Jazz Aspen Snowmass’ new June Experience has staying power
After nearly three decades of entertaining the masses and hosting some of the biggest names in music, Jazz Aspen Snowmass went back to its roots this past weekend and reinvented itself at the same time.
And now there’s no going back.
The 29th JAS June Experience was a pleasant and surprising departure from the traditional festival that’s been held under one tent featuring daily headliners and a few opening acts.
Instead, it was three days of music at six different venues with more than 10 shows to choose from at night.
And judging by the crowds, the performances, the musicians and the vibe around downtown Aspen on Friday and Saturday nights, it was the ultimate experience that JAS President and CEO Jim Horowitz was hoping for.
“This weekend was a transformational weekend for us,” he said Sunday afternoon in between two New Orleans jazz brunch shows featuring Wycliff Gordon and friends. “It exceeded our expectations.”
Throughout the weekend, it seemed that at every turn, the sounds of blues, jazz, soul, funk, R&B and dance music filled the downtown core as people shuffled from one venue to the next.
The Skye Gallery on the corner of Cooper Avenue and Hunter Street was transformed into an intimate performance space that was standing-room only Saturday afternoon for guitar duet Hispanica.
Just minutes after that show ended, a bigger crowd gathered a few blocks away at the St. Regis for trumpeter Bria Skonberg and her band.
Then it was a choice between Richard Bona at the Aspen Art Museum, or Patti Austin at the St. Regis.
Simultaneously, blues legend Taj Mahal and his quartet jammed out at a packed Belly Up for the first of two performances Saturday night.
Around the corner, Victoria’s Espresso cafe was turned into a nightclub of sorts with people spilling out onto the sidewalk Friday and Saturday nights to hear Organ Freeman and the Jamison Ross B3 Trio rock the house.
In between it all, Jose James took the stage for a Bill Withers tribute in front of yet another standing-room only venue at the St. Regis on Saturday night.
An outstanding performance by Booker T. Jones and his band attracted big crowds at the Belly Up on Friday night with two shows.
“He killed it, it was heroic,” Horowitz said, adding that having the buy-in of Belly Up owner Michael Goldberg was key to entire experience. “We want to thank Michael for seeing the vision in this.”
The weekend was certainly a different energy and vibe than what the JAS June Experience has traditionally offered, and it did not go unnoticed by concertgoers.
“When people are pissed we hear about it … if people are happy we hear about it and the instantaneous feedback this time was ‘we love it’ with no ‘buts’ and usually I hear a lot of ‘buts,’” Horowitz said. “What’s beautiful about this format is you can dial it in your way. … It’s about discovery and it’s really user friendly.”
As Horowitz pointed out in the festival’s program, the weekend of music was inspired by in part by JAS’ nomadic existence.
Since the first concert in 1991, the June festival has moved venues six times — from the Benedict Music Tent to a few locations in Snowmass to Rio Grande Park in Aspen and back to the Benedict, where it had been for 10 consecutive years until this year.
The decision to change it up completely was based on the success of Jazz Aspen’s JAS Café at the Little Nell that runs during the winter and summer high seasons.
The JAS Cafe series attracts around 8,000 people a year, which is more than double the attendance for the June Experience at the Benedict tent.
Horowitz likened the new format to that of the old HBO Comedy Festival when comics took over venues throughout town, or the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen, which takes over the downtown core.
The JAS June Experience will continue to be built on as venues get added, or changed, and the nonprofit eventually moves into its new home above the Red Onion.
A capital campaign will launch this summer in an effort to fund the JAS Center, a music venue and education center that is expected to open in 2021 in the center of downtown Aspen.
“Now we just tweak it and make it better. … We want it to grow organically,” Horowitz said of the June Experience. “To have this breadth of music here, the jazz and all of its siblings, … it all plays right into the center and now we can say, ‘Look at what we can do under our control.’”
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