The students at the Jazz Aspen Snowmass (JAS) Academy sat in rapt attention as Bobby Hutcherson told a story about a John Coltrane show he attended.

“[The quartet] was playing to about 10 people in the San Francisco club Jazz Workshop,” Hutcherson said at a master class he led with Sir Roland Hanna. “John was on his knees on the bandstand, tears flowing out of his eyes. He was overwhelmed, the band was playing unbelieveably. When it was over, nobody clapped. Instead, people hugged each other.”

The vibist told the story to illustrate the need for emotion in jazz, how this supercedes prodigious chops-precisely the sort of lesson appropriate for the 24 musicians from around the world taking part in the JAS Academy in the ski resort of Snowmass, Colo., near Aspen. Ranging in age from 18 to 30, these college students and upstart professionals in the early stages of their careers are some of the best young musicians in the country. They have monster chops, and learning how to apply their talent is essential

“This master class was definitely one of the highlights of the academy,” said New York-based guitarist Nick Russo, one of the 24 young musicians hand-selected and given a full scholarship to attend the JAS Academy. In addition to Hanna and Hutcherson, Ray Brown, Dianne Reeves, Victor Wooten, Lewis Nash, Monty Alexander and many other professional musicians gave master classes and performed at the Academy. Plus, with Christian McBride as artistic director and Loren Schoenberg as academic program director, the Academy students received a unique degree of access to jazz masters.

“We look at it as an advanced graduate school session for young artists who we feel have the talent, commitment and attitude to make it as perfomlers,” said JAS founder and executive producer James
Horowitz. “We give them a focused, intense immersion in the music. Our location colors everything we do. What happens here is unique, and that has to do with the isolation.”

Since he founded the Jazz Aspen festival in 1991, Horowitz has steadily built an organization that both presents music and educates. He and his organization don’t have to work tirelessly to raise the money to run the JAS Academy and the other educational programs that take place throughout the year, but they see this commitment to education as necessary in Aspen, where arts organizations such as the Aspen Institute thrive because of education.

“After about five years, the question of the mission of the festival emerged,” Horowitz said. “It seems like the most logical manifestation of a longtime love of music. When we decided to get involved with education, we knew we had to do it at a very high standard. The students are blown away by the physical environment, and we treat them the same way that we treat stars at our festival.”

Bassist Zack Hickman, a recent graduate of Oberlin College, was impressed by the opportunities presented to him at the Academy. “They pay so much attention to you,” said Hickman, 22. “Also, having the chance to meet and play with the other students who are on a similar level is amazing. I know that these are musicians who I’ll have contact with down the road.”

A typical day for the Academy students involved master classes, combo and big band rehearsals, jazz seminars, evening concerts … and maybe even a game of football led by McBride. One day started with Schoenberg giving an advanced class on counterpoint, using Bach’s Goldberg Variations as the foundation. From there the students broke out into their small combos to rehearse the songs they had arranged and composed. After lunch came the Hutcherson-Hanna master class; then two student ensembles left for performances in the area. There was no big band rehearsal that day due to the performances. After an evening show by Hanna, Hutcherson and McBride, the students jammed together until the wee hours.

Throughout the day McBride and Schoenberg were ubiquitous, giving guidance and constructive criticism at rehearsals. They relish the opportunity to teach students at such a high level of musicianship. “Having someone like Christian involved is a really good fit with us,” Horowitz said. “He has his foot in the tradition, but has an open mind.”

Vocalist Julia Dollison lives in New York and does her fair share of gigging in the city. But this did not diminish the impact of her two weeks in Snowmass. “This is what you don’t always get in school or in day-to-day life as a musician,” she said. “People are here by choice, and they’re willing to share.”

by Jason Koransky