lessons and working as an agent and manager for other artists. (Among the acts he managed was Jamaican jazz piano player Monty Alexander, who in recent years has become a regular guest at the JAS Café.)

“I was going every which way I could, with anything I could do in the jazz world,” he says of those early years.

By 1989, he’d hit a professional and personal lull, and found himself at a crossroads. He felt drawn to the business side of music and contemplated giving up performing.

“I decided, after being a professional musician for 15 years, this is not where I wanted to be in another 15 years,” he says. “As much as I loved it, and I’ll always love it, I just decided there was something else out there for me.”

That August, he attended Jazz in Marciac, the annual festival in southwestern France, and it changed his life.

“When I went to Marciac, the Red Sea parted for me,” he says. “I loved music and I enjoyed being a musician, and I wanted to stay in the jazz world, but doing something like this in the United States is what I needed to do next. And I thought, ‘Aspen is the place to do it.’ I could see it in my mind’s eye. I said, ‘I want to start a jazz festival in Aspen that looks like this.’”

A native of Miami, Horowitz had been visiting Aspen since childhood. His father worked in the restaurant business, and brought the Horowitz clan to Aspen to escape the sultry south Florida summers beginning in the early 1960s. They hiked, attended the classical music concerts at the Aspen Music Festival and lectures at the Aspen Institute.

In the ’80s, there was little opportunity to see jazz in Aspen, outside of occasional big band shows hosted by the Aspen Music Festival. Horowitz drew up plans for a jazz festival, but didn’t know who to show them to, or where to start getting traction in Aspen.

“My parents, they were never big shots, but they knew enough people that when I said, ‘Gee, do you have any idea who I would talk to about doing something like this?’ they knew who to talk to,” he recalls. “Whoever I talked to, they said, ‘Talk to the new guy.’”

The “new guy” was incoming Aspen Music Festival CEO Robert Harth.

Horowitz ended up on the phone with Harth, and outlined his vision for bringing Marciac-styled jazz concerts to Aspen. He pitched Harth on using the Benedict Music Tent the weekend before the summer’s classical concerts began.

“Eventually he said, ‘I want no part of this, but you seem very interested, so we’ll just rent you the tent for a few nights, you can do it yourself — good luck,’” Horowitz remembers. “I had no money, but now I had a venue. From there, I was a man on a mission.”

He began hustling to get musicians, money and local support, reaching out to Mayor Bill Stirling, he recalls, during the mayor’s regular “office hours” on a bench of the pedestrian mall. Horowitz also called on Jimmer Bolden, a former vocal student of his in Washington with whom Horowitz had frequently performed, and who remains a professional jazz vocalist today. Bolden’s day job, back then, was as a construction foreman, however, and Bolden offered his project management skills to Horowitz as he tried to get his Aspen jazz festival off the ground.

“If you’re trying to do something with so many moving parts — building an organization, with schedules and deadlines — a project manager who can build a building is a great person to have on your side,” Horowitz says. “He was right there next to me, because he shared the passion and love I have for music.”

Fittingly, Bolden will perform alongside Horowitz at his JAS Café shows this month, along with the husband-and-wife pair of Grammy-nominated vocalist Stacey Kent and saxophone player Jim Tomlinson, among other guests.

After two years of hustling, the first Jazz Aspen festival launched in June 1991 at the Benedict Music Tent, with headliners Tuck & Patti, Modern Jazz Quartet, Ramsey Lewis and Nancy Wilson.

“It happened and it was like a speed bump,” Horowitz laughs. “Nobody really knew anything had happened except those of us that were involved.”

But the shows went smoothly, and it was up and running. The second year, however, the festival ran up against the Food & Wine Classic, and it bombed.

“I was spiritually, mentally broken,” he remembers. “My friends and family all said, ‘Cut your losses,’ ‘Nice try, but you can’t pull it off.’”

He recalls a late night during that 1992 festival, in a hotel bar downtown, when he drifted toward an empty piano and began playing, Bolden soon joining in on vocals to entertain a crowd of Aspenites for the first time.

“People were like, ‘What the f–k, Jim? You play the piano?’”

Giant Steps

Snowmass Resort Association head Terry Hunt had reached out to Horowitz early on, inquiring about moving Jazz Aspen to Snowmass Village. Horowitz had scoffed at the idea originally. But four years into the project, with two festivals behind him and little more than memories and debt to show for it, he gave the idea a second thought and struck a deal with Snowmass.

The resulting agreement rebranded the festival as Jazz Aspen Snowmass and moved the 1993 festivities to Aspen’s sister ski town, where the resort association gave Horowitz a festival tent, marketing support, and some seed money. It also arranged for him an employee unit at the Creekside Apartments, which allowed Horowitz to move here full-time from Washington. That apartment served as his home and as the Jazz Aspen office for several years. The deal propped up the fledgling organization, launching a decade of expansion.

With the move to Snowmass, Horowitz incorporated the organization as a nonprofit at the urging of his brother, Jeffrey, a theater producer in New York who runs the nonprofit Theatre for a New Audience.

In 1994, the Neville Brothers played the festival and a group of the organizers of Jazz in Marciac visited to see the event they inspired.

“That year it really got on people’s radar,” Horowitz recalls. “It was a scene.”

Jazz Aspen Snowmass took over programming Snowmass’ free summertime Fanny Hill concerts in 1994 and launched the Labor Day Festival in 1995. From there, the stature of its performers grew along with the organization — Ray Charles in 1996, Santana in 1997, Crosby Stills and Nash and James Brown in 1998. Labor Day became a destination for classic rock acts, with pivotal performances like Bob Dylan’s at Buttermilk in 2002.

The nonprofit’s music education efforts began in 1996 with a grant from the Kaye Foundation, and inaugurated the JAS-Thelonious Monk Institute Jazz Colony, which has morphed into the JAS Academy five years later. In the years since, the nonprofit has granted $6 million to jazz education, put professional musicians in local schools, and launched programs like the District 8 Honor Jazz Band and, for young local rock bands, hosted the annual JAS Band Battle.

But when talking about pivotal moments for Jazz Aspen Snowmass, the Great Recession looms as large as any music legend. The nonprofit lost the corporate sponsorship for festivals soon after the economic crisis began in 2008. To save costs, it cut a day off of the Labor Day Fest, and brought the June Fest — which had moved to downtown Aspen — back to where it began in the Benedict Music Tent. The Jazz+ Festival — which Jazz Aspen co-founded in Sonoma, Calif. — folded. A Black Eyed Peas headlining show at Labor Day 2009 proved a high point for the end of summer festival, but crowds were thin the following year for Lynard Skynard and Wilco.

“We almost didn’t make it,” Horowitz recalls, adding with an uncomfortable laugh: “I started to think I may become a piano player again.”

He temporarily gave up his salary and the organization laid off long-time staffers in 2011. The year proved to be a turning point. The nonprofit partnered with music booking giant AEG to get acts for Labor Day, giving it a fighting chance in the increasingly competitive music festival market (attendance doubled over 2010 that year, with 23,000 concert-goers and Zac Brown Band headlining).

Also in 2011, Horowitz conceived of running a seasonal club series, hosting a variety of jazz acts, in the basement of the Little Nell hotel. As the organization had grown, Jazz Aspen Snowmass had presented less and less jazz — a letter to the editor in The Aspen Times referred to the 2009 Labor Day concerts as “Jazzless Fest” — and this new series, dubbed the JAS Café, promised to bring it back.

“It was as important to this organization as anything in the last 25 years,” Horowitz says. “It was gut-check time. It was basically like, ‘Why are we here? What are we doing?’ And the JAS Café was born out of answering those questions.”

The series was a hit, presenting acts — including the return of Tuck and Patti in 2012 — in a hip, dimly lit, 100-capacity room, with the shows becoming abuzzed-about happenings for locals and tourists in both summer and winter. Looking ahead, Horowitz says it’s a priority for the organization to secure a permanent home for JAS Café, whether at the Little Nell or elsewhere. The June and Labor Day events — officially dubbed “Experiences” rather than “Festivals,” beginning in 2014 — have found permanent homes in the Music Tent and Snowmass Town Park.


Horowitz recalls a party for donors at Lita Heller’s home with legendary jazz pianist Herbie Hancock in the summer of 1997, when the nonprofit was hosting Hancock as an artist-in-residence. As Hancock gave a speech, the crowd called for him to play a song on Heller’s piano, and Hancock obliged.

“Herbie sits down at the piano and he starts to play,” Horowitz recalls, “and I don’t know what happened, but somebody shouts out, ‘Herbie, not bad, but did you know Jim plays piano?’”

At Hancock’s urging, a bemused Horowitz sat down and played a four-handed duet with Hancock, and Horowitz began to slightly soften on his hard-line “no performing” stance. Two years later, Horowitz played with Bolden and a handful of guest musicians at the Wheeler Opera House to benefit the Monk Institute. In 2001, he performed at another Wheeler benefit, titled “My Friends Can Sing.”

Other than occasional salon-style gatherings in his home, he didn’t perform publicly again until last winter, when trombonist Wycliffe Gordon’s piano player was delayed from a sold-out JAS Café gig, and Horowitz sat in on keys during the first set.

“So I played the second half of his first set, then his regular pianist — who is a monster — arrives,” Horowitz recalls. “So a bunch of people got to hear me and they’re like, ‘Oh, he’s a decent jazz player.”

After word got around about his surprise stint on-stage — his first in more than a decade — his friends and staffers began needling Horowitz to perform during Jazz Aspen Snowmass’ 25th anniversary season.

A quarter century of running a nonprofit — and attending to all the paper-pushing, glad-handing and fundraising the job requires — doesn’t appear to have dulled Horowitz’s passion for music. He always speaks at an uptempo pace, yet he talks a little faster when you get him going on new musicians he’s bringing to Aspen, or the shows he’s recently seen on scouting missions. This winter’s lineup at the JAS Café includes Bria Skonberg, a trumpet player Horowitz first saw earlier this year at the Hot Jazz Festival in New York, and Sara Gazarek, a singer Horowitz is proud to call an alumni of the JAS Academy, along with Herbie Hancock’s old bandmates the Headhunters.

Horowitz has been practicing for his own upcoming gig at the JAS Café, for which he’s planning a mix of Brazilian jazz and jazz standards, with some blues mixed in. But he appears to take more pride in the upcoming shows during which he won’t be on stage.

“I’m not quitting my job to play piano again, because when you look at this list,” Horowitz says, thumping his hand against a poster of this winter’s lineup on the wall of his office, “I am not a peer of these people. I don’t have a discography and I’m not nominated for Grammys, nor will I be. But the 25th year, obviously it’s a time of reflection. As I’m trying to make sense of this whole thing, it feels like it’s appropriate.”

Aspen Times Weekly

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