November 10, 2006
It is almost a social axiom: In order to live in Aspen, one must juggle two, three or even four jobs.Two longtime locals, Tom and Julie Paxton, are living proof of that axiom, and of an equally popular local proposition – that a life without fun is no life at all.
The two came here from opposite ends of the U.S. and have been making music, teaching our children, entertaining the tourist hordes and generally having as much fun as possible while keeping a roof over their heads and food on the table. They have helped to form community choral organizations that put on perennially popular shows, and they have founded one of the better-recognized wintertime tourist attractions appearing every ski season in towns around the valley.These days they both teach lessons to hopeful young musicians as their main bread-winning activity, in addition to music gigs of one sort or another. Now both of them have new horizons to aim for.Tom, 52, is stepping up his career as a children’s entertainer, putting out a new CD of children’s songs just in time for the Christmas season. He’s calling himself “Tommy Paxton,” to avoid confusion with a national folk musician named Tom Paxton who got his start in the 1960s and who also happens to have branched into children’s music lately.Julie has started a “wedding ministry,” which she said caters to an “interfaith” clientele who want to be married in the Colorado Rockies in a nontraditional ceremony. And she, too, is involved in the issuance of a CD.Back in the dayJulie Paxton, when asked her age, would only say “I stopped counting when I turned 50.” She came to Aspen in the early 1970s, a classically trained vocalist and choral conductor with an eclectic background. She has experience in everything from exotic Eastern and avant-garde musical styles to singing backup vocals on records and other productions, including the hit movie, “Jesus Christ, Superstar.”When she came to Aspen, she was married to Buell Neidlinger, a bass player from California, and they both ended up at the Aspen Music School as performers.
The couple split up not long after they got here, and Julie stayed on. She had planned to work at the Crystal Palace dinner theater, but that fell through. Instead she became a typesetter at The Aspen Times (that lasted a year), and started teaching music at Aspen Middle School, which she did for six years, as well as directing plays and conducting the annual production of Handel’s “The Messiah.”Tom arrived in Aspen in 1977, a graduate of Ohio State University in English Education who wanted to turn his garage-band, self-taught musical talent into a career.The son of an oil company worker who traveled the world, he had lived in Denmark, Italy and the Middle East, and taught himself to play the bass and joined bands playing lounge-style tunes and rock classics.In college he picked up the blues and jazz, and arriving in Aspen he found work at the old Tippler in its last year as a jazz club, playing bass with Walt Smith, and at Dunnevant’s at the Aspen Highlands Lodge. That meant he was working gigs from 4 p.m. until 2 a.m. seven days a week, continuing what he called his “pretty much on the job” training program in life as a full-time musician.Tom and Julie first encountered each other in fall 1978, when she was directing a local production of “The Music Man,” and Tom went to work as part of the production crew and a member of the pit orchestra.”I remember noticing Julie,” Tom recalls of that fateful moment. But, he said with a chuckle, “she had five guys going at the time.” So they did not actually meet until later, when Tom signed up for voice lessons with her.”She was quick to compromise the student-teacher relationship,” he joked, to which Julie immediately rejoined, “He was,” with a shake of her head.
She added that “he was the last student of the day” so they would go to the Little Kitchen health food restaurant for a quick bite, then on to chorus practice, and a friendship blossomed.”Julie was a dynamo,” said Tom, explaining that she would direct three plays in a year, as well as the Aspen Community Chorus in its production of “The Messiah.” Not to mention giving voice and piano lessons. Mutual admiration grew, and by the end of 1979 they were married.In the years since, Tom has found gainful employment as a schoolteacher (math and science at Aspen Community School in Woody Creek), and as a substitute teacher and bus driver for the Aspen School District. The only time he ever taught English, making use of his degree, was at Roaring Fork High School, in 1994 or so – he thinks. And he has taught skiing at Buttermilk for the last decade or so. But music has always been his main career.
And the beat goes onTom said he has played with just about every musician or group in the valley at one time or another since the 1970s, and he played at some of Aspen’s great old haunts in the late ’70s and early ’80s – the old Andre’s, Rick’s American Cafe, Paddy Bugatti’s, Jake’s Abbey.The Aspen Community Chorus, under the baton of local composer Ray Adams (Julie was the vocal coach at this point), once cut a record with the late international star, John Denver. The recording, called “Merry Christmas Aspen,” has recently been reissued as a CD.Together, Tom and Julie would perform duets at weddings and private events, both continued to give music lessons. The Dickens Carolers, an a cappella singing group that performs at functions and events, has become perhaps the Paxtons’ most visible act. From the lighting of the huge Christmas tree at the Sardy House hotel, to the Grand Illumination in Redstone every fall and on the Snowmass Village Mall through the winter months, they sing America’s favorite Christmas songs. Julie noted, however, that they have called it quits on the Snowmass Mall, because it’s too taxing to stand for long periods in the cold.Over the years, they said, they have built up a loyal following, including such part-time local luminaries as the families of comedian Chevy Chase and singer Diana Ross, actor Jack Nicholson, and producer Loren Michaels of “Saturday Night Live” fame.In the 1990s Tom started using the skills he picked up some 20 years before at a YMCA Camp in Michigan, where he would sing songs and tell stories to keep the kids occupied during lulls in the action.He started using those skills again as a ski instructor at Buttermilk, he said, and ultimately he and Julie attended a “Spellbinders” training to hone their storytelling abilities. He got a gig for a while in Snowmass Village, but it ended, he said, and “nowadays, a lot of my musical career is spent in Vail and Beaver Creek.”He said he has a regular gig in the luxury resort at Beaver Creek, where he whiles away the time for tourists and kids with a musical act around a campfire.”You’re not only playing for the kids, you’re playing for the parents,” he said of the Beaver Creek gig, which “pays pretty well.” And his act, he said, seems to find greater acceptance and generate more enthusiasm there than it does in his home valley.
“It’s fun to stimulate a kid’s imagination … to watch the eyes light up,” he said, adding that this is virtually the only time he has made a “proactive” career move.The work with kids, he said, has spawned his latest project, a CD of children’s songs, half of them written by “Tommy Paxton” and all performed by him, a few local kids and some of his local musician friends.The songs are clever, witty and musically astute, and the CD, entitled “S’more Tunes,” will soon be available on a new website, http://www.paxtonmusic.com – although the site was under construction as of last week.And in keeping with his new career, Tom will perform a song from his new CD at next week’s “Tellabration” event, put on by Spellbinders, at the Waldorf School near Carbondale.Julie, too, is on a new CD, this one with a spiritual theme, created in conjunction with local wine salesman and singer Scott McCracken and Aspen Chapel associate pastor Cynthia Bourgeault.She also is teaching two Oriental forms of movement, Qigong and Tai Chi.All of which makes it clear that neither Paxton is slowing down a bit.
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“It’s been crazy,” conceded Julie, although she added, “I can’t imagine having a regular job.”To which Tom added with a grin, “You’ve got to diversify in a small town, don’t you?”John Colson’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org