Jazz Aspen Snowmass finds its groove is ever-changing
August 26, 2011
SNOWMASS VILLAGE – You could say that Jazz Aspen Snowmass, which is about to conclude its 21st season, has hit the age of maturity.The organization has become an institution in the Roaring Fork Valley and a player on the American music festival scene, and like an enduring family patriarch, its influence is witnessed in ways that are obvious – the upcoming Labor Day Festival, which should attract more than 15,000 music fans to Snowmass Village this coming weekend – and not so apparent – like the JAS In-Schools Summer Camp, which, over three sessions this season, provided instruction to the area’s advanced young musicians. Jim Horowitz, a pianist and artist manager who launched the organization with a small, exclusively jazz-focused festival in 1991, has said that, if Jazz Aspen had disappeared after that first outing, no one would have noticed. That’s no longer the case; if Jazz Aspen were to fold now, there would be a glaring absence of a stage in the Aspen area for the likes of Neil Young, the Black Eyed Peas and Jack Johnson, and for Widespread Panic, Herbie Hancock, Willie Nelson and Wynton Marsalis, all of whom have made multiple appearances on Jazz Aspen stages.Yet for all its history and the widespread roots that have taken hold, Jazz Aspen can also seem like the typical 21-year-old: Though he has been granted all the privileges that bestow full personhood (“I drink, therefore I am!”), he is nevertheless still searching for an identity and direction. Take, by comparison, the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, which, at 38, has some years on Jazz Aspen. Fans intent on taking in that festival know to show up the third weekend in June in Telluride’s Town Park. They can buy their tickets well in advance, knowing with certainty what kind of music will be presented. They will even know that a handful or two of core Telluride pickers will be in attendance as festival anchors.Jazz Aspen is not like that. Due to geography, finances, the organizational mission, personalities, shifting relationships, the changing landscape of American music festivals and the distinctive characteristics of the upper Roaring Fork Valley community, Jazz Aspen has had something of a fitful existence. The June Festival, the organization’s first festival, has traveled from the Aspen Music Festival’s tent, out to Snowmass, and into downtown Aspen’s Rio Grande Park, before settling once again, three years ago, back into the Aspen Music Festival’s borrowed quarters, where it seems likely to stay. The Labor Day Festival seems relatively grounded in Snowmass Town Park, though it, too, has wandered, from its original perch a ways up the Snowmass ski area, and to Buttermilk for a year, when there was construction on the Snowmass Club’s golf course. As recently as two years ago, Jazz Aspen was floating the idea of relocating Labor Day for good to Buttermilk, which could accommodate larger crowds. Outside of its festivals, Jazz Aspen has seemed willing to try most any ballroom, conference hall, club and theater in the vicinity; of late, it seems to have found a suitable home for its intimate jazz shows in a downstairs room at The Little Nell hotel.Jazz Aspen has been similarly hard to pin down on musical style. But in this, instead of jumping around, it has been more of a continuous widening of the embrace. In the years when the June Festival was its only event, and Horowitz was trying to emulate the Jazz in Marciac festival, in the South of France, the sounds were almost pure jazz, with quick dips into the blues and New Orleans funk. But the Labor Day Festival was added in 1995, and among the headliners was Willie Nelson, which busted open the doors of genre. Jazz Aspen has since presented hip-hop (Kanye West), jam bands (Phil Lesh & Friends, a pair of two-night stands by Widespread Panic), country (LeAnn Rimes, Clint Black), reggae (Ziggy Marley, Alpha Blondy), and no shortage of older icons of classic rock (Bob Dylan, the Allman Brothers Band, John Fogerty, Steve Winwood, all of whom have appeared more than once).”I’d say it’s just evolving – like any 21-year-old,” the 57-year-old Horowitz, who serves as Jazz Aspen’s president and CEO, said one afternoon this past week outside the Red Brick Center for the Arts, where the organization has its offices. “The festival has grown in ways that were intentional and unintentional. We’ve always made an effort to find ways to be fresh and not just: ‘This is who we are and what we do.’ At Jazz Aspen, you can see artists we’ve had long-term relationships with, so there’s continuity in the mix. But there’s always an attempt to evolve and not just hold onto what we know.”The rate of evolution seems to have accelerated in the past year. After a Labor Day lineup last year that was generally seen as disappointing – among the headliners was Lynyrd Skynyrd, which features one member from its ’70s heyday; and there were bands that were spin-offs from the Dixie Chicks and the Eagles – Jazz Aspen formed an alliance with concert giant AEG Live, which will bring its muscle to the booking process. Joe Lang, Jazz Aspen’s longtime director of festivals and educational programs, was given the new title of executive director.The shift that will be most evident to concertgoers at this week’s Labor Day Festival (Friday through Sunday, Sept. 2-4) is the youth movement. Friday night has often been skewed for a younger audience, but this has usually meant acts like the folky singer-songwriter Jack Johnson and the funk-rocker Ben Harper – young-ish musicians playing in fairly well-established styles. This year’s Friday bill comprises Girl Talk, a mash-up artist who performs on a laptop computer, and Thievery Corporation, a group centered around two DJs, with a collection of singers from various world cultures. Other acts over the weekend include the Zac Brown Band, Michael Franti & Spearhead, Rodrigo y Gabriela and Fitz & the Tantrums, all of whom play in more or less traditional modes, but whose followings lean toward the younger side of the spectrum.Away from the mainstage, Jazz Aspen has replaced the Village Stage, which featured mid-level rock and funk acts, with the Electronica Stage, in the hopes that such cutting-edge acts as NiT GriT (not a side project of country’s Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, but a San Jose artist in the dubstep genre) and the 19-year-old electro-house producer Porter Robinson, will whip up a dance party on the outer fringes of the festival grounds.”We talked about this after last year’s Labor Day Festival. We thought we’d reached a point where Labor Day needed to lean a little younger,” Horowitz said. “This year, the younger audience is the bulls-eye for most of these acts. It was time to move the dial a bit.”For a certain type of concertgoer – including, possibly, the older crowd who buy patron passes and provide an outsized share of Jazz Aspen’s income – this year’s Labor Day Festival may produce some head-scratching. The only baby-boomer catnip on the schedule is Steely Dan (an act Jazz Aspen finally landed after a decade of pursuit). Fans who recall fondly Labor Day 1998, when Crosby, Stills & Nash, Bonnie Raitt, Taj Mahal and James Brown were on the bill, might be asking, Is this the same Jazz Aspen?
Marc Breslin, executive vice president of sales and marketing, who has been a key figure at Jazz Aspen for 16 years, says the organization is ahead of such fans. Jazz Aspen has always been looking at how it operates, and even more so in recent years, as the pool of big-scale music festivals has grown, the number of acts that appeal to a mass audience has shrunk, and the overall business of festivals has been drastically altered.”Probably more than ever, Jazz Aspen is searching for its identity,” the 61-year-old Breslin said. “In a world that’s changing, and with an audience that’s changing, we have to change with the times in programming and education. Personally, I think that’s healthy. A lot of organizations stay stagnant. But we’re looking at new strategies, new audiences, new ways of staying relevant. Sometimes you don’t even know you needed change – till you do it. Relevant for me has always been the buzzword. That doesn’t mean you can’t have Tony Bennett or Diana Krall. But this whole self-searching is great.”One definitive result of that seeking is that there are few Tony Bennetts and Diana Kralls out there – genuine jazz artists with enough star power to attract a few thousand people. Thus, Jazz Aspen long ago recognized and accepted the need to branch out, stylistically.”It’s been years since I thought of Jazz Aspen – if I ever did think of it this way – as being about my personal tastes,” Horowitz, who favors straight-ahead jazz and Afro-Cuban sounds, said. Given that Jazz Aspen draws on a relatively small population of potential concertgoers, shutting out any tastes or age groups didn’t seem a viable model. “Jazz Aspen is a community asset – we get that feedback constantly. We’re serving a community and it’s not that we have a particular artistic vision: ‘Sign on if you want, and if not, OK then.’ We’re trying to be broad-based – that is our M.O. A lot of arts presenters tend not to have such a diverse demographic. That’s the challenge and the opportunity that makes Jazz Aspen a living, breathing entity. When you take a program that ranges from Girl Talk to Steely Dan, that’s as wide as it gets.”Another firm discovery Jazz Aspen has made is that, if you look at the demographics, one group is most likely to part with a few dollars (a three-day pass for the Labor Day Festival this year cost around $150), drive a few hours, and spend six hours – maybe in intense sunshine, maybe in some storms – listening to music. And that group is more attracted to dubstep – a genre of electronic dance music – than to the Doobie Brothers (whose set at Labor Day 2009 can safely be filed under “oldies”). The evidence that the core audience for a music festival is around 16- to 25-year-olds came as early as 2004, when Jack Johnson, then a 29-year-old still in the early stage of his rise, made his Labor Day debut. In a surprise to Jazz Aspen, the show was a huge seller; it seemed as if the entire CU, Boulder campus had road-tripped to Snowmass. If Jazz Aspen didn’t get the full hint at the time, then it probably did in 2006, when rapper Kanye West performed. And the point was hammered home in 2009, when the hip-pop act Black Eyed Peas, at the height of their popularity, drew another monster crowd of young faces.”When Kanye West came onstage, the pitch of the screams was different – it was a younger group,” Lang said. “And it was the first time people didn’t see us as this older festival. We fully connected with a younger audience.”We have a little more work to do in defining our program. We don’t want to be an all-rock ‘n’ roll festival. We can’t be. Our job is to be a bigger palette than that.”Or as Horowitz put it: “Is there even such a thing as a boomer festival? I don’t think so.”
While Jazz Aspen might still be finding its identity, in terms of what kinds of acts it presents and where it presents them, in the area of personnel, it is firmly established. The threesome of Horowitz, Breslin and Lang, who make the main strategic calls, has been in place since the mid-’90s. Each has his own tastes, with Horowitz representing the more traditional musical wing, and Breslin, who regularly attends such festivals as Coachella, Lollapalooza and the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival to scout up-and-coming acts, on the vanguard.The three tend to see themselves as brothers, who may quibble over specifics, but also realize they are working toward a common goal. “We argue – but it’s healthy. If you always agree, why have three guys?” Breslin said. The three have, through the years, all found a way to get their vision into the mix. And, when necessary, the threesome has acted like a government with three branches, exercising checks and balances on the other. “No one just takes an idea and runs with it,” the 44-year-old Lang said. “We always run everything by one another. There are a lot of check points.”One thing they strongly agree on is that, while the organization is still in the process of defining itself, a major part of that definition has nothing to do with the two festivals by which the public defines Jazz Aspen. The educational programs – which provide lessons, instruments and concert tickets for local kids; stage the Band Battle in Basalt; and give assistance to area music teachers – are a core part of the mission. Lang went so far as to suggest that the biggest reason to have big names and big crowds at the festivals, especially Labor Day, is to maximize the amount of money that can be funneled toward the education programs. (The highest-profile education initiative, the JAS Academy, which brings top-level jazz players to Aspen, on full scholarship, for two weeks of intensive study, was shelved this summer. Lang said Jazz Aspen is looking at a financing structure that will bring the program, which has a 15-year history, back.) “We only push the festivals so they can feed the other programs,” Lang said.There is another point of overriding agreement in the organization – that the bottom line is to turn people on to music, whether it’s a 65-year-old part-time Aspenite getting the chance to see one of his heroes play hits from four decades ago, a Carbondale 12-year-old learning trumpet, or a pack of Aspen High School students angling to be part of the select few who get to dance onstage with Girl Talk. The artist and the genre and the age of the fan are secondary; the overarching goal is to nurture an audience that loves music.”We’ve come to understand that the way we define education is not just teaching young people how to play music. It’s also creating people who are passionate about live music,” Horowitz said. “A great festival is a blend of the expected and the unexpected. You’re not a great festival organization if you’re not hitting both those ends.”Toward that end, Jazz Aspen keeps its ears wide open, even if it means lacking a solid, stable identity. “We’re not locked into any particular artists, any particular style,” Horowitz said. “We’re not locked into anything. I wouldn’t rule out anything, not one thing.”That said, there are certain avenues that Jazz Aspen just probably isn’t going to go down.”If the conclusion were that the only thing anyone was interested in was heavy metal, I’d have to question what I was doing,” Horowitz said. “But that’s not happening.”firstname.lastname@example.org