Growing up in the hood of Minneapolis in the 1990s, vocalist José James looked to books and music as “a way out.”
Disclaiming that his Minneapolis hometown, at that time, was not the “cool hipster paradise that it is now — it was a very unfriendly place to grow up, looking like me,” James said it was a lot easier to openly embrace hip-hop than books in the hood.
“You don’t want to walk around the hood carrying books. You know what I mean?” he quipped. “You want to have your Walkman on, it was a Walkman back then, and music saved my life.”
Sandwiched between Booker T. Jones, Bria Skonberg and Taj Mahal, James shared his story on Saturday afternoon as part of an artist panel discussion. Jazz Aspen Snowmass founder and president Jim Horowitz and Aspen Ideas Health co-director Peggy Clark moderated the conversation that was slated to center around the healing power of music.
“I want you all right now, first of all, to understand in the music business, it’s a big thing when you get musicians out [in the light of day],” Horowitz opened. “It’s not regular, some might even say it’s not normal.”
He recalled the time that Mahal saved the JAS Labor Day Experience circa 1999. With town “buzzing and excited” a mere four days before the festival, Horowitz said, Seal canceled his set. Horowitz “scoured the U.S.” to find a replacement within a matter of hours.
Mahal, a longtime Aspen performer, came to the rescue and played a “fiery set” on two hours of sleep. In an interview with the Aspen Daily News earlier this week, Mahal recollected fondly on the show: “I remember being flashed by a couple of ladies in the front row,” he said. “It was a very good show and we all enjoyed it and everyone was really happy.”
A theme that arose organically on Saturday throughout each artist’s experience was the effect of public school music programming and funding — or the lack thereof — on their exposure to music.
Jones, a multi-instrumentalist and child prodigy, revealed that the first instrument he ever learned to play was the oboe.
“At the public school, it was the one that nobody touches,” Jones said, to the audience’s laughter. “It was available … All of these opportunities were available, and I took advantage of as many as I could.”
James, who is best known for his melding of modern jazz and hip-hop, offered a different perspective from another era.
“[In] my generation, people didn’t really play instruments. People played turntable, or they made beats. School funding was drastically cut, but people are going to make music” — James said as drummed the table before him — “any way.”
“Kids would rap or sing or dance for hours, [which] was my first interaction with music in a real way.”
An acclaimed jazz trumpeter and singer-songwriter, Skonberg said facetiously that she hails from “the jazz metropolis of the Great White North.” In the same breath, she called herself a “product of good public school band programs [and] teachers.”
Skonberg described being able to play and perform as a creative outlet that is imperative to her well-being.
“If I didn’t play trumpet, I think it would spontaneously combust,” she said. “It’s just the musical equivalent of (screaming) all the time.”
On Skonberg’s powerful reverberations, Horowitz chimed in: “Actually, when you play it, it does sound like you spontaneously combust, in a good way.”
Skonberg laughed and retorted: “I don’t take it for granted, to have that opportunity, to share that with people and to be able to express with music things that words can’t. And then to be able to have other people be able to also hopefully have that experience, and share that feeling of getting that out, right now, it’s just so necessary.”