Aug 06, 2023

A jazz camp in Aspen is an ‘incubator’ for promising young musicians

Most people know Jazz Aspen Snowmass for its festivals: The June Experience draws some of the biggest names in jazz, soul and R&B music, while the Labor Day Experience brings in crowds of thousands to hear rock and roll, country and other music stars.

But the nonprofit also supports the next generation of talent, with programs like the JAS Academy summer camp.

Each summer, college students at the academy hone their performance technique, but also take classes on music production and business. Jazz Aspen Snowmass now partners with the Frost School of Music at the University of Miami, which helps shape the curriculum and provides some of the program’s faculty.

The students also get to learn from people like bass player Christian McBride, an eight-time Grammy Award winner who works as the JAS Academy’s artistic director.

Given the caliber of these young musicians — and the long list of big-name alumni who have come out of the program — McBride compares the camp to a “farm team for the Yankees.”

“There's so many great musicians that come through here, it's incredible,” McBride said.

McBride will lead a group of JAS Academy students in a “big band” performance at the Wheeler Opera House on Saturday at 7 p.m. But first, he stopped by Aspen Public Radio’s studios to talk about the evolution of the program and the value of mentorship.

Christian McBride: Well, for starters, Jim Horowitz, who was the CEO of Jazz Aspen, he started this in 1991. And it's — you know, that was 32 years ago. And the fact that the legs of this program were still as strong, if not stronger, as they were back then, I think that says a lot about Jazz Aspen's vision.

Because I think a lot of people, [when they] think of Jazz Aspen, they think of like, the Labor Day Festival, you know, they think of the June Experience. But this right here, the summer program, this is an incubator for musicians who will play these festivals later on.

Kaya Williams: You've been coming to Aspen for decades now. You yourself are also just a very big deal in the world of the music that you do —

McBride: I’m a big deal to a few nerd jazz heads.

Williams: Well, in that vein, why is it important to you to keep coming here and mentoring these young people?

McBride: Because someone did that for me. When I was growing up in Philadelphia, not really sure what I wanted to do with my music, I knew I wanted to be a professional musician, I just didn't know kind of where I would fit. It was because of people like Wynton Marsalis and Kenny Barron and Max Roach and Dr. Billy Taylor. They took time out of their busy schedules to come and talk to us when we were high school students.

And I went to a number of music camps when I was in high school, and all those musicians who were working musicians — they showed us everything from you know, how to learn tunes and harmony and theory. And I realized then that if I were ever in a position to do the same thing, I would do it.

Williams: You kind of jokingly teased that, you know, you're a big deal to a few jazz heads. But I'm curious what role you think that the type of music you play, plays in our culture right now, in music culture?

McBride: I think jazz has played a similar role in American culture for probably over half a century. It's not commercial music. It's music that kind of goes deeper than sort of the visual, pop culture, senses, you know. It's the type of music where you actually have to be well trained to play.

And in a world where, or, more specifically, in a culture where being trained, being smart, spending time on something slowly and developing it over the course of years — that's not necessarily appreciated, you know. So I think that this music represents the best of the human condition: people who spend time investing and building their craft over a period of time.

You know, when you hear the phrase, “15 minutes of fame,” that doesn't exist in jazz, because people in jazz are trained musicians who keep getting better and better and better.

If you miss this weekend’s show at the Wheeler, JAS Academy students will also be performing around town next week. They’re scheduled to play at the Limelight Aspen on Monday and Tuesday from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m., and at The Gant on Wednesday from 4 to 7 p.m.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct the time of Saturday's JAS Academy performance at the Wheeler. It starts at 7 p.m.