Jazz Aspen: From humble start to festival powerhouse | AspenTimes.com

Jazz Aspen: From humble start to festival powerhouse

Stewart Oksenhorn
Under a sliver of a rainbow after a passing storm, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers took the stage at Jazz Aspens 2003 Labor Day Festival. Aspen Times photo/Paul Conrad.

In lavishing praise on the Sonoma Jazz + Festival, which made its debut in northern California over Memorial Day weekend, the Oakland Tribune noted that attendees could “be excused for thinking Sonoma Jazz + had just celebrated its 20th anniversary.”In a sense, they were off by only five years. While Sonoma Jazz + is still an infant, its parent, Jazz Aspen Snowmass, which is credited as associate producer of Sonoma Jazz +, is all grown up as it enters its 15th season.Jazz Aspen’s June Festival, the organization’s original event, opens this week in a space it has claimed as its own, a grand tent in downtown Aspen’s Rio Grande Park. The Jazz Aspen Labor Day Festival, expanded this year to five nights to accommodate a two-night stand by jam band Widespread Panic, expects to draw a massive 40,000 fans in September.But there was nothing grand or massive about Jazz Aspen’s beginnings. No one would have mistaken its first festival – held in quarters borrowed from the Aspen Music Festival and featuring such modest draws as the Modern Jazz Quartet and Tuck & Patti -for a 20th-anniversary bash. And surely no one attending the second festival, in June 1992, would have thought they were experiencing a seasoned, mature event; the concerts and galas were marred by electrical outages, security breakdowns and food shortages.

“Jazz Aspen was as good as dead,” said founder and executive producer Jim Horowitz, able now to look back with some measure of fond remembrance.The resurrection began with a relocation. Horowitz counts the 1993 move to Snowmass Village as the first in a series of significant events. Having staked out its own territory in a field at the base of Snowmass, Jazz Aspen climbed the rungs by presenting bigger names, with increasingly satisfying results. Horowitz’s own list of bar-raising moments includes almost annual additions: The launching of the JAS Academy, a training ground for top-flight younger artists, in 1996. Santana’s appearance in 1997. The 1998 festival season, with B.B. King, a reunion of Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters, Crosby, Stills & Nash and Bonnie Raitt. The 2000 season, with Joe Cocker, Diana Krall, Lyle Lovett and the Allman Brothers. Bob Dylan at the 2002 Labor Day Festival.From the outside, it has looked like a series of uninterrupted steps forward. But Horowitz doesn’t see it the same way.”The public sees what is better: ‘They created something new, something felt fresh.’ That’s a great compliment,” he said. “From our microperspective, we always see what could be better and wasn’t. If I look over the last seven years, there are blips and levels. There are festivals that are better than others.”Last year’s Labor Day Festival probably falls into both categories. Cold and wet weather persisted almost throughout the weekend, causing David Byrne to play an abbreviated set and Sheryl Crow to arrive hours later than planned. Still, attendance was higher than ever by a wide margin, led by the 11,000 fans who showed up for the opening-night headliner, acoustic rocker Jack Johnson. The record attendance had to be especially gratifying given the bad weather – which Jazz Aspen had assumed would be a crowd-killer – and the weak state of the concert industry last year. And Jazz Aspen is virtually certain to see another record at this September’s Labor Day Festival.

This, of course, is eons beyond the original vision. Horowitz, a former agent and manager, returned from France’s Jazz at Marciac in 1989 believing he could approximate in Aspen what he had seen there: a jazz-centric festival in an exquisite setting far from an urban center. Somewhere in between Santana and Neil Young, he saw that reality had surpassed his dreams.”It’s not even remotely close” to what he had originally hoped for, said Horowitz. “I was thinking of just a nice festival in the Aspen music tent.”Jazz Aspen isn’t just bigger but qualitatively different than what was planned. Horowitz hardly imagined that crowd control, gigantic sound systems and beer sales would rival booking artists for his attention. The fact is that the acts who have drawn the biggest crowds are those that have drawn the youngest crowds: Jack Johnson, Blues Traveler and Widespread Panic to come. At the same time Horowitz, a jazz pianist himself, has no desire to abandon his original target audience.”The challenge of our festival is trying to stay relevant to everyone,” he said. “We’re way past a niche; we’re a number of niches. We really have different audiences. Each night, it’s a question of who are we talking to tonight? With Jack Johnson, the median age was 25; with Steve Miller and Lyle Lovett, the median age was 45. We want to be relevant to both those groups. We want to straddle the fence.”In appealing to all tastes while maximizing attendance, Horowitz has learned a trick or two. Most evident is that younger music lovers can and will blow off weekday responsibilities to travel to Snowmass, while older crowds generally don’t. Hence, Widespread Panic gets a Thursday/Friday booking in September, while Saturday and Sunday are given to a Loggins & Messina reunion and Willie Nelson, respectively. Some lessons are learned the hard way: Jazz Aspen underestimated the appeal of Jack Johnson, who appeared with opener G. Love & Special Sauce, to Colorado 20-somethings, and the huge crowd meant long lines at the gate.”It’s been an education, and it remains that way,” said Horowitz. “I’m still learning about audience tastes in Colorado, in this valley. I’ve been in music all my life, and I’ve personally learned more music in this job than I could have imagined in my wildest dreams.”

Even further beyond those dreams was exporting the Jazz Aspen model to California. But two years ago, San Francisco developer James Z. Pugash inquired about Jazz Aspen staging an event based on the June Festival in Sonoma, in the heart of northern California’s wine country. Jazz Aspen ended up handling everything from programming to building the festival site. The four-day festival, which included headliners Tony Bennett, Steve Winwood and Diana Krall, drew some 15,000 concertgoers in addition to garnering positive reviews in several local newspapers.”It was tremendous exposure for our brand, who we are and what we do,” said Horowitz. “You couldn’t dream up a better credit to our organization. It was a great reality check.”Now that he oversees three festivals in two states, Horowitz has had to adjust his vision for his own life. “I don’t play as much piano or as much tennis as I used to. My plate is staggeringly full,” he said. “But I feel my life has a purpose. I never get over that feeling.”

The 15th annual June Festival runs Thursday through Sunday, June 23-26, in Rio Grande Park.The festival opens Thursday with a double bill of British reggae band Steel Pulse and soul singer Isaac Hayes, both making their Jazz Aspen debuts.Friday, June 24, has headliner David Byrne and opening act Yerba Buena, both of whom played in Jazz Aspen events last year. Byrne, the former Talking Heads frontman, was set to perform a set featuring the Tosca Strings at last summer’s Labor Day Festival before inclement weather forced him to perform a shorter gig with a stripped-down band. Byrne tries again with the Austin-based string section, with whom he recorded the 2004 album “Grown Backwards.” Yerba Buena, a New York-based pan-Latin band led by Andres Levin, performed late-night and free shows at last year’s June Festival. The band has a new CD, “Island Life,” due out July 12.Jazz vocalist Dianne Reeves opens for Bobby McFerrin, who will perform as a solo vocal act, Saturday, June 25. The festival closes with Boz Scaggs, with Marcus Miller opening, June 26. Scaggs, who played a jazz-oriented set at the 2003 June Festival, returns with his all-hits show. Bassist Miller, whose recent album “Silver Rain” features contributions from Eric Clapton and Macy Gray, makes his first Jazz Aspen appearance.The JAS After Dark series at the Belly Up opens with keyboardist Ramsey Lewis’ trio on Wednesday, June 22. Singer Maria Muldaur plays an early show Thursday, June 23, and opens for New Orleans horn band Bonerama at a midnight show the same night. Guitarist John Scofield, with bassist Steve Swallow and drummer Bill Stewart, is set for Friday, June 24. Groove band Robert Walter’s 20th Congress plays Saturday, June 25, and Roger Clyne & the Peacemakers, with Shurman opening, appears Sunday, June 26.

Los Angeles funk-rap band Ozomatli is featured in Jazz Aspen’s JASummerNight Swing event, July 23, at the base of Aspen Highlands. The event, a benefit for Jazz Aspen’s education programs, will also include five student bands, dinner and more.Jazz Aspen will also present a series of concerts at the Belly Up during the JAS Academy week in late July. Vocalist Nnenna Freelon performs July 20. Academy artistic director and bassist Christian McBride leads his trio, including pianist Geoff Keezer and special guest DJ Logic, in a show July 22. New Orleans Latin jazz band Los Hombres Calientes are set for July 27, and the series concludes with pianist Chuchito Valdes July 29.The Labor Day Festival, Sept. 1-5 in Snowmass Village, opens with two nights of Widespread Panic. Also on the bill are South African singer-guitarist Johnny Clegg Sept. 1 and New Orleans jazz-funk band Galactic Sept. 2, with an additional act to be announced for each day. The Loggins & Messina reunion tour stops at the festival Saturday, Sept. 3, with Willie Nelson and funk band Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe scheduled for Sunday, Sept. 4. Additional acts, including a headliner for Monday, Sept. 5, are still to be determined.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com