Words and Photos by Dawson Steeber
Having been a fan of jazz for a long time, and having moved to Akron over 14 years ago, I always wondered what happened to the rich jazz tradition Akron had. At one time, Akron’s Howard Street was the place to be for the best live jazz in the region. A perfect halfway point between Chicago and New York, Howard Street clubs and house parties were graced with all-night jam sessions with artists such as Billie Holiday, Thelonious Monk, and Cab Calloway just to name a few. But by the 1960’s, the scene dissipated with the development of Route 59.
Now, with the opening of clubs like BLU Jazz+ and Musica in Akron’s Historic District, the Akron jazz scene has been revitalized. The First Annual Rubber City Jazz and Blues Festival kicked off on August 26 with a VIP event held at BLU Jazz+. The two-day event hosted bands at four different venues: the Akron Art Museum, BLU Jazz+, Musica and Maiden Lane. The festival was created to orchestrate work ethic, self-esteem and respect through music performance and education, with an eye to fostering a vibrant arts community.
On Friday night, I raced downtown to BLU Jazz+ hoping not to miss a second of the VIP event. When I arrived, the place was buzzing with staff and musicians. Akron guitarist Dan Wilson was in deep conversation. One of the event leaders, Akron’s own Theron Brown was zipping back and forth between handshakes and shoulder pats with his perpetual smile. A host walked around with a silver tray offering glasses of “Brass in the Basement,” the featured house drink. Food was laid out between the bar and the stage: an ensemble of stuffed mushrooms, steak bruschetta, meatball sliders, and leg of lamb. The venue filled quickly before Brown opened the evening introducing the program and thanking donors and supporters. Then he introduced Akron natives Josh Rzepka (trumpet) and Mike Forfia (bass). From that point on, the night transformed into one like I’d imagined while listening to live recordings of Chet Baker, Lee Morgan, or Miles Davis—the blowing horn and thumping bass abbreviated by the clink of glasses and cutlery and conversation.
Chris Anderson, Director of the Jazz Discovery Ensemble, gave a brief introduction before making way for the Children’s Ensemble. One of his final comments stuck with me all weekend: “Tell your enemies, ‘music changes things’.” The Children’s Ensemble, ranging in ages from 7-15 , was incredible and provided a nice segue into a jam session to beat all jam sessions. It reminded me of the long nights at the old Northside. Theron Brown sat at the piano, another Akron legend Dan Wilson tickled his guitar as only he can do, and a procession of talented horns blew us all into the night.
Saturday was a day so jam-packed with music, it was impossible to see everyone worth seeing, but I was lucky enough to get Phil Anderson of Bluelight to answer my question, “Why jazz?”
“Because to play improvised music is a commitment to face one’s self head-on, not only as a performer but as a human,” he said. “You ask about souls; I believe music is a direct connect to that ‘something deeper’.”
From Maiden Lane to Musica to BLU Jazz+, one could dig the likes of James Johnson Quartet, Akron’s Bluelight, Kenny Davis Quintet, Moustache Yourself, and Acid Cats. Even Tony Troppe got down on his flute. One of the highlights of the day took place on the outdoor stage with DTC Organ Trio featuring the incomparable saxophonist, Chris Potter. Despite being interrupted by an Ohio summer storm, everything was seamlessly picked back up inside Musica, where the evening culminated in another essential jam session and dance party.
It was an amazing event from start to finish, with all the proceeds going to support an education outreach program for students K-12 through the collaboration of The Boys and Girls Clubs of Western Reserve, The University of Akron, and Compass Christian Church. It wasn’t just the turnout or the purpose of the event that leads me to believe this festival will be around for a long time. It was the collective energy of the event. It was the ways in which veterans and newbees connected and blended sounds. It was witnessing the sincerity of a passionate youth ready to keep the scene growing. There was a palpable excitement and electricity this weekend…I’m still buzzing.