Live music is back: Jazz Aspen Snowmass opens doors on Aspen’s first indoor concerts, first major festival since pandemic began
What: Jazz Aspen Snowmass June Experience
When: Thursday, June 24 through Sunday, June 27
Where: Hotel Jerome, Belly Up Aspen, Wheeler Opera House, The Little Nell, Local Coffee, Aspen Art Museum, St. Regis
How much: Single concert tickets available $40 and up; festival passes sold out
Tickets: axs.com/jasaspen; proof of COVID-19 vaccination or negative test required for entry
More info: jazzaspensnowmass.org
It’s here. This week marks the first unmasked, indoor concerts in Aspen and the first major in-person festival since the coronavirus pandemic struck in March 2020. Hallelujah.
After countless cancellations and a year of social distance and uncertainty, the Jazz Aspen Snowmass June Experience is happening with a four-day, seven-venue, 18-artist lineup to kick open an exuberant post-vaccine summer of live music.
“I’m looking forward to opening night, being in a room with live music for the fist time,” said Jazz Aspen founder and president Jim Horowitz. “The first wave, the rush, the emotion of it and maybe some tears. Just that rush of hearing music, it’s very visceral for me. I’m looking forward to remembering that feeling.”
It’s a joyous moment, but it’s been a long road to here for Horowitz and the Jazz Aspen team since spring 2020 when they canceled the in-person festival, moved the lineup to 2021 and asked passholders to keep their tickets for a year (most did, which helped keep the nonprofit solvent through the quiet pandemic year).
Jazz Aspen then spent a year navigating the intricacies of state and county public health restrictions and even staged a limited series of JAS Café concerts last summer with small-capacity distanced audiences on the Aspen Art Museum rooftop, where VIP/patron events for this week’s festival start Thursday.
Even after the in-person festival was announced, June Experience producers have been through ups and downs with event capacity, mask and vaccine requirements, and so on.
Finally, after all of that, the event is here. Come Friday night, people will be dancing to George Porter, Jr. at the Hotel Jerome and to The Motet at Belly Up Aspen and Jazz Aspen concerts will be running in across downtown Aspen.
“Having live music for the first time, it’s like Moses crossing the desert for a drink of water,” Horowitz said with a laugh.
And the festival is not exactly what it was in 2019, when Jazz Aspen reinvented it as a multi-venue event encouraging concert-hopping with a sort of sampler-platter approach to programming.
“It was all based on fluidity and it was a big hit — bigger than most people expected, I think,” Horowitz said. “That element has changed for this year, and we’ve had to reinvent it again.”
This year, festival passes have specific shows attached to them. Many shows will be full of concert-goers who bought single tickets (after an early pass sell-out, lightened public health restrictions allowed Jazz Aspen to expand capacity and put more general admission tickets on sale).
Until recently, venue capacities were going to be capped at 100. They’ve gone to or near full capacity at all venues now, including 250 at the Jerome and more than that at Belly Up.
The coronavirus-disrupted 2020 season had been planned as a 30th anniversary celebration for the organization, which funds local jazz education as well as the more prominent June and Labor Day festivals and its seasonal JAS Café series. They’re extending the anniversary celebration into this summer, with much to celebrate. Honoring three decades of music, Jazz Aspen is bringing back what Horowitz calls a “best in class” 18-artist lineup of Jazz Aspen regulars and top-tier acts.
Many of the acts on the bill have long histories with Jazz Aspen. The vocal group Take 6, for instance, has been a fixture on local festival bills since the early 1990s, and pianist Monty Alexander for nearly as long. Drummer and bandleader Ulysses Owens Jr. has been coming since he was a teenage student at the JAS Academy in 2002. Vocalist Bettye Lavette and Dee Dee Bridgewater and Denver jam-funk heroes The Motet are likewise familiar and favored faces on Aspen stages.
Most of the 2021 acts have played here before in some respect and some also did virtual shows for Jazz Aspen during the pandemic, including Sammy Miller & the Congregation. Like many a June festival past, this year’s includes legends of yore including the Family Stone and a dose of New Orleans from The Meters’ George Porter Jr., Dumpstaphunk and Jon Cleary.
That trio’s “New Orleans Road Revue” will lead Friday’s show at the Jerome — the first Jazz Aspen concert there since the first night of the first June festival June 21, 1991.
“It’s nostalgic,” Horowitz said of going back to the Jerome after 30 years and an awful 2020. “On Friday night, I’m just going to close my eyes and soak it in.”
That long ago night was headlined by vocalist Nancy Wilson doing a tribute to the “great ladies of jazz.” It sold out with banquet style seating for about 200, and seemed like a good start for this shoestring start-up Jazz Aspen.
“It was remarkable because that night came off really smoothly,” Horowitz recalled. “It was like, thank god it was great, we’ve got something. But, of course, we had no idea what the future would hold.”
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