Behind the scenes of Jazz Aspen Snowmass |

Behind the scenes of Jazz Aspen Snowmass

Kimberly Nicoletti
Special to the Daily
JAS Labor Day Festival, Sun. Sept. 3, 2017
Steve Mundinger


For tickets and more information about Jazz Aspen Snowmass, visit

For the past 27 years, organizers of Jazz Aspen Snowmass have transformed two empty fields and part of Brush Creek Road into a state-of-the-art concert venue, featuring internationally renowned musicians.

Though Jazz Aspen Snowmass, a nonprofit that strives to preserve jazz and related forms of music, presents a weekend of concerts in June, its biggest event takes place every Labor Day weekend.

This year, Lionel Richie headlines with Michael Franti & Spearhead opening Aug. 31; Jack Johnson, with headliners Fitz and the Tantrums Sept. 1; and Zac Brown Band with Gary Clark Jr. Sept. 2.

While the talent is highly impressive, what goes on behind the scenes to create the legendary Colorado event is equally remarkable.

Satiating VIPs

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Chef Martin Oswald, Jazz Aspen Snowmass’ food director and owner of Pyramid Bistro and Pyramid Bistro Catering, credits his early experience in Vail restaurants for his ability to deliver a first-class dining experience at Jazz Aspen Snowmass.

“Two of my biggest influences come from Vail,” he said.

Oswald worked with Werner Schadl, owner of Lancelot Restaurant in the Vail Village in 1989. Schadl taught Oswald how to efficiently cook for large quantities of guests — usually about 1,400 on Mother’s Day.

Then Kevin Clair, founder of Sweet Basil in Vail Village, showed Oswald how to “get things done and treat people with respect,” Oswald said. “He was firm but calm — he kept calm at all times.”

While working under Clair, Food & Wine Magazine nominated Oswald twice for its list of Top 10 Chefs.

For the past 20 years, Oswald has changed Jazz Aspen Snowmass from a standard buffet — with one salad selection, one entree and one dessert served to 250-300 people — to about 18 live cooking stations.

His elaborate salad buffet features marinated beets and green leaf lettuce with a variety of vegetables, condiments and dressings. His main entree buffet includes almond crusted salmon one day, charred ranchero steak another, and lemon chicken with fresh tarragon-grilled Palisade peach salsa the next.

Live cooking stations feature a Paleo diet; fish; pasta; burger; fowl; shellfish; and “nutritarian,” the latter of which means his cuisine offers the most micronutrients per calorie.

Oswald prepares 30 different spice blends, so each station delivers a unique flavor profile. As a result, eating at Jazz Aspen Snowmass is like traveling the world through taste buds.

Oswald begins his endeavor with 15 core chefs, who then train about 120 employees in a day. The chefs mainly come from Aspen restaurants, though some travel from as far as the East Coast.

They cater to 2,500 people per day through the all-you-can-eat stations. A 45-foot trailer and a 35-foot trailer refrigerate and freeze food. The main kitchen sits under a 20-foot-by-30-foot tent, with two satellite kitchens. About a dozen live food stations act as smaller kitchens.

In total, guests consume 8,000 to 10,000 pounds of food over the weekend. He offers more than 600 different food products.

“It’s like opening three different restaurants,” he said. “We’re basically building a restaurant out there.”

During the month of August, he spends 150-200 hours simply preparing everything, before he ever starts “building” on-site. On Sept. 3, he will review what went well and how he can improve upon any challenges, and planning for the following year begins. Throughout the year, he takes pride in helping create Jazz Aspen Snowmass’ biggest party.

“It’s such a great social event, with all sorts of walks of life, all sorts of celebrity status,” Oswald said.

Building the Venue

Of course, food is just one aspect of the festival; director of operations Cat Leonaitis ensures every logistic for a safe and successful concert weekend takes place.

She and her crew convert a softball field and a soccer field into a general admission area, where guests can bring chairs and blankets, and a VIP section, with bleachers and elevated viewing decks.

Like Oswald, she aims to improve on an already hugely successful festival, year after year. In 2017, she introduced a new sustainability program, which included avoiding plastic stir straws in the general admission area, to prevent use of over 20,000 micro plastics. On the back-end, Mountain Waste sorts through all of the trash bags and pulls recyclables out.

“We had a 56 percent diversion rate, which, for a festival our size, is quite good,” Leonaitis said, adding that her goal is to reach 75 percent within five years.

Reusable water bottle filling stations save the waste of 13,500 plastic bottles in one weekend. Guests who bring their festival souvenir cup to the bars receive $1 off drinks.

This year, every vendor will serve food on compostable or reusable plates and utensils. In addition, Leonaitis implemented a full-scale compost disposal system.

Her team is also shifting lighting systems from diesel-powered light plants to a more sustainable Air Star LED system.

Crews began building the venue Aug. 15, and it will take until Sept. 17 to tear down. They bring in power, Internet connection, about 150 porta potties and seven restroom trailers, about 6,000 linear feet of fencing and generators to fuel everything.

“We take an empty field — about 400,000 square feet — and we build multiple villages,” she said.

Three hundred employees and volunteers staff the event daily, and about 10,000 people show up per day. Shuttles transport 80 percent of attendees from Snowmass, Aspen and intercept lots.

This year, Leonaitis has reorganized the entryways and exits and added a new transportation center to make coming and going more efficient.

“Every year has its challenges, (and you’d think) because we’ve been around so long, we’d be turn-key, but this festival is ever-evolving and ever-changing,” she said. “We get bigger bands each year, and sell out faster.”

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