JAS Aspen Echos Through the Valley

A Helping Hand for Music Students and Local Schools

Two years ago, Basalt teenager Isaac Musselman got to meet Christian McBride after listening to the Grammy-winning jazz bassist perform at a Jazz Aspen Snowmass (JAS) concert in Aspen.

As a young musician, Musselman was nervous to play in front of McBride, but the concert inspired him, and his musical 
dedication took a shift.

“I remember Christian McBride telling us that you can never practice too much. At the time, I was 12, so I was just in beginning band. I realized if I wanted to be that good, I would have to practice that much,” Musselman, now 14, said. “That’s when I started to really take my practicing seriously, not think of it so much as a chore but as an opportunity to get better.”

Musselman has gone on to participate in music programs sponsored by JAS and the Aspen Music Festival. He was selected for the District 8 Honor Jazz Band, formed a band called Sir Isaac and the White Noise, and has performed at various local events. He has been taking piano lessons since he was eight, but as a Basalt High freshman, he is really just beginning.

Like other young musicians in the Roaring Fork and Colorado River valleys, Musselman (who plays saxophone, clarinet and piano), has benefitted from JAS music education initiatives. The nonprofit was founded in 1991 to present and preserve jazz and related music through world-class events, performances, and education programs. It hosts a two-week-long June experience with internationally-touring jazz artists at Aspen’s Benedict Music Tent and the three-day Labor Day experience that headlines popular bands in Snowmass Village.

JAS provides summer camps, classroom assistance for instructors, private lessons, instrument donations, funding for instrument repair, scholarships for the Berklee College of Music Summer Camp in Boston, sponsorship of the District 8 Honor Jazz Band, and tickets to world-class concerts.

“JAS Local Education Initiatives began in 1998 with the goal of developing programming that complements existing public school music programs and replaces programs where schools suffer losses due to budget cuts,” says JAS Senior Vice President Andrea Beard. To date, JAS has donated more than $7 million to music education and reached more than 1,500 students from Aspen to Rifle through its education programming. That includes 2,095 hours of faculty assistance from professional musicians in 14 different schools, a 44 percent increase from 2015.

For example, JAS will help fund a new advanced music class beginning in fall 2017 at Roaring Fork High School (RFHS). The school previously offered one music class — concert band — as an elective.

Mark Johnson will teach the class and also mentors the RFHS Jazz Band, a group of about eight students who have been playing together since middle school. The band meets one day a week after school for a few hours to practice with Johnson.

Their skill is clearly growing; RFHS Jazz Band has played gigs at L’Hostaria in Aspen, Carbondale Chamber of Commerce’s After Hours, Lions Club Chili Cook-off in Glenwood Springs, and opened for internationally-known Etienne Charles at an Aspen JAS Café in March. Several of the students have made the District 8 Honor Band in past years and have traveled to the University of Northern Colorado/Greeley Jazz Festival for critiques from professors and musicians—again, all supported by JAS. Johnson lauds their dedication, saying, “With all the activities these students have available, they are willing to go the extra mile, spending their free time working on this project. It’s hard work requiring outside practice to be successful. They constantly surprise me with their skill.”

RFHS junior Jaime Lopez, the band’s drummer, also plays percussion in the RFHS concert band. Inspired by mariachi bands he saw as a boy, Lopez started playing clarinet in fifth grade. Lopez says music has become a big part of his life and he credits that to concert band director Mark Gray, his favorite teacher. But he says he also has grown through the JAS Pays to Play program, which provides funding for students to take private lessons.

Lopez will enroll in the RFHS advanced music class and aims to continue playing music throughout his life. Music has enriched his school experience. “It’s fun, I get to create music with my friends. We play a song, and I think ‘We did that together!’”

Local educators agree that being part of a team that creates art together is something special. Johnson comments, “I know that the multiple disciplines involved [in playing music] address complex mathematics in real time, group cooperation and symbiosis, and a high level of creative thought and action….”

Chris Bank, the director of education programming for JAS, says playing in a band forces young people to be “part of something bigger.”

Bank has been part of the local music education scene since the mid-1990s. He has filled in for band directors in Glenwood Springs, Carbondale, Basalt, and Aspen, often taking over for an entire school year. He served as director at Colorado Rocky Mountain School and the Waldorf School on the Roaring Fork. When JAS wanted to launch local music initiatives, he was the obvious choice.

While JAS has helped nurture music education in many ways, Bank says one key innovation was support for band directors. He explains that band directors put in hours of extra time working with students, taking care of instruments, and attending special events, among other duties that “don’t show up on a contract.”

“We started adding more people, and that’s when we started seeing directors stay around. We had a lot of turnover; people were burning out. Now we have more stability in those positions,” he noted.

When it comes to directing students of varying musical ability, large classes create a dissonant challenge. “Our schools are getting a hundred-plus kids in beginning band. Without Jazz Aspen Snowmass, they’re on their own.”

It all adds up to why Bank feels the greater community needs to know about and support music education. “People think music is an entitlement, like the government is supposed to supply music for the masses. If it’s something the people want bad enough, the people have a role in that. It’s not entirely any one person’s responsibility. It’s a little of everybody’s responsibility.”

Parents “get it” when their normally-reserved student is on stage, rocking her head back and forth while jamming out. The comment “Holy smokes. That’s my kid?” is typically followed by, “How can I help support this?” Bank explained. “You just never know when music is going to trigger that.”

For Musselman, the trigger may have been the McBride concert. Without the support of JAS, Aspen Music Festival, and his music teachers, he wouldn’t be thinking about a career performing music for major motion pictures or about playing professionally in a jazz band. On a daily basis, there is rarely an hour that passes in which music is not part of Musselman’s life.

“If there’s a time in the school year when I’m overwhelmed or there’s something stressful or sad… music helps me forget what I’m worrying about,” he said. “It can bring more clarity to my thinking. It helps calm me down and keep a cool head.”