A decade ago, when Tony Troppe picked out the space that would become Blu Jazz+, Akron's premiere jazz club, it was just a shoebox warehouse with dirt floors sitting beneath the Hermes building, in the historic Akron market district.
Today, the space has been transformed into a little portal into the big-city jazz club experience of old. A sandstone brick wall lines the far side of the club, accenting the couches and intimate surrounding tables that crowd the stage where a blue spotlight illuminates the grand piano. The bar glows with LEDs shining red and blue light on the bottles used to craft innovative cocktails, and the walls are covered in historic photos of jazz legends who passed through Akron. They're even accompanied by reading material so you can learn about their history.
This is a classy joint, and the owners have the talent and passion to make it work.
Troppe opened the club across from Musica, which he also owns, this past fall after years of crafting a vision, design, website, marketing and construction. Blu Jazz+ is open Wednesday through Saturday with live music booked every night. Opening the place was a long process that involved a talented team focused on the details: safety code regulations, high sound quality, state of the art technology, a well crafted menu and Troppe's vision.
Troppe doesn't just want to revive jazz in Akron; he wants to revive jazz as a genre of music and bring his venue to wherever there is a strong pool of talent waiting to be tapped.
"Blu isn't just a color; it's an attitude," a catch phrase Troppe says repeatedly to succinctly distill his vision. "Tapping into that particular genre really is a key to continued entrepreneurial activity as you're bringing a place together, you're bringing people together and what you're exposing them to has been a driving force in our community that had been dormant. Rediscovering jazz and its relevance is lighting a whole new candle of imagination."
Troppe is idealistic in his hopes for Blu Jazz+ and the downtown Akron scene, and it's an ideal he won't waiver from. Troppe runs around his block of businesses, managing their various projects and the teams that ultimately make them happen, all while preaching his vision to anyone who will listen or happen to be in earshot as he downs shots of espresso that add to his high energy levels.
That passion hasn't gone unrewarded as Troppe can boast a number of high quality national acts and local jazz acts that have already come through the Blu Jazz+ doors. This is in part because of the venue's close partnership with surrounding universities that are bringing in quality jazz acts of their own. Mike Wyatt, VP of talent and events, says he often gets tipped off by someone in the surrounding schools' music programs and ends up booking them at Blu.
Acts have included Javon Jackson, formerly of Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers, local guitarist Dan Wilson, and Theron Brown, who's playing Herbie Hancock in the upcoming film Miles Ahead starring and directed by Don Cheadle. Brown is more of a pianist than an actor as he works toward a Masters degree in piano performance at the University of Akron where he also instructs. His understanding of jazz standards and Herbie Hancock's repertoire is what landed him a spot in the movie and what attracted him to Blu, where he leads the venue's monthly Thursday night jam sessions.
"There are other jazz clubs in Ohio, but they're not doing the jam session concept, which is ironic because that's where [jazz] all started," Wyatt says.
Jazz has its roots in experimentation and Blu Jazz+ is continuing that tradition through these monthly jams. The "+" in its name also conveys an openness to innovation. The place has already hosted styles not conforming to the stereotypical conceptions of jazz. Past concerts have included gypsy jazz groups that added a French twist to the genre and a Latin jazz night that opened up the dance floor.
Wyatt says the jam sessions tend to draw the younger crowds as college students come out to show their chops, but the age of the crowd is often dependent on the age of the performer. Still, Wyatt and Troppe believe jazz is in revival mode, especially after Wyatt personally watched the rise of Esperanza Spalding, who teaches at his alma mater, the Berklee College of Music. Many see her 2011 Grammy win for Best New Artist (beating out a young Justin Bieber) as a real turning point in the genre.
"Unbeknownst to us, as we were working with our own agenda, there were underpinnings happening in the midst of it on a national and global level," Wyatt says. "It's a great time for jazz and the music industry is at such a crossroads ... it's about live performance. That's where the artist still gets valued the most and their experience is most appreciated."
With Musica just across the street, it begs the question: Why not just launch a jazz night at Musica? Why open a whole new venue?
"I want to go to a dive and I want to wear my outfit, when I go to a special night out I want to wear a skinny tie," Troppe says. "Sometimes I'll go out to listen to indie alt-rock that's just in your face and it's energetic and it's blowing off the charts. Other times, I want a specific type of music, I don't really care who the artist is, I'm going for a specific type of music and I want to know that I can go there all the time and get that. [For me] that happened to be jazz, and there was no jazz club within an immediate safe travel distance from me."
Now, Troppe has such a venue and so do patrons young and old, whether they are discovering jazz for the first time, or discovering it all over again.