Jazz festival too important to Aspen to fail

The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

Jazz Aspen Snowmass founder Jim Horowitz has said that if Jazz Aspen had disappeared after its first festival – a small, all-jazz gathering in 1991 – no one would have even noticed. That’s far from true now; Jazz Aspen has become ingrained in the culture of the Roaring Fork Valley, with many Colorado music lovers blocking off their calendars to make Jazz Aspen’s two festivals – the June Festival and the Labor Day Festival – the bookends of their summer.

So the recent news that two longtime, key employees had been let go because of financial reasons is troublesome and sad, but far, far better than an alternate scenario that could well be envisioned: shutting down the organization entirely. The nonprofit Jazz Aspen has vowed that it would present its full season in 2012 (and even set dates for its festivals), and that audiences, accustomed to marquee acts playing in well-run venues in beautiful settings, would not notice a drop in quality.

In a show of its institutional strength, Jazz Aspen has already demonstrated an ability to downsize its operations while still presenting top-notch concerts. Several years ago, adjusting to the economic downturn, Jazz Aspen cut two positions, with the slack picked up by existing employees. In cost-cutting measures, the June Festival was moved from a temporary tent in Rio Grande Park to borrowed quarters at the Aspen Music Festival’s Benedict Music Tent, and a day was lopped off the Labor Day Festival. Neither move was cheered, exactly, but the concerts – by Steely Dan at this summer’s Labor Day Festival, and by Harry Connick Jr. at last year’s June Festival, for two prominent examples – have satisfied audiences.

Some would say that Jazz Aspen’s troubles are partly of its own making, especially due to high salaries for top executives. But the organization has generally run lean, with fewer employees than might be expected, and salaries decreased when the economy went south. Horowitz, Jazz Aspen’s president and CEO, has announced that he will work for free until the organization’s finances stabilize. When times were good, he earned a good paycheck; now that times are tough, he has taken a commendable act and displayed his belief in the organization’s mission.

The bulk of Jazz Aspen’s difficulties seem to have come from outside. The weakness of the world economy has to count as the biggest factor, and is certainly related to another facet of Jazz Aspen’s problems: the lack of a title sponsor. For most of its existence, Jazz Aspen has been backed by a title sponsor – both of which have been financial services companies – that donated cash in the six-figure range.

Not as evident is the change in the music festival business. When Jazz Aspen started, there was no Bonnaroo Festival in Tennessee, no Coachella in California, no Mile High Music Festival in Denver. Closer to home, the Aspen Skiing Co. wasn’t in the business of putting on concerts, and there was no Belly Up (which, coincidentally, had big news of its own two days before Jazz Aspen announced its cuts: that concert powerhouse Widespread Panic would be playing a three-night stand in February, with tickets between $350 and $500.) Jazz Aspen was near the leading edge in multiday, destination music festivals; the competition, for artists and an audience, has grown stiff. Jazz Aspen, unlike those other presenters, has a year-round program to jazz education, which touches top national musicians to local schoolkids – a component of the organization that is easy to overlook, but should not be.

On a positive note, AEG Live, a massive concert production company hired as a consultant to Jazz Aspen last year, has voiced its continuing support for Jazz Aspen. The Roaring Fork Valley community should do the same, making it clear that Jazz Aspen – which has brought the likes of Neil Young, Tony Bennett, Bob Dylan, the Black Eyed Peas and the Allman Brothers to the area – is too important to fail.