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Willoughby: One of Aspen’s greatest gifts — music

Tim Willoughby
Legends & Legacies
Red Onion Quintet, 1958- Dean Billings, Dick Murphy, Joe Marsala, Adele Marsala, Eric Lawrence.
Aspen Historical Society photo

I have a very large collection of music. On shuffle, I hear everything from arias to zydeco. My diverse musical taste is almost entirely connected to Aspen.

My parents connected me to jazz, and they were connected to it through local musicians. Freddie Fisher moved to Aspen when I was young. During the big band era, Fisher stared in his own band, Freddie Fisher and His Schnickelfritz Orchestra, and appeared in nine movies. He ended his band because, according to him, the government was taking too much of his hard-earned money. He formed a commune and discovered that those who joined were leaching off of him, so he moved to Aspen. As young boy, I marveled at his clarinet playing.

Joe Marsala and Adele Girard, favorites of my parents, came to Aspen in the 1950s. Marsala was a successful clarinetist, band leader, and song writer, including one recorded by Frank Sinatra. Girard was a rarity, a jazz harpist. They wanted to get away from touring and the alcohol- and smoke-saturated late-night bars in big cities.



Aspen featured live entertainment in many of its restaurants and clubs in the 1950s and ’60s. Cal Tjader spend much of a season here, and an annual jazz gathering pulled in nationally-known musicians. Even Billy Holiday was booked at the Red Onion in the 1950s.

In the same period, Aspen was a favorite stop for folk musicians. Glen Yarbrough was a part owner of the Limelite and performed with his favorite partner Marilyn Child. As a child, I could listen in on their practices as I walked down the alley behind the Limelite. The Limeliters formed there. The Smothers Brothers, when they did straight folk, Judy Collins, Burl Ives, and Bob Gibson also performed tin Aspen. In the 1960s, Mrs. and Mrs. Garvey (also known as Pat and Victoria) and the Irish Rovers spent full seasons in Aspen.




Aspen nightclubs shifted mostly to rock in the mid-sixties. Galena Street East opened to local teens with “coke night’.” The Beatles, Stones, and other “British invasion” groups did not come to Aspen, but this was the era of garage bands that didn’t write their own songs but, in some cases, provided cover renditions that exceeded the original artists. Bands with a wider national audience like Black Pearl played Aspen.

1960s-70s clubs like The Abbey, the Aspen Inn Club, and the Leather Jug in Snowmass offered jazz, rock and folk with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, The Don Ellis Band, Stan Kenton, Pozo Seco Singers, and the Irish Rovers.

The Aspen Music Festival connected us all to classical music even if we were not interested as students could he heard practicing as you walked downtown streets. Since my uncle, John Herron, was a board member, and entertained musicians at his home where I would pass through, I connected “real” people to the music.  After high school, I worked for the festival immersed in the best the genre offered for nine weeks every summer.

Sandy Monroe connected Aspen to bluegrass with his music store and through teaching a bluegrass music class at the high school. Those of similar interest organized in the 1970s an annual bluegrass festival that included fiddle and flat-picking guitar contests that attracted the best in the nation. It also featured great bands like Hot Rize and the New Grass Revival.

Coming full circle, Aspen attracted well-known musicians who wanted a place to relax between tours and/or were tired of the grueling life of touring but still wanted to entertain small crowds. John Denver, Jimmy Buffet, members of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, and the Eagles are a few of the better-known ones. In addition, their touring backup musicians, like John Summers, who toured with Denver, landed in Aspen. 

Aspen today offers the same access to the quality and diversity of music and musicians. Live performances and those personal connections provide a musical experience that is far beyond tuning into Spotify. If you are like me, and music is an integral part of your life and enjoyment each day, you would have to agree that, up there with deep untracked powder and summiting a fourteener, music is one of the great gifts of Aspen.

Tim Willoughby’s family story parallels Aspen’s. He began sharing folklore while teaching at Aspen Country Day School and Colorado Mountain College. Now a tourist in his native town, he views it with historical perspective. Reach him at redmtn2@comcast.net.

Tim Willoughby’s family story parallels Aspen’s. He began sharing folklore while teaching at Aspen Country Day School and Colorado Mountain College. Now a tourist in his native town, he views it with historical perspective. Reach him at redmtn2@comcast.net.