Taj Mahal, Booker T. Jones highlight special lunch interview as part of JAS June Experience

Taj Mahal is a legend when it comes to the blues. But what the younger generation may not know is he’s also a Jazz Aspen Snowmass savior, having been a last-second replacement during its Labor Day show in 1999.

JAS president and CEO Jim Horowitz recalled this story during a special lunch and artists interview session Saturday as part of the JAS June Experience going on this weekend in Aspen.

“You could see he was all running on fumes,” Horowitz said of Mahal that day, leading to another question. “What is it about you and the music and the connection? He said, ‘It’s not about me. The music just comes through me.’”

That was Mahal’s answer that day 20 years ago. He had an equally solid answer Saturday inside the VIP tent located on Durant Avenue.

“You don’t pay me to play music,” Mahal said. “You pay me for all the aggravation it takes to get there.”

The panel was a first-time joint effort between JAS and the Aspen Ideas Festival, which opened this week with its health segment. Horowitz and Aspen Ideas: Health co-director Peggy Clark moderated the event. Other panelists included fellow jazz icon Booker T. Jones, Jose James and Canadian trumpet sensation Bria Skonberg.

The much younger Skonberg, who is based out of New York City and was among the first artists to perform when the three-day “experience” got underway Friday in Aspen, was as much mesmerized by the presence of legends like Jones and Mahal as was the crowd.

Sitting next to Mahal, she could barely contain herself when handed the mic.

“It’s an absolute honor to be a part of this panel,” Skonberg said, “and get to listen and hear these words come out of your mouth from a side angle is just amazing. There is so much history here. It’s a pleasure.”

While Mahal and Jones, who played two sets Friday night at Belly Up Aspen, are two of the most influential names in jazz’s history, Skonberg and James look to lead the next generation into the future. Mahal and Jones both talked about how they found jazz through classical music, while James came through it via a different route growing up in Minnesota.

“My story is different because I discovered jazz through hip-hop,” he said. “My generation, people really didn’t play instruments. People played the turn table or they made beats.”

The Taj Mahal Quartet took to Belly Up for two sets Saturday. The JAS June Experience concludes Sunday with another evening of its pub crawl-style event, with performances by James, Etienne Charles, Wycliffe Gordon and Friends, and the Hispanica guitar duet, who have opened each of the three nights with a set at Skye Gallery.

While each artist brings something a bit different, Mahal pointed out Saturday that jazz, and especially the blues, is very much unique to the United States and goes with just about every other type of music, as proven by James’ unique mashing of hip-hop and jazz.

“The blues is a special ingredient,” Mahal said. “The blues is like you can go in there with a big dipper and put some on a composition, or you can make a whole composition be the blues. Or it can be a little appetizer to get started.”


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