The JAS Aspen Snowmass Labor Day Shows Are Now an "Experience," Not a Festival

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The word "festival" carries some tricky connotations for the organizers of Jazz Aspen Snowmass, or JAS. For the past 23 years, they've used the term as a shorthand descriptor for the three-day concert series that falls on Labor Day. At first glance, that seems perfectly fitting. Every August, a faithful crowd of thousands reports to Snowmass for a diverse musical lineup. The event has hosted the legendary likes of Tom Petty and Bob Dylan. It's featured jam bands and accomplished jazz statesmen, up-and-coming singer-songwriters, local bands made good and reggae superstars.

But the word has a different meaning in the era of Coachella and South By Southwest. With its single stage, small roster of artists and roots as a nonprofit organization devoted to music education, the Labor Day gathering is distinct from those epic affairs.

"[The event] has nothing to do with what the word 'festival' has generally come to mean these days," explains Jim Horowitz, founder, president and CEO of the broader Jazz Aspen Snowmass organization. "There are only eight main-stage bands on this bill. What are now called 'festivals' usually feature eighty."

That's one of the reasons Horowitz and his colleagues decided to rebrand the August event for its 24th installment. The three-day series is being billed as the Jazz Aspen Snowmass Labor Day Experience; along with the refitted name, the weekend will feature new pricing structures and more options for families.

But Horowitz insists the basic mission and mood of the weekend hasn't changed. The lineup at Snowmass Town Park from August 29 to 31 will follow the established tradition of musical range long associated with what has previously been called a festival. Reggae mainstay Ziggy Marley is set to kick off the new "Family Friendly Friday" opening night; R&B veterans Earth, Wind & Fire and Colorado Springs natives OneRepublic are headliners for Saturday; and country chanteuse and American Idol winner Carrie Underwood will take the stage on Sunday.

It's tough to imagine a single target audience for such a broad lineup, but Horowitz insists the program fits with the event's longtime mission.

"It's not so much that we've changed what we're doing. It's a matter of saying, 'This is a little different from other festivals.' The reasons you go to JAS are different than if you go to Coachella or Bonnaroo," Horowitz explains. "I think at the end of the day, people go to events like this because of the artists. In this case, it also has a lot to do with the location.... You've got people coming here who've got a wider palate of interests."

That much hasn't changed in nearly 25 years. The music and mood of the show have never been easy to categorize; the crowd for the event has long responded to a mix of genres and styles.

In 1991, Jazz Aspen Snowmass debuted as a formal jazz tribute, a three-day series of concerts modeled after a festival held annually in a sleepy village in southwest France. The program was a roster of jazz royalty, featuring legends like the Modern Jazz Quartet, Ramsay Lewis and Nancy Wilson. The musicians played in a 2,000-capacity outdoor tent in Aspen's Rio Grande Park, a venue known for hosting classical ensembles.

It didn't take long for everything to change. The organization found a bigger venue in Snowmass Town Park; it decided to split up its offerings in 1995. That year, the JAS brass added a three-day event on Labor Day weekend. They continued a jazz-oriented festival in June, but the content of the new August show veered quickly from its roots. Venerable folk, rock and country artists started rounding out the yearly bills. Organizers used the Labor Day series to cater to the atmosphere of Aspen itself -- the music element complemented the town's established reputation as a destination for nature lovers.

"Our audience loves culture, but they love to hike and bike just as much," Horowitz says. "It's part of the unique chemistry that makes up Jazz Aspen Snowmass."

In the past two decades, Horowitz and his colleagues have dedicated themselves to even more expansion. As a nonprofit, JAS organizes year-round music education programs centered in the city. It's launched the JAS Café concert series at the Little Nell hotel in Aspen and has had a hand in other live music events throughout the year. Still, the Labor Day series remains a signature event for the organization, partly because of its range.

"From a mission standpoint, we take very seriously exposing people to other kinds of music than what their comfort zone is," Horowitz says. "We do that by juxtaposing different music in the same day."

That diversity notwithstanding, Horowitz says he's learned some secrets of success. The 25th anniversary weekend in 2015 isn't liable to feature any dramatic changes from a formula that's become dependable. Organizers have come to realize what works and what doesn't. "Experience" may offer a broader connotation than "festival," but JAS crowds can expect a certain standard when it comes to the mix of music in Snowmass.

"We feel comfortable with where we are right now. Next year, we'll just try to do things a little bit better," he notes. "This isn't going to turn into an EDM festival."

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