As Tri-C JazzFest returns to Playhouse Square, Cleveland's jazz scene looks for ways to thrive
Cleveland’s annual 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 a large crowd and shine a spotlight on the region’s jazz scene, some local artists feel more could be done to uplift these musicians year round.
Cleveland composer and jazz guitarist Dan Bruce said Tri-C could take a cue from the Chicago Jazz Festival, which links the festival with surrounding jazz clubs to immerse attendees in the local scene.
“Why not let people know that there are gigs also happening at this place, in this place, in this place?” Bruce said.
Terri Pontremoli, director of Tri-C JazzFest, agreed that more could be done to spotlight local artists, but the whole community needs to come together to make it happen.
“It's more than just on us,” Pontremoli said. “It's kind of on this whole community of presenters and schools to come together and really make this big.”
A changing scene
The region’s jazz community is full of nationally-known performers.
Evelyn Wright, an award-winning jazz vocalist from Cleveland, has seen the evolution of the local jazz scene from the '70s and ‘80s to the present.
She said there used to be numerous spots to perform in Cleveland, and she was able to pursue a professional career in music because there was ample opportunity in decades past.
“Oh, it 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 used to be a diverse and unified jazz scene that has since become fragmented.
“All races would come in and we all got along. So, we need more of that,” Wright said. “I mean, I think as a unifier, we must keep it together and express it to our young.”
"When you are trying to build a vibrant jazz scene, having everybody on board is so important."
While the COVID-19 pandemic hindered their ability to play out, many musicians played virtual concerts during 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 that are writing original music, that are putting out singles, that are putting out records. And it's been fun to be a part of,” Selvaggio said.
It’s up to the older generations of musicians to pass the torch and help uplift younger jazz artists.
“When you are trying to build a vibrant jazz scene, having everybody on board is so important—that homage to the older musicians—and how important that is to help actually move along the new music,” he said.
Uniting jazz communities
However, some say there is a division between large-scale jazz events that draw in bigger crowds and these smaller existing clubs.
Gabe Pollack, director of the Bop Stop, said he hoped his venue could be more involved with Tri-C JazzFest this year.
“Every year, I hold the dates and I talk to Tri-C, especially now being the one main surviving club in Cleveland for jazz. That weekend, I don't even have jazz because I don't feel like I can compete with the festival, and I'm not part of it,” Pollack said.
Pollack said more conversations between institutions need to happen to unite the different subsets of the local jazz community.
The Bop Stop was able to remain open during the height of the pandemic by investing in video equipment. They livestreamed nearly 300 concerts in 2020, paying bands $80,000, Pollack said.
"I'm trying to absorb some of this other programing, but I just don't have the bandwidth to do that, Pollack said.
Tri-C JazzFest is purposely containing its programming within the boundaries of Playhouse Square to keep things simpler this year, Pontremoli said.
“We enjoy a good relationship with the Bop Stop,” Pontremoli said.
Splintering the festival into different locations makes it difficult for audiences, she said, adding that moving forward the festival will work to involve venues once the lingering challenges of the pandemic have subsided.
“Everyone's reinventing themselves, and it is an opportunity to kind of reset and use this as a starting point moving forward for how we want to see things,” Pollack said.
Tri-C Jazz Fest is still evolving
It launched in 1980 as an educational event for high school jazz ensembles to visit Cuyahoga Community College and perform with big name acts.
It grew into a large concert at Playhouse Square, then eventually spread out over two weekends with concerts hosted all around Cleveland.
In 2014, JazzFest adopted the concept of becoming a weekend-long summer destination event with performances indoors and outside within the borders of Playhouse Square.
Educational programs are developed year round, and JazzFest is intended to serve as the culmination of the college’s other events.
In 2020, JazzFest went virtual. Last year, the festival was scaled back to a smaller event at Cain Park in Cleveland Heights.
This year’s two-day festival serves as a homecoming celebration and will include two outdoor stages that spotlight Northeast Ohio musicians and younger performers.
There will be nine indoor ticketed concerts for national acts.
Evelyn Wright said Tri-C JazzFest tries to put smaller, local artists on the same platform as notable acts, and in this way it has helped to catapult many jazz musicians from the area.
“I believe Tri-C JazzFest has been a litany to our local scene,” Wright said. "But I do see if you leave [the area] to explore your music and come back, it is acknowledged more.”
Tri-C JazzFest will take place June 23, 24 and 25 in Cleveland’s Playhouse Square.