Jazz finds its place in Aspen | AspenTimes.com

Jazz finds its place in Aspen

Stewart OksenhornThe Aspen TimesAspen, CO Colorado

Contributed photoRoberta Gambarini performs Friday and Saturday at The Little Nell in Aspen, part of JAS Cafe Downstairs @ the Nell.

ASPEN – Among the questions that Jim Horowitz, president of Jazz Aspen Snowmass, faces on a regular basis is: Where is the jazz?”‘Where is the jazz?’ is a question we have to answer for ourselves and our audience,” Horowitz said. “‘Where is the jazz?’ is something we’ve been struggling with.”It’s sort of an odd question for an organization that has ‘jazz’ in its name; that was launched, 20 years ago, with an all-jazz festival; that has consistently presented jazz music and operated educational programs very much focused on jazz; that has featured such jazz greats as Pat Metheny, Herbie Hancock, Diana Krall, Wynton Marsalis, Ray Brown, the Modern Jazz Quartet and on and on.Perhaps the most direct answer, and a very accurate answer, is that jazz has been everywhere. Over the past two decades Jazz Aspen has presented jazz shows in conference halls (Snowmass Conference Center, the Hotel Jerome Ballroom) and concert halls (Harris Hall, the Wheeler Opera House), nightclubs (Belly Up, Crystal Palace, the space now occupied by the Hunter Bar) and restaurants from Chinese to Italian (Mountain Dragon, L’Hostaria). Wherever Jazz Aspen’s June Festival has wandered, from the Aspen Music Festival’s tent to its own tents in Snowmass Village and Aspen’s Rio Grande Park, jazz has been staged there. There have even been occasional jazz sightings at the Labor Day Festival, which is more geared toward rock acts.Therein lies the problem: If you want to build brand identity, presenting jazz here, there and everywhere is almost as bad as not presenting it at all. Horowitz says that one of the keys to the success of the Labor Day Festival is that it has been consistently presented in the same spot, at the bottom of Snowmass Village, year-in and year-out. The jazz component – which, by the nature of the music itself and the nature of the audience for the music, needs to be presented in smaller settings – has wandered from venue to venue.Now Jazz Aspen believes it may have found a place to truly call its home for jazz. For the third consecutive winter – a real show of constancy by these standards – Jazz Aspen will present a series of shows in a downstairs room at The Little Nell hotel. The series, JAS Cafe Downstairs @ the Nell, opens this weekend, with performances by Italian-born singer Roberta Gambarini Friday and Saturday, with two shows, at 7:30 and 9:15, each night. Gambarini, who moved to the U.S. in 1998, earned a Grammy nomination for her 2010 album, “So in Love,” and won the Jazz Journalists award for female vocalist of the year last year.”This is a sea change, totally,” Horowitz said of the space at the Nell. “This feels like a home like nothing else ever did. If you take 20 years of Jazz Aspen’s jazz history, all we learned, I think the Nell answers most of those questions for us.”Over a decade ago, Jazz Aspen believed it had found a home at the Silvertree Hotel’s Cabaret Room. With good sound, tiered seating, a hotel setting and pretty close to an ideal size, the room was the setting for numerous small-venue shows. But over time Jazz Aspen came to a conclusion that the Cabaret Room had one big strike against it.”It’s in the wrong place. It’s in Snowmass,” Horowitz said. “The room is great. But over time we just found it wasn’t catching on. It didn’t grow. If that room had been in Aspen … .”Interestingly, for someone with an eye out for a venue, Horowitz didn’t recognize one when he practically fell into the lap of one in the heart of Aspen. Some years ago, Jazz Aspen had a patron party booked for the top of Aspen Mountain. Weather interfered, and the event was moved to a far less impressive venue, a small, nondescript room in The Little Nell basement. The short notice didn’t leave much chance to dress up the space, and Horowitz didn’t even consider it as a jazz room. “If you go in there in the daytime, you have to really use your imagination to see the look. So we’d seen it, but hadn’t really connected it with our needs,” he explained.In 2009, Jazz Aspen thought it had found another promising spot, at the space that used to house the Crystal Palace dinner theater. A few jazz shows there, in a room with an intimate, nostalgic feel and a downtown location, gave Horowitz hope. But a change in ownership left Jazz Aspen scrambling, and the organization landed in that space at The Little Nell. Horowitz remembered it as a conference room, but by night it seemed just right for jazz – dark and cozy, but also elegant and an ideal size. Jazz Aspen did a small series of winter shows and continued to use it for a few late-night performances during the 2009 June Festival. The crowds came, the music was good – a concert by trumpeter Nicholas Payton, with bass great Christian McBride sitting in, was epic – and a buzz began to build.”We started to see traction,” Horowitz said. “We saw repeat customers; the Nell saw people going to dinner prior to the show.”This winter, Jazz Aspen leaps on the opportunity to further establish its jazz home at the Nell. While there have been cutbacks elsewhere in the organization, with two longtime Jazz Aspen staff members being laid off earlier this fall, the Downstairs @ the Nell series gets bumped up. The series features eight weekends of performances between now and the end of March. Horowitz said the audience response merited the increased programming and that, after two decades of wandering, it was time to answer that question, Where is the jazz?”This is the right time to plant our flag with jazz, and say we are committed to this music. We really needed to be able to say to our constituents that Jazz Aspen has a strong commitment to jazz,” Horowitz said. “Once a month didn’t feel like enough. To build up the association with the Nell, it needed to be a more consistent presentation.”This winter’s lineup is heavy on vocalists, which is a strategy designed to cast a wide net for potential concertgoers. Seven of the eight acts spotlight a vocalist, including Carmen Lundy (Dec. 29-30); the duo of singer Cyrille Aime and guitarist Diego Figueiredo (Jan. 13-14); the singer-guitarist duo Tuck & Patti (Jan. 27-28); singer-saxophonist Curtis Stigers (Feb. 10-11); New Orleans pianist-singer Jon Cleary, who will do a Mardi Gras performance (Feb. 24-25); and singer Jackie Ryan (March 9-10). The only instrumental act is the final one, Cuban-born pianist Chuchito Valds.”If you want to draw people in to jazz music, vocalists are the best place to start,” Horowitz said. “Everyone can relate to the human voice. For many people, the vocal route is the way in. Singers grab a wider audience.” He added that the concept of singers in a hotel setting – the late Bobby Short at New York’s Carlyle Hotel, for instance – had a strong tradition.Horowitz is optimistic that he has found a place not only to present jazz, but to build a bigger audience.”A small setting is the best way to turn people onto this music,” he said, adding that he could see expanding the series even more, if there is the demand. “Maybe in a few years, this will be on the list of five things you can’t miss in Aspen. Maybe, once and for all, this will answer the question.”stewart@aspentimes.com