As Tri-C JazzFest returns to Playhouse Square, Cleveland’s jazz scene looks for ways to thrive

The annual Cleveland Jazz Festival returns to Playhouse Square June 23-25.

Tri-C JazzFest gives a platform to artists who call northeast Ohio home as well as national acts that help kick off the summer festival season.

While the event is expected to draw large crowds and shine a spotlight on the region’s jazz scene, some local artists believe more could be done to uplift these musicians year-round.

Cleveland jazz composer and guitarist Dan Bruce said that Tri-C could be inspired by the Chicago Jazz Festivalwhich connects the festival to surrounding jazz clubs to immerse attendees in the local scene.

“Why not let people know that there are also concerts at this place, at this place, at this place?” said Bruce.

Terri Pontremoli, director of Tri-C JazzFest, agreed that more could be done to shine a light on local artists, but the whole community needs to come together to make this happen.

“It’s more than just on us,” Pontremoli said. “It’s kind of up to this whole community of presenters and schools to come together and really make this big.”

Building Cleveland’s jazz scene requires bridging the gap between younger and older artists, according to several local artists. Pictured is Holbrook Riles III performing at the Tri-C JazzFest.

A changing scene

The area’s jazz community abounds with nationally acclaimed artists.

Evelyn Wright, a award-winning jazz singer of Cleveland, has seen the evolution of the local jazz scene from the 70s and 80s to the present day.

She said there were many places to perform in Cleveland and she was able to pursue a professional career in music because there were many opportunities over the past few decades.

Oh, that was so exciting. There was a club on every corner. It’s not like that today,” Wright said.

Wright, who works with Tri-C to educate students on jazz performance, said there was once a diverse and unified jazz scene that has since fragmented.

“All the races were coming in and we were all getting along. So we need more of that,” Wright said. “I mean, I think as a unifier we have to keep it together and express it to our young people.”

“When you’re trying to create a vibrant jazz scene, it’s so important to have everyone on board.”

Bobby Selvage

As the COVID-19 pandemic has hampered their ability to play, many musicians have performed virtual gigs during the lockdown.

Saxophonist Bobby Selvaggio said younger generations of jazz musicians in northeast Ohio have stepped in to help rebuild the local jazz community.

“We have a very vibrant scene today of 25 to 40 year olds writing original music, releasing singles, releasing records. And it was fun to be a part of that,” Selvaggio said.

It’s up to older generations of musicians to pass the torch and help nurture young jazz artists.

“When you’re trying to create a vibrant jazz scene, it’s so important to have everyone on board – that tribute to older musicians – and how important that is in helping push new music forward,” did he declare.

Federating jazz communities

places like Bop Stop at Music Settlement and BLU Jazz+ in Akron remain hubs of the local scene.

However, some say there is a divide between large-scale jazz events that draw larger crowds and those smaller, existing clubs.

Gabe Pollack, manager of the Bop Stop, said he hopes his venue can be more involved with Tri-C JazzFest this year.

“Every year I hold the dates and talk to the Tri-C, especially now that it’s the only surviving jazz club in Cleveland. This weekend I don’t even have jazz because I don’t feel not able to compete with the festival, and I’m not a part of it,” Pollack said.

Pollack said more conversations between institutions need to take place to unite the different subsets of the local jazz community.

The Bop Stop was able to stay open during the height of the pandemic by investing in video equipment. They livestreamed nearly 300 concerts in 2020, paying the bands $80,000, Pollack said.

“I try to absorb some of that other programming, but I just don’t have the bandwidth to do it,” Pollack said.

Tri-C JazzFest deliberately contains its lineup within the confines of Playhouse Square to keep things simple this year, Pontremoli said.

“We have a good relationship with the Bop Stop,” Pontremoli said.

The division of the festival into different venues makes it difficult for the public, she said, adding that the festival will strive to involve the venues once the lingering challenges of the pandemic have subsided.

Everyone is reinventing themselves, and this is an opportunity to reset and use that as a starting point to move forward on how we want to see things,” Pollack said.

Tri-C Jazz Fest continues to evolve

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Courtesy of Cuyahoga Community College

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Tri-C JazzFest is the culmination of educational opportunities and events throughout the year. Efforts are made to keep jazz alive in Cleveland outside of the summer festival season.

It was started in 1980 as an educational event for high school jazz ensembles to visit Cuyahoga Community College and play with big names.

It turned into a big gig in Playhouse Square, then eventually spanned two weekends with gigs held all over Cleveland.

In 2014, JazzFest embraced the concept of becoming a weekend-long summer destination event with indoor and outdoor performances within the confines of Playhouse Square.

Educational programs are developed throughout the year and JazzFest is intended to serve as a culmination of other college events.

In 2020, JazzFest has gone virtual. Last year, the festival was scaled down to a smaller event at Cain Park in Cleveland Heights.

This year’s two-day festival serves as a celebration of reunion and will feature two outdoor stages that spotlight Northeast Ohio musicians and young artists.

There will be nine paid indoor concerts for national acts.

Evelyn Wright said Tri-C JazzFest tries to put smaller local artists on the same platform as notable artists, and in this way it has helped catapult many jazz musicians from the area.

“I believe Tri-C JazzFest has been a litany for our local scene,” Wright said. “But I see if you leave [the area] explore your music and come back, it’s more recognized.

Tri-C JazzFest will take place June 23, 24 and 25 in Cleveland Theater house square.

Ada J. Kenney