NOTES by Claudia Potamkin: The Miami Ties to Aspen’s Famed Music Festival

JAS executive director James Horowitz and author Claudia Potamkin

Whether South Floridians have headed west because we love skiing, because we want a break from our tropical scene or we simply want a dose of the famed “Rocky Mountain High, Aspen is teaming with Hurricanes, Gators and Seminoles. There are more  activities than we could possibly squeeze in but if you like music — and the best of it — listen up: you need to know about JAS Aspen.

Don’t let the name fool you because while there’s plenty of jazz, JAS is actually an acronym for Jazz Aspen Snowmass and it was founded by Miamian James Horowitz in 1991. The summer festival presents all genres of music from rock to reggae, from blues to big band and everything in between, with artists whose names you’ll recognize (think: Bob Dylan, Maroon 5, Stevie Wonder, Tom Petty, Keith Urban) and many you will not. Go see these unknowns and trust that you’re on the cutting edge.

Regardless, it has such prestige and acclaim that last year, Shelton Berg (Shelley),  Dean of the University of Miami’s Frost School of Music joined forces with the festival to produce the JAS academy, based on the Frost curriculum. This rigorous all scholarship program for über talented young players began in 1996 and will now be expanded under Berg and Horowitz’ direction from running one week to running for four weeks.

“It’s the first time ever, where an organization or an event that’s institutionalized in another major city has planted it’s flag in Aspen”, says Horowitz.

The Miami connection is solid. I felt compelled to write a story about this because I’ve been a part of JAS for decades both as a former board member at the turn of the century (late 90’2-2000’s) and as a huge fan.

I have always considered one of the JAS brand’s greatest strengths is its “ears.” I remember bringing young female singers to town, as early presenters of their music. Their names are Norah Jones and Diana Krall. Horowitz and co. recognized their talent long before they were on anyone’s radar. I remember having Susan Tedeschi and Johnny Lang when they were skinny little string beans in their early 20’s (Johnny might have been 19), resembling small town school teachers with voices and the guitar chops of blues legends three times their age. JAS is a unique presenter in that it recognizes and nurtures great talent and connects them with the audience.

This musical community has enriched my life in many ways but I look around me and see a only a fraction of the number of us that I know are here,  A recent poll shows that Florida trails behind only Texas and California for summertime visitors with a whopping 6.6 percent. With northeasterners relocating to Florida, it also boasts one of the largest number of ski club members in the country and only a handful hip to JAS events, but this is where you will expand your musical horizons.

Author Claudia Potamkin played guitar and sang in a concert in a JAS sponsored event, other Miamians pictured include Doug Weiser, Gary and Carolyn Bodzin, Robin Levinson and James Horowitz

There’s the three day June Experience, the summer and winter JAS cafe series, the free weekly outdoor summer concerts and the three day Labor Day festival. There are opportunities to become involved on many different levels including travel. I’ve enjoyed everything from cakewalking in New Orleans to scouting talent in Cuba on a cultural visa in 2003 to listening to nightly Jazz onboard a chartered river boat traveling down the Mekong River through Vietnam into Cambodia this past fall.

I sat with Horowitz after a wildly successful June festival and he connected the dots of how Miami became one of the first cities to populate Aspen. He tells me Miami’s love affair with Aspen began with a Miami couple named Bunny and Aurthur Horowitz (his parents).  Owners of the original Junior’s Delicatessen on Miami Beach, Bunny and Arthur made their first trip to a charming little mountain town called Aspen, Co. in the late 1950’s.

They were instantly drawn to the environment of culture and learning that existed at the Aspen Institute and the Aspen Music Festival, which had been spearheaded by pioneers Walter and Elizabeth Paepke of Chicago not quite 10 years earlier. The Paepkes found a ghost town with disheveled buildings and empty houses full of deserted Victorian furniture when they first arrived, but had the vision of fostering a community where intellectuals and musicians would travel from all over the world to gather together. At about that time, New York’s Julliard connection to the music school rounded out the two main cities that recognized Aspen’s potential. It started in the 60’s, got going in the 70’s, gained steam in the 80’s and then just took off.

Bunny and Arthur were two of the first people from Miami to make trek to Aspen and began bringing their friends, ultimately building a summer home on Red Mountain in 1967.

“Being from Miami didn’t mean a lot back then…it was still a very small place, and Aspen was still a tiny place,” says Horowitz, of his parents’ move. “Brilliant people were here. Igor Stravinsky, Dr. Albert Schweitzer, the smartest people in the world were already gathering, trying to figure out how to make the world a better place, study the great philosophers…it wasn’t a secret but there weren’t a lot of people doing it.” Other Miamians who caught the Aspen bug early on were the Weisers, the Scharlins, the Leftons, the Magoons, and the Adlers. Horowitz remembers the early days of Aspen, as a child listening to the conversations and music and as a pianist and lover of Jazz music, knew he wanted to fill the void he felt in the music scene and his passion for music and presenting it for all to enjoy spurred him to create  JAS.

Flash forward 50 years from Bunny and Aurther’s first visit.  “Aspen is a community which has developed in the last half a century with substantial groups of people who come, not surprisingly, from the major metropolitan areas of the US,” says Horowitz. “They come like pods, like little groups of fish that swim, and they often swim together, which is to say that the people who come from Miami have their Miami friends and they certainly connect”.

Aspen, Co. has been called many things…a skiers paradise, summer camp for adults, a pre-eminent stage set for lecture, discussion and debate between elite global thought leaders and the who’s who in international politics. World class artists show in the Aspen Art Museum and various galleries and award winning chefs preside over a multitude of restaurants along glittering streets lined with high end boutiques. On paper it would seem that this jewel of a mountain town has little to do with its quaint beginnings but nothing could be farther from the truth. It’s still got the funky, rough edges and soul of the small mining town it once was. You can hear it through the music.

Let’s have some fun South Florida. I’ll see you at the show!

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