Right now, the northeast Ohio creative music scene is like the parent of a toddler walking barefoot in the dark trying to cross the room not knowing where the Legos might be. What will the size of audiences be like? What will they be willing to spend when inflation is eating away at buying power? How will ongoing health concerns play out?
For a multiday event at several venues, the peril increases. Still, if you’re looking for a music event that has bounce-back written all over it, Akron’s Rubber City Jazz and Blues Festival has to be the one.
Now in its seventh year and presented by Akron nonprofit Open Tone Music, the festival returns to live performance Sept. 8-10 for the first time since 2019 after two years of livestreams.
It’s a mostly homegrown affair, which limits the resources available to the festival’s organizers. When I asked Theron Brown, Rubber City’s founder, what the biggest challenge he faced in putting on this year’s event, he said without hesitation, ”Raising money. It’s our biggest challenge every year.”
Time has also not been on Brown’s side, but the Akron pianist has a great excuse for being busy. He just began his first semester as assistant professor of practice at the University of Akron’s School of Music, the institution where he received his master’s degree.
But let’s talk about strengths. They begin with the lineup of musicians Brown and Open Tone’s founder Chris Anderson assembled that features many of northeast Ohio’s premier players. They start with trumpeter Tommy Lehman’s Squadtet Thursday at 8 at Blu Jazz+ and conclude Saturday at 11 p.m. with a performance at Musica by Lyrical Rhythms.
The events in between are peopled with an all-star team of northeast Ohio’s finest with bands led by hometown hero guitarist Dan Wilson, saxophonist Nathan-Paul Davis and the Admirables and the electronica-influenced duo of trumpeter Wave Magnetik and vocalist Rowane Atallah, all Friday.
Saturday’s fun begins with a 12:15 free concert by the Ronnell Regis Group and brings performances by bands led by such local luminaries as trumpeter Jack Schanz with vocalist Evelyn Wright, guitarists Lucas Kadish and Dan Bruce, saxophonists Bobby Selvaggio, Chris Coles and Jevaughn Bogard and the longstanding Latin jazz collaboration between pianist Jackie Warren and timbalero Sammy DeLeon.
Artists such as James Gaiters’ Soul Revival from Columbus and drummer James Johnson III and saxophonist Stephen Phillip Harvey from Pittsburgh give the festival a regional flavor.
While keeping the booking policy regional, Brown wants to present one national act at each festival, and this year it’s the quintet led by drummer Jonathan Barber. “He’s definitely a player on the way up and we’re excited to bring him back to the area,” Brown said (my preview of the band’s appearance at Bop Stop earlier this year is here).
The festival offers an assortment of free and ticketed events at various indoor and outdoor venues, most of which are located near the city’s historic Arts District. They include the proscenium stage of the Akron Civic Theatre, the Nightlight and Musica, both taverns with live music programs, The 190-year-old Mustill Store Museum and Blu Jazz+, the downtown Akron club, which has an accelerating live music program that will be profiled here in the next few weeks. An outdoor stage on Akron’s decommissioned Innerbelt highway will host events as will an outdoor screen where Don Cheadle’s Miles Davis biopic “Miles Ahead” will be shown Friday night.
In that film Theron Brown was cast as Herbie Hancock, a musical figure who continues to exert a strong gravitational pull in the realm of improvised music in the Black American tradition. In his low-key and self-effacing way, Brown is exercising his own influence over the local scene, and it begins with an unshakeable belief in the poser of community.
“It’s our greatest strength here in northeast Ohio and it’s what defines our sound,” he said. When asked to describe that sound, he said it begins with respect and cooperation. “It’s soulful and there’s a strong feeling for the blues, but ultimately what makes our music the way it sounds is collaboration. That’s very strong here, and that’s why our music sounds like a soulful collaboration.”
A soulful collaboration: that’s what the Rubber City Jazz and Blues Festival aims to be, a soulful collaboration between world-class, homegrown musicians and an attentive and grateful audience. It will take it’s first step tomorrow night.
Rubber City Jazz and Blues Festival, September 8-10, various times at various venues in Akron, Ohio. Events are free and ticketed. Festival passes and tickets to individual events available here.