Willoughby: One of Aspen’s Greatest Gifts: Music

Red Onion Quintet, 1958 – Dean Billings, Dick Murphy, Joe Marsala, Adele Marsala, Eric Lawrence.
Photo by Aspen Historical Society

I have a very large collection of music. In shuffle, I hear everything from arias to zydeco. My varied musical tastes are almost entirely related to Aspen.

My parents connected me to jazz, and they were connected to it through local musicians. Freddie Fisher moved to Aspen when I was young. During the big band era, Fisher played in his own band, Freddie Fisher and His Schnickelfritz Orchestra, and appeared in nine films. He ended his group because he felt the government was taking too much of his hard-earned money. He formed a community and found that those who joined him were cutting him off, so he moved to Aspen. As a young boy, I marveled at his clarinet playing.

My parents’ favorites Joe Marsala and Adele Girard came to Aspen in the 1950s. Marsala was a successful clarinetist, bandleader and songwriter, including one recorded by Frank Sinatra. Girard was a rarity, a jazz harpist. They wanted to get away from the touring and the booze- and smoke-saturated late-night bars in the big cities.



Aspen performed at many of its restaurants and clubs in the 1950s and 1960s. Cal Tjader spends much of the season there, and an annual jazz gathering attracts nationally known musicians. Even Billy Holiday had reservations at the Red Onion in the 1950s.

At the same time, Aspen was a favorite stage for folk musicians. Glen Yarbrough was co-owner of the Limelite and played with his favorite partner Marilyn Child. As a kid, I could listen to their workouts walking down the aisle behind the Limelite. The Limeliters were formed there. The Smothers Brothers, when they played straight folk, Judy Collins, Burl Ives and Bob Gibson also played Aspen tin. In the 1960s, Mrs. and Mrs. Garvey (also known as Pat and Victoria) and the Irish Rovers spent full seasons in Aspen.



Aspen’s nightclubs turned primarily to rock in the mid-sixties. Galena Street East opened its doors to local teenagers with a “Coke Night”. The Beatles, Stones and other “British Invasion” bands didn’t come to Aspen, but it was the days of garage bands who didn’t write their own songs but, in some cases, provided covers that exceeded the original artists. Bands with larger national audiences like Black Pearl have played Aspen.

1960s-70s clubs like The Abbey, Aspen Inn Club and Leather Jug in Snowmass offered jazz, rock and folk with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Don Ellis Band, Stan Kenton, Pozo Seco Singers and the Irish Rovers.

The Aspen Music Festival connected us all to classical music even though we weren’t interested as the students could hear practicing while you walked the downtown streets. Ever since my uncle, John Herron, was a board member and entertained musicians at his house where I passed, I connected “real” people to music. After high school, I worked for the festival immersed in the best of the genre offered for nine weeks every summer.

Sandy Monroe connected Aspen to bluegrass with his music store and by teaching a high school bluegrass music class. Those of similar interest held an annual bluegrass festival in the 1970s that included flat-picking fiddle and guitar competitions that attracted the nation’s best. It also featured big bands like Hot Rize and the New Grass Revival.

Closing the loop, Aspen attracted well-known musicians who wanted a place to relax between tours and/or were tired of the exhausting life of touring but still wanted to entertain small crowds. John Denver, Jimmy Buffet, members of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and the Eagles are some of the best known. Plus, their touring backup musicians, like John Summers, who toured with Denver, landed in Aspen.

Aspen today offers the same access to the quality and diversity of music and musicians. Live performances and these personal connections provide a music experience that goes far beyond tuning into Spotify. If you’re like me and music is an integral part of your life and daily enjoyment, you have to agree that up there with deep, traceless powder and peaking at fourteen, music is one of the great gifts from Aspen.

Tim Willoughby’s family history parallels that of Aspen. He began sharing folklore while teaching at Aspen Country Day School and Colorado Mountain College. Having become a tourist in his hometown, he considers it with a historical perspective. Join it at [email protected].

Tim Willoughby’s family history parallels that of Aspen. He began sharing folklore while teaching at Aspen Country Day School and Colorado Mountain College. Having become a tourist in his hometown, he considers it with a historical perspective. Join it at [email protected].