Before winning Grammy awards and a spot in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, singer Philip Bailey remembers traveling to Aspen to play covers of Sly and the Family Stone, Bread and Three Dog Night for the locals and summer vacationers.
“I was right out of high school and playing Latin percussion, like congas and stuff, and we’d spend a few weeks living in a house up there each year,” the 63-year-old Denver native said over the phone this week. “It brings back a lot of memories being there, and I can’t wait to show the guys in the band how beautiful it is since I always brag about it.”
That band, of course, is Bailey’s longtime squeeze of Earth, Wind & Fire, just one of the acts playing this weekend’s JAS Aspen Snowmass Labor Day Experience.
The event takes place in Snowmass Town Park, just a few minutes down the road from Aspen, and also features Colorado’s OneRepublic, Ziggy Marley, Carrie Underwood, Nickel Creek and Grace Potter & the Nocturnals. (Pop-rock act fun. dropped out earlier this week; full refunds are available at jazzaspensnowmass.org.)
The lush mountain scenery is certainly a draw, but so is the chance to take part in some charitable fundraising. Despite costing more than $3 million to stage, JAS Aspen’s Labor Day festival is among the events generating hundreds of thousands of dollars annually for its nonprofit parent, which has donated more than $6 million to youth music education programs since 1996.
“I came up as a musician and learned how to feed myself by playing piano,” said Jim Horowitz, founder and CEO of Jazz Aspen Snowmass. “So I understood from the inside the experience of traveling to a place to perform, playing in front of people and making a living that way.”
Horowitz was 7 when his family began visiting Aspen in the early 1960s to escape the sweltering summer heat of Miami.
“My parents just fell in love with the place, and it changed their lives, and ultimately changed mine,” said Horowitz, 60. “They became one of the early builders of a modest second home, which they kept for 20 to 25 years, and sold it just before I started the festival” in 1991.
Horowitz’s organization started as a jazz-oriented concert in a 2,000-person tent in Aspen. Thanks to savvy growth and a wide-focus marketing that has expanded to include more than just jazz (thus the JAS Aspen Snowmass name change), it has welcomed a range of players from Bob Dylan, B.B. King and k.d. lang to Mumford & Sons, Sugarland and Girl Talk in recent years.
“When we construct these (lineups) we’re attuned to mixing ages and genres,” said Horowitz, who expects about 20,000 attendees this weekend. “It’s challenging getting big bands up here on Labor Day weekend, and if they’re big enough it can be easier if they’re already playing Red Rocks or Fiddler’s (Green). But it’s usually never easy.”
Booking Earth, Wind & Fire for the first time in 1998 was a coup for Horowitz, who had admired the pioneering R&B/funk band’s marquee gigs on the French jazz festival circuit — after which he originally patterned his Jazz Aspen Snowmass shows.
The broader range of people Horowitz draws to his event these days translates to a higher profile for the music education fundraising and scholarships for the surrounding Roaring Fork Valley, where the average public-school music budget is only $1,400 per year.
“They were absolutely one of the biggest bands by far that we’d had at the time,” Horowitz said of Earth, Wind & Fire, an act known for its hit-laden, marathon sets. “I’m excited they’re playing the outdoor stage this year because the last two times they came they were in venues with seats and aisles, and I was just worrying about the frickin’ fire code the whole time because people were spilling their drinks and dancing all over the venue.”