Shuffle: Rubber City Jazz Festival Celebrates Akron's Jazz Revival

Aug 24, 2017

A mural at Akron's Lock 4 celebrates the city's jazz history

Akron is celebrating its jazz roots this weekend with a second annual Rubber City Jazz Festival. For this week’s Shuffle, WKSU’s Amanda Rabinowitz looks at Akron’s revitalized jazz scene, spearheaded by a local musician. 

The Rubber City Jazz Festival is doubling in size to four days at Akron’s Lock 3 and nearly a dozen other venues downtown. Jazz pianist Theron Brown started the event last year with the help of a $75,000 grant from the Knight Foundation. The University of Akron graduate says he’s passionate about expanding the jazz community and keeping Akron’s history alive.

"Detroit and Pittsburgh have what I like to call powerhouse jazz festivals where they bring in international acts and it just brought a lot of exciting energy to the city. And I was like, we should bring something like that here," Brown says. 

A rich history
Akron was known as the jazz corridor of the Midwest from the 1930’s to the ‘60’s when it was a hub for musicians traveling between Chicago and New York. Howard Street was filled with clubs that attracted musicians like Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong. The Devil Strip music editor Brittany Nader says there’s a renaissance, spurred by the University of Akron’s renowned jazz program and with the club, Blu Jazz+, which recently expanded downtown.

"It's bringing in jazz musicians from all over, not just Akron but certainly people around here too now have a place to play outside of a more sophisticated setting. It’s more relaxed and definitely something Akron needed," Nader says. 

20 local acts
The Rubber City Jazz Festival has booked more than 20 local groups and musicians for the four days, including Akron funk-soul band The Admirables, Akron gypsy-jazz band Mustache Yourself and Theron Brown, who plays piano.

Theron Brown
Credit Blue Jazz+

Brown has played all over the world and had a brief part as Herbie Hancock in Don Cheadle’s 2015 Miles Davis biopic Miles Ahead. He’s made Akron his home for the last 10 years.

"I just made a lot of close connections here, and I feel like I’ve grown not only as a musician but as a man. And I’m kind of small town guy. I’m originally from Zanesville. Akron’s just right," he says.

One of the connections he’s made is with local jazz trombonist Chris Anderson, who founded Cleveland-based Open Tone Music. The nonprofit works to bring music education to local schools through the Boys & Girls Club.

"Some of the opportunities that I had as a musician are being taken away or harder to get at for some of the kids in the urban communities so we’re just using music as a tool to teach these kids self-respect, build their self-esteem," Anderson says. 

Proceeds from the Rubber City Jazz Fest will go to expand those efforts in Akron, in the hopes that the city’s revitalized jazz scene will continue to grow. 

Brittany Nader's Top 5 Must-See Rubber City Jazz Fest Acts

1. The Admirables, Friday, 8/25, Blu Jazz+, 8 p.m.

2. Bluelight, Saturday, 8/26, Musica, 4 p.m.

3. HR3, Saturday, 8/26, Uncorked Wine Bar, 2 p.m.

4. Theron Brown Trio, Thursday, 8/24, Blu Jazz+, 8 p.m.

5. Mustache Yourself, Saturday, 8/26, High St. Hop House, 1:30 p.m.