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Play Like Where Your From: The University of Akron’s JazzFest Is Back

For a long time, jazz education was an oral tradition. Students learned at the feet of their master or in the adjacent chair in a section of a big band, a lineage that you could witness as well as hear. These days, that formerly oral tradition has largely moved to the university or conservatory classroom but the professionalism of jazz education hasn’t totally done away with the notion of lineage.

Sean Jones
Sean Jones

This week offers vivid proof in the form of the University of Akron Jazz Week an event that brings together three UA alumni, two of whom, Theron Brown and Chris Coles, are now teaching at their alma mater, with internationally prominent trumpet player and Warren Ohio native Sean Jones.

Jones is one of the two Bittle Jazz Artists in Residence at this year’s event. The other is New York trombonist Sam Blakeslee, a master’s-level graduate of UA and the composer of “Flowers For Rubber City” a new seven-movement suite for wind ensemble and jazz orchestra that will conclude the event on Friday at E.J. Thomas Hall.

When Blakeslee, Brown and Coles gathered for a three-way Zoom call on Sunday, it was a technology-mediated analogue of a practice room hang from a decade before when all three were students at UA. Their shared experiences (Blakeslee and Cole were roommates for a while) go without saying, but the three also share strong feelings about what makes the university a special place to learn.

Sam Blakeslee
Sam Blakeslee

“We’re good friends and collaborators with a huge focus on original music,” Blakeslee said, “and a huge importance on trying to develop your own voice. ”When we were all in the city together there was this organic hanging out and friendships around the music, which led to the sound,” Coles added.

Though he wasn’t affiliated with UA, Jones helped to shape that sound. Blakeslee, Brown and Coles were members of the Cleveland Jazz Orchestra when Jones led the group.

“Sean Jones was a huge—is,  not was—a huge mentor to all of us,” Coles said. “At some point, he had conversations with us and said, ‘This is how you navigate this industry, and this is how you pay homage to the elders. This is how you make this project. This is how you dream big.

Theron Brown
Theron Brown

“And then there’s some unexpected connections,” Coles said. “The director of the Wind Symphony, Galen Karriker, was good friends with the late, great [Youngstown State director of bands} Steve Gage, [who] was Sean’s wind ensemble teacher. So there’s all this synergy between everyone involved.”

That synergy will manifest as sound at the festival’s remaining events. Tonight the UA  Jazz Studies Faculty and Student Jazz Ensemble will perform with Jones and Blakeslee at BLU Jazz+. Thursday brings a 6 p.m. open forum at Guzzetta Recital Hall with, Jones, Blakeslee, Brown and Coles, and Friday’s finale concert, entitled “Synthesis,” will feature the UA Student Jazz Ensemble, Wind Symphony, Jones and Blakeslee. In addition to the “Flowers For Rubber City” premiere, works by Miles Davis, Gil Evans and Duke Ellington will be on the program.

Chris Coles
Chris Coles

Yet no matter who composed the music, the sound will be an Akron sound. To illustrate what that means, Coles related a question that the percussionist and drum set player Jamey Haddad posed to one of his students. “[Haddad] said, “Play me where you’re from, like, what does the music sound like where you’re from. Play that on your instrument.’ And a lot of people couldn’t do it. To me, that’s the thing that is missing from jazz today.”

It’s what Coles wants to revive in his role as a teacher and lineage holder. “What’s the sound of this region? How do you synthesize the culture in a way that makes sense? We want to bring it to the university unfiltered. We want all of it . . . and we want students to learn that so that when they leave, they sound like where they’re from.”

As for Blakeslee, a Columbus native, Brown who grew up in Zanesville, and Clevelander Coles, they all sound like where they’re from, and musically, at least, that’s Akron. “It’s really cool to do this with my best friends,” Coles said. “This is just gonna be homies hanging out.”

University of Akron JazzFest 2023

University of Akron Jazz Studies Faculty and Student Jazz Ensemble featuring Sean Jones and Sam Blakeslee, Wednesday, April 5, 8 p.m. at BLU Jazz+, 47 E. Market St., Akron, $10, available here.

Open Forum with Sean Jones, Sam Blakeslee, Chris Coles and Theron Brown, Thursday, April 6, 6 p.m. Guzzetta Recital Hall, 139 E. Buchtel Ave. Akron, free

Synthesis: featuring the University of Akron Jazz Studies Faculty and Wind Symphony with featuring Sean Jones and Sam Blakeslee, Friday, April 7, 8 p.m. at E. J. Thomas Hall, 198 Hill St., Akron, $12, free with student ID, available here.

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