Musical Revival

Jazz Aspen Snowmass’s Academy Is Back, and Better than Ever

With the return of its prestigious summer education program, a growing lineup of must-see shows, and an ambitious plan for an education center, the music nonprofit hits all the right notes.

By Andrew Travers July 26, 2018 Published in the Midsummer/Fall 2018 issue of Aspen Sojourner

A student performs during the 2008 JAS Academy. 

When the global economic recession nearly crippled Jazz Aspen Snowmass (JAS) a decade ago, the music-presenting nonprofit made dramatic cuts. It lopped a day off of its signature Labor Day Festival, laid off longtime staffers, scrapped its spinoff festival in Sonoma, and deferred founder and CEO Jim Horowitz’s salary. But none of the cost-saving trims struck as deeply at the heart of the organization as shuttering the JAS Academy, a premier education program that brought elite college musicians to Aspen for summertime study on full scholarship.

Now, with finances again secure, the Academy will relaunch this August (12–20) as the centerpiece of an ambitious push—in programming, fundraising, and even real estate acquisition—to bring JAS to new heights. “It’s at a completely different level,” says Horowitz. “We’re not going back, we’re going ahead.”

Some of the organization’s recent moves have been smaller and more symbolic, like resurrecting the beloved free gospel brunch at the June Experience. But most are bigger: reviving the Academy as an intensive, big band–centric program led by Grammy-winning bassist Christian McBride; aiming to establish an education center and performance venue in downtown Aspen; and launching a $25 million associated fundraising campaign.

Meanwhile, Horowitz and his team are in the midst of an expanded season of the popular JAS Café, with a 14-artist lineup across four venues, and are preparing for the Labor Day Experience, with Lionel Richie, Jack Johnson, and the Zac Brown Band headlining, on the heels of the festival’s biggest-selling outing in 2017.

“Whether it’s the JAS Café in a 100-seat venue or Labor Day at 10,000, both in the last three years have been accelerating in terms of the wattage of the artists, their reach, and reputation,” says Horowitz. “And the audiences have grown right along with the ambitious programming.”

Christian McBride with students at a past JAS Academy

A cornerstone of JAS in its early years, the summer education program was founded in 1996 as the Thelonious Monk Institute Jazz Colony and rebranded as the JAS Academy Summer Sessions five years later with McBride at the helm. The bassist has since seen many of his Aspen students join him in the ranks of top-tier professional jazz musicians—graduates include vocalist Sara Gazarek and Grammy winners like drummer Ulysses Owens Jr. and bassist Ben Williams.

“The Academy was an absolute breeding ground for the best young players around,” says McBride. He’s teaching this summer, alongside masters like vocalist Dianne Reeves, pianist Benny Green, and guitarist Russell Malone. The 2.0 version of the Academy culminates in live performances at the JAS Café by McBride on August 18 and by all 20 Academy Big Band students on August 19.

“It’s going back to something that was a critical piece of JAS,” says Horowitz. “It’s how we really got into education.”

After reluctantly dropping the Academy, JAS pivoted to focus education efforts on local kids, helping to prop up underfunded music programs in Roaring Fork Valley schools. Says Horowitz, “Those local programs now have an enormous head of steam.” The initiatives, which have steadily expanded over the years, include in-school coaching, free instruments, individual lessons, and Beat Lab sessions for aspiring DJs. By JAS’s count, the nonprofit has reached 1,500 middle and high school students a year with some 2,000 hours of free instruction, spending more than $7 million on jazz education since 1996.

And Horowitz is hopeful that educational programming will soon have a permanent home. Quietly pursuing real estate since early 2017, JAS went public in March with a bid to buy the Wheeler Square Building on Hyman Avenue—home to Eric’s Bar, Su Casa, and the Cigar Bar. That deal fell apart, but Horowitz expects to buy a comparable complex downtown that would house the JAS Café along with local music classes and the Academy. “If we pull it off the way we want, it’ll be a completely new era,” he says.

The nonprofit is running a capital campaign to raise $15 million for a building and $10 million to establish a JAS endowment, while also pursuing a partnership with the City of Aspen that would use public funds for the purchase and, in exchange, open up the building for community events, as well as programming by the city-owned Wheeler Opera House.

What’s more, JAS is partnering with the University of Miami’s Frost School of Music and—if the building comes through—will make Aspen the prestigious school’s summer home in the years to come. “It would put a jazz music school right here in Aspen,” Horowitz told the Aspen City Council in June.

Though JAS’s growth may seem explosive to grateful music fans, the nonprofit has been progressively rebuilding from those dark days of 10 years ago. As Horowitz notes, “You stand back from it now and say, ‘Wow.’ But it’s been a slow and steady acceleration.”

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