Virtual festival-hopping at Aspen Ideas and Jazz Aspen |

Virtual festival-hopping at Aspen Ideas and Jazz Aspen

Musician David Byrne at the virtual Aspen Ideas Festival.

After the cancellation of most all of Aspen’s summer culture season was complete and as plans for virtual replacements started coming to fruition this spring, a longtime Aspen arts leader told me, “It’s not going to be the same. But it’s what we have.”

Like many in similar positions, this leader recognized that the laptop or phone screen could not replace the in-person experience, but that doing something virtual was important to keep people connected and sane through the pandemic.

The big plus, of course, is that most of the virtual events are free. Aspen’s vaunted halls of high culture have been fully democratized by the coronavirus pandemic.

This week leading up to the Fourth of July is normally the busiest of the year for Aspen arts and culture. It’s often a strange and enthralling time to be on this beat, when I find myself zipping around town from interview to panel discussion to concert to art opening to stage play, seemingly from dawn until dusk.

Curious about whether I was exaggerating the vibrancy of this time of year in my memory, I pulled up my calendar from this week in 2019. It shows that a year ago this week I was covering major openings at the Aspen Art Museum and Baldwin Gallery and the convocation and opening concerts at the Aspen Music Festival, the culture tracks at Aspen Ideas Festival, the Jazz Aspen June Experience and the opening of the Theatre Aspen season. I was doing interviews for stories on the actress Rita Moreno, the rapper Common, the jazz band Orquesta Akokan, artists Sanford Biggers, Enrique Martinez Celaya and Rashid Johnson, bassist/composer Edgar Meyer, and the opening of the Durrance Archive at the Aspen Historical Society. A typically weird and wild week on the Aspen arts scene.

This year, of course, is much different.

From my couch over the weekend I hopped between the virtual Jazz Aspen Snowmass June Experience In-House and the Aspen Ideas Festival.

At Jazz Aspen, I caught Emmet Cohen performing piano ballads from home, a fun coordinated Zoom performance by Sammy Miller and the Congregation along with a few new songs and a promise to return next summer. And Jazz Aspen founder Jim Horowitz did a video interview with members of Take 6, the Grammy-winning a capella group that’s been a staple of Jazz Aspen’s festivals since 1992.

They told the story of paragliding off of Aspen Mountain before an early concert here — and nearly missing their show — and credited their longevity to something beyond their vocal talent and stage charisma.

“The sum of our parts is way bigger than any one of us,” said Take 6’s Joey Kibble. “This is not about any one of us. It’s about what we are sharing. Our theme, from the very get, has been to spread love. And that’s more important now than ever.”

Over at the opening night for virtual Ideas Fest — which hosted a jam-packed five-night program with 45 speakers — I caught Talking Heads founder David Byrne tackling similar ideas with Ford Foundation President Darren Walker.

“I often ask myself, ‘Can art make a difference?’” Byrne said. “Can it actually change minds?’ I know for example that music can unite people, it can make people feel they belong and that they’re not alone.”

That, of course, is truer now than ever and may be the best argument for why art matters in this time of crisis. As the Ideas event closed, Walker honored Byrne by paraphrasing Martin Luther King’s famous words of praise for singer Harry Belafonte, arguing that his work was indeed making a social impact even in this moment when Byrne cannot perform for crowds.

“America’s house is on fire, where are her firefighters?” Walker paraphrased King. “David Byrne: you are one of American’s firefighters.”