How Jazz Aspen Snowmass made a summer season happen without its Labor Day Experience
Snowmass Town Park is quiet this Labor Day weekend, rather than hosting the Aspen area’s biggest annual pop music festival.
This year’s would-be headliners Stevie Nicks, Eric Church and Kings of Leon have rescheduled for a 2021 Jazz Aspen Labor Day Experience. Jazz Aspen founder Jim Horowitz left town for a vacation this weekend, opting not to face the quiet of a holiday weekend when he’d normally be hosting 10,000-plus daily concertgoers.
But while the novel coronavirus pandemic canceled Jazz Aspen Snowmass’s annual end-of-season concerts, the proverbial band played on for Jazz Aspen this summer.
Looking back on the season, which also saw the cancellation of Jazz Aspen’s June Experience, Horowitz was proud of how much his team was able to safely continue the nonprofit’s work despite the world historical circumstances, massive disruptions and moving two signature events back a full year.
Jazz Aspen did safely host the first post-outbreak ticketed concert in the Aspen area in July, with vocalist Niki Haris and Horowitz himself performing and reminiscing about the 30th anniversary of Jazz Aspen. It launched a five-artist, 16-concert JAS Café series at the Aspen Art Museum, which ran through mid-August and hosted a sold-out crowd capped at 50 for each performance.
They also hosted the annual JAS Academy for two midsummer weeks, bringing 21 jazz students from across the U.S. to Aspen for jazz residencies and instruction. They pulled it off while keeping students, teachers, crews and audiences healthy. The nonprofit’s music education programs for local students also continued through the summer with virtual lessons.
“Nothing about it was easy,” Horowitz said. “But in the end the effort was worth it.”
The Jazz Aspen team worked closely with Pitkin County and public health officials to make the JAS Café series happen in the open-air rooftop venue at the museum. The parameters for hosting the performances included keeping tables spaced more than 6 feet apart and 25 feet from the stage, with temperature checks at the door and masks required when leaving your table.
“Once they came out with the 50-person limit (in May), we were very confident that the roof of the art museum would work,” Horowitz said.
From the first night, Horowitz said, it was clear the series was a welcome dose of live performance both for audiences and artists. Every one of the five artist combos who performed in the series — pianist Shelly Berg led two different groups — were performing live for the first time in front of an audience since the pandemic hit in March. For professional musicians, facing an audience for the first time in four-plus months proved emotional and gratifying, evident in moments like Haris’s poignant set-closing rendition of Peggy Lee’s “I Love Being Here With You.”
Normally these jazz shows pack roughly 150 people into an intimate space with patrons at small tables around a small stage and tiny dance floor.
“Everything about the music experience we’ve created at the JAS Café has always fed on close contact and intimacy,” Horowitz said.
The public health restrictions inverted all of that and added the element of live-streaming for several of the shows. Still, it took time to get used to so much open space and so few people in audiences.
“There was a surreal element to it. Normally, it would be a feeling of ‘What went wrong here?’” Horowitz said. “But it was the opposite. After months of no live music, people were grateful to be in a live music environment that was safe.”
Cutting two-thirds of seats for the series meant losing that much earned revenue. So to pull off the series, Horowitz and his team needed to raise money — a focused campaign completed in the month after the county upped its crowd size limit.
That was the only dedicated fundraising push from Jazz Aspen this summer. Additionally, a wide demonstration of support emerged this summer after the Labor Day Experience postponed to 2021. Jazz Aspen offered ticketholders full refunds, of course, but also offered people the chance to hold onto their tickets and convert into a “Survive & Thrive” pass for next year. Most people did not ask for refunds, which buoyed the nonprofit financially and perhaps reflected community support for the organization.
“That came down to thousands of people’s individual decisions,” Horowitz said of the embrace of the “Survive & Thrive” option. “If everybody had asked for a refund, this would be a different conversation.”
The JAS Academy was able to proceed largely because of its small scale and the program partnership with the University of Miami’s Frost School of Music, which had developed testing, health screening and performance protocols to open for in-person instruction. The JAS Academy in Aspen was one of the few in-person music residencies in the U.S. this summer.
“We have a relatively small group, unlike the Aspen Music Festival with 650 students,” Horowitz said, referring to the classical music program that canceled its in-person 2020 season. “This is 21 attendees. We realized, ‘OK, we can manage this.’”
Even the JAS Academy Big Band was able to perform and practice, with all 21 students playing at a socially distanced 6 feet apart in a massive semi-circle at their rehearsal room at the Gant Conference Center and in their actual concert — a powerful two-hour event, performed to an empty Benedict Music Tent and streamed online.
JAS Academy instructors and administrators asked students to lead by example and follow the rules.
“We made sure they understood how much we were going out on a limb this summer, when most programs were going into some form of hibernation,” Horowitz said. “We said, ‘We really need you to play by the rules and wear your mask except when you are blowing through your horn.”
Running July 27 to Aug. 9, the program ran without COVID-19 infections spreading among any participants.
“The JAS Academy was inspiring and well run,” student Anton Kot, a drummer and pianist, said afterward. “Since my departure, I feel as if I have grown as a person and musician. Feeling grateful for this opportunity, I am looking forward to what I will be able to do with what was learned.”
The director of the program, bassist Christian McBride, chose not to come to Aspen for the program. He led his master classes and rehearsals through video conferencing, while the Frost School’s Chuck Bergeron conducted the big band. McBride gave notes and direction from multiple large video screens in the room.
It worked well enough that the JAS Academy — slated to expand to four weeks next summer — may integrate more virtual instruction in the future.
“We were encouraged by what we saw and we think it will open up some new opportunities for the JAS Academy moving forward,” Horowitz said.
The JAS In-Schools and Roaring Fork Valley education efforts, run by Aspen jazz stalwart Chris Bank, marched through the pandemic as well. Annual jazz summer camps went virtual, for middle and high school musicians working from home. Since the springtime, JAS instructors have been giving private lessons virtually, and a student-led project completed a recording studio at Roaring Fork High School.
Looking ahead, there are many question marks surrounding the winter season for Jazz Aspen as there are for all other Americans. However, Horowitz said, they are planning to host a winter JAS Café series. Crowd size, venue and parameters will be dependent on the bigger public health picture, the COVID-19 infection rate and local guidelines regarding gathering indoors. But Horowitz hopes to host something like the season-long series of years past, like last winter’s eight-artist series.
“We intend to do it if we are allowed to,” he said.
Summer performances from the JAS Academy and JAS Cafe, he said, underscored the power of music in times of crisis and strengthened Jazz Aspen’s resolve to keep the music playing. As Horowitz put it: “The music really rose to the occasion. It was special for everyone.”
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