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The State Of The Cleveland Jazz Scene In 2017

Terence Blanchard

This weekend the musical spotlight is on jazz as the 38th annual Tri-C JazzFest gets underway in Playhouse Square. But what is the state of jazz in Northeast Ohio during the other 51 weeks of the year?

“The state of jazz in Cleveland isn’t much different than the state of jazz nationally. I think jazz is hurting. There has definitely been a decline in jazz interest and appreciation, probably over the last thirty years,” said longtime jazz broadcaster Jim Szabo.

For more than forty years Szabo has hosted “ Down by the Cuyahoga” on Case Western Reserve University’s WRUW-FM. During that time Szabo has compiled a comprehensive weekly jazz calendar to share with his listeners, so he’s observed the up and downs of the scene.

“It’s not necessarily the first choice of musicians to make a career, for benefactors like record companies or club owners to present and for audience members to consume by listening or going to gigs,” said Szabo.

Saxophonist and composer Bobby Selvaggio, who has been playing professionally around Northeast Ohio for thirty years, also heads the jazz studies program at Kent State University. He sees things more optimistically.

“The jazz scene in Cleveland these days is an interesting dynamic. It’s taken a minute to get where it is today, which I think is a vibrant scene. I think there is a lot happening. What makes a scene vibrant is that musicians are not just working but creating. They’re recording, touring, they’re interacting [with] musicians just not on their scene but musicians outside the scene and bringing them into the fold.”

One of the real bright spots of the Northeast Ohio jazz scene over the last decade has been the emergence of two clubs- the Bop Stop at the Music Settlementin Cleveland’s Hingetown neighborhood and Blu Jazz+ in Akron.

Szabo feels having these two clubs in the area along with the already well-established Nighttown in Cleveland Heights has opened up new options when it comes to attracting out-of-town musicians to come to the area to perform.

“In the past, the musician would have had to take a “one-nighter” at one of the clubs, and the chances of doing that would be slim. Now, with the advent of the three clubs, they can usually do two consecutive evenings in Northeast Ohio which cuts down on their travel expenses, which makes it more attractive for them to perform in the area. As a result, we’ve seen an improvement in the number of jazz acts that come to the area and play in clubs, “ said Szabo.

Pianist Jackie Warren, who has been performing professionally in Northeast Ohio since the 1990s, is also a fan of those area clubs. Warren appreciates the fact that all three not only present national acts, but frequently hire local musicians as well.

Still though, Warren says there were more opportunities to perform when she first started, as well as the chance to lead the kind of groups she wanted to work with than there are now. “I seemed to be able to play more places with quartets and trios back then, whereas me being a pianist, now it’s a lot of solo piano gigs,” Warren said.

Jim Wadsworth, who produces the music at Nighttown and runs his own booking agency, expressed an opinion that both Szabo and Warren shared: The music needs to be more visible to the public.

“We need more people to write about it. We need more radio programming. I’d say we could really use more media exposure. I think jazz deserves a lot more exposure than it gets, “ Wadsworth said.”

Listen here for more thoughts on why no new local organization supporting jazz has been formed after the Northeast Ohio Jazz Society disbanded and whether area jazz fans are too “big event” oriented.