Getting jazzed at Jazz Aspen (and staying jazzed) | AspenTimes.com

Getting jazzed at Jazz Aspen (and staying jazzed)

Stewart OksenhornThe Aspen TimesAspen, CO Colorado

Stewart Oksenhorn/The Aspen TimesTrumpeter Terence Blanchard performs at Saturday's JAS@20! - part of the Jazz Aspen Snowmass June Festival.

ASPEN – Jim Horowitz, who founded Jazz Aspen Snowmass in 1991 and serves as the organization’s executive producer, says that Saturday night’s show at the June Festival is “a statement.” Not merely a statement that Jazz Aspen has survived into its 20th year, or that it has thrived, growing into a major regional festival with two annual events – the June Festival, whose 20th edition opens tonight, and the Labor Day Festival, which enters its 16th year later this summer – that has presented some of the biggest touring acts in the land.The statement being made with Saturday’s JAS@20! event is as much utilitarian as it is celebratory. The concert features vocalist Dianne Reeves, trumpeter Terence Blanchard, saxophonist Maceo Parker, guitarist Russell Malone, and Jazz Aspen’s distinguished artist in residence, bassist Christian McBride – all jazz players. As the organization commemorates a milestone year, it is also reminding an occasionally dubious public that jazz is not only in the name, but on the stage and in their mission.”For those who say, Where’s the jazz at JAS? there it is,” Horowitz said of Saturday’s concert. “It’s a statement of our commitment to the music. This is our birthday – and it’s a jazz show, and it’s all people who have been here before, most of them many times. We’re embracing our roots.”The hug will last the full weekend, and then some. The June Festival opens Friday at the Benedict Music Tent with New Orleans singer-keyboardist Harry Connick Jr., in his Jazz Aspen debut. On Sunday, Pink Martini, a modern jazz orchestra from Oregon, performs. Playing outside the tent each night is the New Orleans street band, Tuba Skinny.The action then moves into downtown Aspen, Wednesday through Friday, June 30-July 2. Among the musicians playing the Little Nell’s Downstairs at the Nell venue are McBride, trumpeter Nicholas Payton, saxophonist Loren Schoenberg, and bands that have been participating in this week’s JAS Academy educational program: H.5, Slumgum, the Soul Travelers, and Stacey Carter & “Her Trio.”The festival closes back at the Music Tent on Saturday, July 3, with vocalist Natalie Cole.From a close-up perspective, it’s odd that Jazz Aspen needs to pronounce its jazz bona fides. Jazz has always been a significant part of the mix on the big stage, and the June Festival has usually included a handful of small-venue shows exclusively spotlighting jazz. Jazz Aspen’s multifaceted education program, which reaches from local kids picking up their first instrument to artists in the early phases of their professional careers, is entirely focused on teaching the language of jazz. Horowitz notes that $5 million has been spent on the educational component: “It’s the quieter part of what we do. But it is the core mission of the organization,” he said.And Jazz Aspen has presented the top shelf of jazz artists, including Cassandra Wilson, Joshua Redman, Tony Bennett and John Scofield. Diana Krall and Wynton Marsalis have made multiple appearances. McBride, a 38-year-old who has been considered the top bassist of his generation for 15 years, has brought a variety of projects to Aspen, from electric fusion bands to a bass duo with classical-bluegrass pioneer Edgar Meyer. Keyboardist Herbie Hancock, who preceded McBride as distinguished artist in residence, took on a similar role, playing Jazz Aspen in a piano trio, in a duo with saxophonist Wayne Shorter, in a tribute to Miles Davis and John Coltrane, and with his pioneering jazz-funk band, the Headhunters.For most music fans, however, the sounds of Marsalis, McBride and Hancock tend to get drowned out by the big pop acts. Since launching the Labor Day Festival, in 1995, Jazz Aspen has presented Widespread Panic, Neil Young, the Allman Brothers Band, Bonnie Raitt, Willie Nelson, and last year, just when they had become the most popular act going, the Black Eyed Peas. One show by Jack Johnson can draw as many people as a full year of jazz performances. News that Widespread Panic is doing two nights over Labor Day sends an instant buzz around the country; adding a jazz great like Dianne Reeves does nothing of the sort.It prompts the questions from a lot of people: Does Jazz Aspen actually do jazz? And why call it Jazz Aspen if the majority of your audience comes for reggae, rock and country?••••Last question first. Back before music festivals were staged everywhere from Tennessee farms to Denver parking lots to San Francisco parks, there was the grandfather of them all, the Newport Jazz Festival in Rhode Island. Founded in 1954, Newport predates rock ‘n’ roll; the big style of the day, and the music Newport focused on was jazz. In the late ’60s, with rock thoroughly overwhelming jazz in popularity – and with rock and jazz players liberally borrowing from one another – Newport added rock bands. Similarly, Switzerland’s Montreux Jazz Festival, founded in 1967, and the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, launched in 1970, both began with a jazz format but quickly invited other genres to the party. Thus was laid the foundation for a jazz festival – a musical bash that featured, but was not limited to, jazz.”These days, jazz festivals are really about good music,” Horowitz said, quoting the founder of the Vienna Jazz Festival (which this year included soul singer Al Green, guitarist Jeff Beck, the electronica duo Air, and rockabilly singer Imelda May). “They’re really music festivals, and jazz is the moniker. Jazz festivals are the ones that really started this idea of multi-genre music festivals.”The multi-genre festival is not what Horowitz envisioned two decades ago. A manager of jazz acts, and an accomplished jazz pianist, Horowitz was all about jazz. He says he was thinking of a stylistically diverse event from the beginning, but in that first year of Jazz Aspen, the most far-flung booking was the Yellowjackets, an electric fusion band that most people would classify as jazz. Other acts included the Modern Jazz Quartet, Ramsey Lewis and Nancy Wilson, all straight-ahead jazz musicians.The progression was slow for a few years. In year two, Jazz Aspen presented New Orleans pianist-singer Dr. John, whose stew was roughly equal parts r&b and jazz. “That opened up the New Orleans thing,” Horowitz said. In year three, B.B. King added electric blues.”That evolution was gradual,” Horowitz said. “There was always a progression, if you understand jazz as this quintessentially American music. Gospel, blues, r&b all come out of that same bowl of America.”Two major factors drove the evolution of Jazz Aspen. One was the change in venue, in 1993, to Snowmass Village, where concerts were presented under a tent and at the Conference Center. The bigger, looser rooms allowed for amplification, bigger names – and dancing. In 1994, for the closing Sunday night show, Jazz Aspen booked the Neville Brothers. The band’s mix of funk and r&b caused a response that even the greatest contemporary jazz acts can’t match.”Everyone wanted to leave their seats and dance,” recalled Horowitz. “It became the start of a subtle move in our festival. You can’t just keep people in their seats. We need an outlet here. We opened a door, and once we opened the door we had to make it work.”The even bigger door was installed in 1995, with the Labor Day Festival. The inaugural festival was held outdoors, well up the Coney Glade ski run, but the big innovation was the bookings: Willie Nelson, Buddy Guy, Maceo Parker doing his funk act – and not a straight-ahead jazz act in sight. The first Labor Day Fest was a moderate success – because of the location, it was a logistical nightmare – but Horowitz could see the demand for a festival that was built on big-name rock, pop and country acts. There was no turning back. Over the next few years, with more suitable grounds at the entrance to Snowmass Village, Jazz Aspen presented Ray Charles, Bonnie Raitt, Bob Weir’s Ratdog and Ziggy Marley. As the festival proved successful, the level of artists elevated further to include Steve Winwood, Neil Young, Tom Petty and Widespread Panic. The pop element even infiltrated the June Festival, when Santana performed in 1997. After the June Fest moved to Aspen’s Rio Grande Park, in the mid-’00s, pop acts like Earth, Wind & Fire, the Black Crowes and Trey Anastasio, the guitarist from Phish, helped fill the tent.But jazz never got squeezed out; it was simply overshadowed. Jazz Aspen continued to book acts like Chris Botti, Wynton Marsalis, Herbie Hancock and Madeleine Peyroux. McBride has been an annual presence. The education element, while it has grown in size and scope, is still focused exclusively on teaching jazz. And with the June Festival moved, as of last year, back to the Music Tent, and with the discovery of Downstairs at the Nell as a promising venue for club acts, Horowitz sees the June Festival returning even more to its jazz-oriented roots.Entering its 20th year, Jazz Aspen is in the position of not only teaching jazz music, but also of educating its audience that the name Jazz Aspen is not a misnomer. Horowitz says it can be frustrating to have people often ask, Where’s the jazz? But he’s got a ready answer.”Just because people think of us as the festival that has Steve Winwood and the Allman Brothers doesn’t mean we don’t present the music wherever and whenever we can,” he said. “It’s the quieter part of what we do. It’s not the headlines, not, ‘OK, meet me Sunday night at the Allman Brothers show.’ But the person who asks, Why do we call it a jazz festival should just pick up our program and see who’s playing.”Horowitz says Saturday night’s show – which he likened to a Grammy-type production, with a band and various guests coming on and off the stage – is an ideal opportunity to further the jazz mission.”The people who misunderstand jazz, or think they don’t like jazz, nine out of 10 of them would love this show,” he said.stewart@aspentimes.com