New JAS performance center will be built around historic Red Onion in downtown Aspen |

New JAS performance center will be built around historic Red Onion in downtown Aspen

Jazz Aspen Snowmass is under contract to purchase the second floor of the historic Red Onion building and adjacent upstairs spaces for $15 million for a new performance center, it was announced Wednesday.

Developer Mark Hunt is selling the building located at 422 E. Cooper Ave., and a portion of 420 and 416 East Cooper Ave., which are in the heart of the pedestrian mall.

As part of the contract, Hunt will build out the spaces to suit JAS’s needs. A total of 9,000 square feet and new construction are projected to cost $15 million. The deal closes when the space is complete.

JAS hopes to break ground this spring and be open by late 2020 or summer of 2021.

The JAS Center will be the venue for performances, special events, community uses, educational programming and home to a scholarship program with the Frost School of Music at the University of Miami.

“To have a place to do this kind of work is a game changer,” JAS President and CEO Jim Horowitz told The Aspen Times on Wednesday.

Establishing a permanent home for JAS in Aspen’s core has been central in the nonprofit’s strategic plan.

The location that JAS was able to secure has the buyer and seller excited.

“When JAS showed me their plans, it kind of made sense to me having a music school and venue downtown,” Hunt said. “I said, ‘How cool is that?’ It’s one of those opportunities you don’t see very often.”

Schematics done by Hunt’s architects include a pedestrian mall front entrance — currently occupied by Goop Aspen — that will be a two-story gallery of artist photos from its 28-year collection. A new terrace will be built off the second floor.

That building’s second floor will connect to the top level of the original Red Onion, where there will be a bar with direct sight lines to an elevated stage in the adjoining JAS Cafe and Learning Center.

That performance area, located above what is now Only Natural Pet store, will feature a 700-square-foot terrace overlooking the mall that offers a stage view for people sitting outside during the summer.

“The shape of the room is square or rectangular, which is a pretty perfect shape,” Horowitz said.

He added that the feng shui of the room creates an equal and intimate setting where just about everyone will have a good view of the stage.

The JAS Center, which will hold between 150 and 200 people, will feature multiple seating arrangements for different uses, as well as a green room, a saloon and a catering kitchen, plus more.

To pay for it, JAS has initiated its “Keep the Music Playing” campaign, with the plan of securing $15 million and an additional $10 million to establish an initial JAS Endowment over five years.

During the initial due diligence period, JAS will focus on developing detailed architectural plans for the JAS Center, followed by necessary inspections and granting of municipal approval permits for its design plan and projected usage, according to a statement by the nonprofit.

Hunt said the only new construction will be the second floor of the 422 E. Cooper Ave. building, which is already approved.

He expects there will be some review by the Historic Preservation Commission and other minor revisions for the city Community Development Department to approve.

Hunt controls the LLC that owns the Bidwell Building next door. He said he hopes to break ground on a large remodel of that building this spring. A restaurant will be included, which will serve the JAS Center.

Horowitz said having the JAS Center built around the historic Red Onion — built three years after the Wheeler Opera House in the late 1880s — is a perfect match.

During the 1950s, the Red Onion hosted performances by iconic jazz figures including Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald and Ray Brown, who taught and performed at JAS in 1994 and 1996, Horowitz said.

“This new, intimate space will add a unique civic asset to Aspen’s core, while reclaiming and building around an original historical Aspen landmark, assuring permanent, public access to the Onion,” he said in a prepared statement.

In its theater-style, 200-plus row-seating format, the JAS Center will serve as a year-round home for JAS In-School music education programs aimed at public schools of the Roaring Fork Valley and beyond.

And JAS is in early planning stages to enhance and expand its flagship summer jazz education residency as the Frost JAS Academy, presented in collaboration with the Frost

School of Music at The University of Miami.

The plan is to extend the one-week camp in August into a summer-long program at the JAS Center. Under the direction of Dean Shelly Berg, a five-time Grammy nominee, the Frost School of Music has become a nationally recognized program noted for its focus on producing successful musicians trained not just in performance but also in the business of music in the 21st century, according to the statement.

The six-time Grammy winning bassist Christian McBride will continue his historical and ongoing role as the program’s artistic director.

“JAS will be able for the first time to offer our local students and teachers a consistent year-round space for rehearsal, practice, study and performance,” Horowitz said in the statement.

Earlier this year, there were a few starts and stops for JAS to find a place to land with expanded programming.

The nonprofit had the Wheeler Square Building on Hyman Avenue under contract but the deal fell through.

And then Horowitz’s request of Aspen City Council to allow a question on the November ballot that would have asked voters to help pay for the new JAS Center fizzled when the deal wasn’t done in time.

The public-private partnership would’ve included the city taking $4 million from the Wheeler Opera House Real Estate Transfer Tax funds to help fund the purchase of the building, and another $1 million to help subsidize community events at the venue for a period of 10 years.

But the timing to put it on the ballot was tight and JAS’s request prompted other arts organizations to vocalize their need for the voter-dedicated, taxpayer money.

Council will continue to discuss in the coming months how the real estate transfer tax will be allocated, or reallocated, in the future.

Horowitz said his organization is open to having the conversation, as well as the center being the venue for community uses, meetings and performances.

JAS’s offices will remain at the city-owned Red Brick Center for the Arts.

“This is beyond exciting,” Horowitz said. “This is the biggest thing that has happened to us.”

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