BLU Jazz+ brings world-class jazz to Akron

If you think of the top jazz cities in America, you’ll likely count New Orleans, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Kansas City, and New York among them. But Akron, Ohio? Not so much.

But as 20th-century jazz icons like Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie, and Duke Ellington traveled across the country for gigs, one of the cities they would stop in was Akron.

“There was a whole pantheon of artists traveling from New York to Chicago and staying in Akron,” says Tony Troppe, real estate developer and owner of Akron’s BLU Jazz+ nightclub. “The area was rich with the founders of the modern jazz age.”

Performers would stay at the historic Matthews Hotel, located on Howard Street in what was once a thriving African American business and entertainment district. The busy hotel would host the traveling jazz musicians, who would play at one of the jazz juke joints that once lined the Howard Street corridor.

It is along this corridor, where it curves immediately south of State Route 59 and becomes Main Street, that Troppe has opened BLU Jazz+, a restaurant, cocktail bar, and jazz club that brings in the top artists in the industry from all over the country.

“This is the perfect spot to reignite the community’s love of jazz, introduce it to a whole new audience, and create a whole new group of listeners,” Troppe says.

His company, APEX Historic District Management, has been redeveloping the Main/Market Historic District of downtown Akron since 1996, revitalizing 16 buildings of historic and architectural significance with loft living, trendy restaurants, independent boutiques, ad agency and software development company offices, and live music spaces.

The Akron Historic Arts District, as Troppe has successfully branded it, is also home to other popular local music venues: Uncorked Wine Bar, known for bringing in singer-songwriters for acoustic sets, and Musica, where rock musicians like Chrissie Hynde and the Black Keys (both originally from Akron) have played. Both of those are also Troppe’s, but for him, BLU is the full realization of a long-time dream.

“We specialize in those vacant, blighted, ready-for-the-landfill buildings, and we take these lemons and squeeze them hard and add some sugar to make some lemonade,” Troppe says jovially. “Back in ’96 I had the idea to create a mixed-use industrial place for people to live, work, play, and stay; an arts district that was sustainable and would market to people’s desires to be in a cool urban environment. It was really kind of a big vision, and this was the blueberry on top.”

Or, BLUberry, we suppose.

Located in the basement of the Hermes Building, built in 1871, BLU is a world-class jazz club with sound and light designed by acoustician Joe Scott, ideal for both listening and recording, and a mid-century jazz era motif with a contemporary feel offset by the original sandstone walls.

“It’s really important to accommodate the artists both visually and acoustically,” Troppe says, and others have taken notice: after just over a year of operation, BLU has already earned some significant accolades. DownBeat Magazine recently visited and was so impressed by the venue that BLU will be included in the magazine’s upcoming list of the 166 best jazz clubs in the world, due out in February, a “tremendous affirmation” of what they have sought to accomplish.

Respected saxophone player Mike Wyatt II handles all of the booking, who “knows all the coolest cats on the Eastern seaboard and West Coast” and also seems to possess an innate sense for unlikely pairings, putting together a sax player who has never played with a B3 player who has never played with a drummer.

“It’s chemistry in some sense,” Troppe says. “It’s exceptional, extraordinary, unique; it’s jazz history when you put those kinds of legends together.” Which is why every performance is also recorded. “We are archiving what we consider to be jazz history in the making.”

For Troppe, BLU is the culmination of efforts decades in the making. A jazz master flautist himself, with a background in philosophy and history in addition to his work as a developer, he says, “We are using jazz as a tool to build great places. Of all the different music styles available, jazz has the potential to do the most good. Uncorked and Musica are clubs I’ve created to celebrate Akron’s spirit of music, but jazz really has the potential to be a community healer.”

He sees BLU as a cultural destination and an inclusive community gathering spot; where people of all ages, races, and socioeconomic statuses can come together under a unifying bond; and also a place where people of all demographics can come to be (re)introduced to classical and improvisational jazz, “one of America’s original art forms.”

“We understand the historic stories that have infused this place,” says Troppe. “We are students of the past as well as stewards of the past. We want to create a fertile place for other minds to come and join us.”

To further engage the audience, BLU also offers master class workshops with some of the visiting musicians on the day of their performances.

“It takes the excitement of the performance and performer and brings it down to a manageable scale for the audience. This engages the public with the artists and gives confidence and encouragement to people who are interested in, or just love, the art form.”