AKRON, OH (by Britny Kutuchief, Canton Repository) – Two blocks north of Akron developer Tony Troppe’s new jazz club stands a monument to Hotel Matthews, a storied downtown Akron hotel that, in its heyday, put up jazz greats like Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie and Cab Calloway.
The hotel was torn down in the early 1980s, leaving behind a void, and an a not-so developed Howard Street that’s haunted by ghosts of jazz players past. Troppe’s new jazz club, BLU Jazz+, aims to restore the city’s jazz culture.
BLU is the brainchild of Troppe and his new V.P. of talent and events Mike Wyatt, a jazz saxophonist and graduate of the Berklee College of Music in Boston.
“This model of building buried music genres was not complete without an active jazz scene, and jazz has been dormant in this city for more than 50 years,” Troppe said. “It was Mike and my vision to bring jazz back to Akron, and I think it’s going to have a real vibrant impact.”
Wyatt and Troppe believe that there’s a lack of jazz-specific music venues in the region, despite the area’s bountiful talent.
“When all the greats toured from New York to Chicago, Akron was a destination,” Wyatt said. “We want to put that kind of joint back on the map and make it a destination again. We have a huge scene of talent and a huge lack of venues and legitimate places for musicians to play, so for us it ended up being a no-brainer.”
Akron-area Jazz musicians feel that void. Saxophonist Justin Tibbs, who plays with a jazz/hip-hop/funk band called the Acid Cats, said the new club will cater to his crew of jazz-focused locals.
“From when I was growing up until now, I’ve always believed the caliber of jazz music here is really high. You have a ton of serious players coming out of Akron,” Tibbs said, adding that jazz musicians can play at other venues, but they’re usually stuck playing at other genre-specific clubs on weeknights.
“It will be really nice to be able to go play and hear jazz on a Friday or Saturday night,” he said.
BLU is situated in downtown Akron’s Northside Arts and Cultural District, the near-northernmost sector of downtown that’s home to the Akron Art Museum as well as a variety of Troppe’s other businesses, including Musica, Mocha Maiden and Uncorked Wine Bar. In the catacombs of the Hermes Building, blue lights emit from the new basement jazz club.
Troppe said the space was once used by the Botzum Seed Company as a packing and warehouse space and that when he started developing it, it had dirt floors and burned walls. Now, the dimly lit room features exposed brick walls covered in large-scale photographs of jazz-era legends, loaned to BLU by the Oberlin Conservatory’s James and Susan Neumann Collection.
“The thing that makes this place different and not just another venue is the art connection, with the photography collection that we have here. These are all photos of greats that were taken right here in Northeast Ohio,” Wyatt said.
BLU’s inaugural event Oct. 24 featured a blend of local and national talent, Chicago-based, Akron-born trumpeter Josh Rzepka and a quartet, kicking off what Troppe and Wyatt say will be the first of many acts that will come to play at BLU from far and wide.
“Once or twice a month on weekends we’re gearing up to have some larger caliber, national-level artists come to town, and the rest of the time our goal is to showcase the amazing Northeast Ohio and regional talent,” Wyatt said.
On Nov. 29, New York-based jazz clarinetist and saxophonist Ken Peplowski will play at BLU alongside an Akron-based rhythm section. The club is only open Wednesdays through Saturdays, and Wyatt said weeknights will be designated to jazz trios, jam sessions and collaborations with the University of Akron’s jazz program. But no matter what, Wyatt said, there will be live music.
The new venue will offer small plate style food samplings with a menu of about a dozen or so items, including fish tacos, crab cakes, potstickers and other dishes that are meant to be shared. BLU will also collaborate with the restaurant upstairs, 3 Point, to offer special dinner and show packages. Upcoming dinner and show tickets will sell for $45.
The bar, according to Wyatt, will be well-stocked with a lengthy list of signature cocktails, wine selections and a huge assortment of area and national craft beers.
“There will be something for everybody at the bar,” Wyatt said.
“Jazz is going to be the base of the thing, but we call it ‘BLU Jazz+’ with the plus to represent the wiggle room to branch out. We’ve got some Latin jazz coming in, we’ve got some gypsy jazz coming in that has a kind of French twist to it, and some classics like American songbook stuff. Jazz is the theme, but we’re riffing with a lot of variations on that,” Wyatt said.
But above all, Troppe, who called BLU “the high point of his career,” aims to make the club a place where locals can blow off some steam.
“It’s an opportunity to come off your high horse and to blow off your anxieties and to chill out and take a deep breath and listen to the finest music that is offered in this region. BLU is a place that you can go to that’s special.”
|BLU Jazz+ was named one of the "Best Jazz Venues in the World" by DownBeat Magazine (2016, 2017, 2018)|
|Committed to the preservation of America's treasured art form of jazz, BLU Jazz+ Masterclass Foundation (BJMF) is a new program developed by the founders of BLU Jazz+ Akron that brings “front-row” jazz education performance & mentorship opportunities to student musicians and art lovers alike through an ongoing series of special events throughout the year.|