Chemistry Professor’s Blues ‘Experiment’ Catalyzes Small-Town Cultural Revival
Cliff Harris knew he wanted more music in his life, so when a historic theater re-opened in his small Michigan town, he thought it was the perfect opportunity to start a blues jam. Only problem? The college chemistry professor didn’t really know what a blues jam was.
After struggling with decline for decades, the former steel-town of Albion, Michigan (population 8,534) is suddenly having a cultural renaissance. The local music scene is exploding, thanks in part to an unlikely catalyst: a college chemistry professor.
Cliff Harris started a blues jam in a recently renovated theater downtown and has been attracting big-time musicians and unprecedented crowds ever since. We spoke with Harris about how he created the event and what the jam has meant for the town.
I hear that live music in Albion is really taking off.
The music scene is exploding. In two years we have gone from almost nothing to such a vibrant scene that now people are talking about starting a record label in Albion. It’s ridiculous how quick it was.
People are coming from far away to do [Blues at the Bohm] – we regularly get jammers from Lansing, Detroit, Indiana, Ohio, Chicago. Driving two hours to [Albion].
We had a recent sold out concert in a snowstorm – 4 inches of snow on a Monday night. 400 people.
How did this happen?
None of this would have happened if not for the Bohm [Theatre re-opening in 2014]. I went with my wife, Karen, to the Bohm opening. The sound was amazing. As we were walking out, I told Karen that we should do a blues jam here.
Why a blues jam? Was that something you’d done before?
I didn’t really know what [a blues jam] was, but I wanted more music in my life. I had zero experience, which was evidenced by our first few shows. There were conflicts and confusion – I learned 100% by making mistakes in front of a live audience. I wouldn’t be able to do any of this if it weren’t for the people behind the curtain telling me what to do.
Was the audience forgiving of the rocky start?
Completely. Because there was nothing else like it in the winter. It was like a desert. It turns out I wasn’t the only one who was starving. They loved the blues. They loved how cheap it was. Five dollars at the door and you’re in.
There was such a great response that we decided to do it every month. We’ve developed a core audience. There hasn’t been a show in a while with less than 150 people.
How does it work?
Each month the jammers show up – they pay the same as the audience – we put together bands on the spot. There’s no practicing, they agree on songs, and then just go.
Who’s paying for all this?
We split the risk. The theater takes the first $400 and then every dollar [of profit] is split between the theater and the band. So both of us are invested. The band is guaranteed a $200 minimum.
[My wife] Karen and I were co-originators. Karen figures we were $500 in [to get started] – [it’s] not a money-maker.
It’s not just Blues at the Bohm invigorating the Albion music scene – there are other new musical projects happening in Albion now too, right?
[Blues at the Bohm] has spawned all these other things.
In the old high school building we are throwing concerts in the 900-seat auditorium.
We have open mic night at the Bohm – that sets up talent development. At a show, a 14 year old kid got up and played three songs, and this kid blew people away. He now has his own band and he sold out the Bohm last year. And now you can’t get him for less than $2,000.
Michael Trotter Jr. and Tanya Blount – they have a band called the War and Treaty that is gaining national recognition. They moved here to Albion from Baltimore, discovered the music scene, and now they have become the center of that.
All these musical connections that I’ve made are going to be used to throw a huge music festival in October – 20 locations with 40 bands.
With so many new projects starting up, have there been any growing pains?
We’ve seen very little territorialism, because it was a desert. You weren’t gonna crowd each other out. We’re just now getting to that – it’s a good problem to have. We have to coordinate to avoid conflicts.
The town of Albion has been struggling economically and losing population for years. There’s a lot of work going on now to spark a revival, including several downtown development projects by the local college –– how does the music scene play into that?
All those things that the college did started turning things and made people think about possibilities. It’s like a Petri dish – as soon as there’s food, things grow. There was no food in Albion. As soon as you had the idea that there was possibility, things start[ed] building on each other.
Across the street from the Bohm will be a new hotel. And down the street will be a new brewery. We are all working together.
So now you’ll be able to put together a nice “night out” in Albion. And you’re making a name for yourselves in music.
That’s what causing these other things to work. Think Albion, think music. That’s why I think the [concerts in the high school] auditorium work. For a long time if there was something like that seven people would show up. No one would come from out of town and people in town wouldn’t think it would be good. But all that’s changed now. If the “Blues at the Bohm” name is attached people think it [will] be good.
It’s interesting that a chemistry professor helped jump-start a town’s music scene. What’s it like to step out into something so different than your other work?
I didn’t know people would recognize me as “the blues guy.” [Laughs] To be honest, I see it as a natural next step. I’ve always loved music. I’ve always loved science. I love all knowledge, and my curiosity has naturally lead me to study the blues as a way to understand myself and my culture, the same way that studying chemistry helped me understand life and the universe. In the end, I’m trying to accomplish the same thing at Blues at the Bohm as I am when I’m teaching – I want to learn how to make things better. All these things have the potential to bring people together and reveal our potential – and music somehow makes people feel it, not just know it.
[Blues at the Bohm] is successful because I listen to those around me who have much more experience. There was an old network of musicians in Albion – I knew some people at the center of that. My contribution was mostly just pushing it to happen, and asking my friends to help me do it.
Are you surprised by how well all this has gone?
I had no idea it would be a success. I had no idea it was going to turn into something that would give people a sense of civic pride. It makes me proud to be from Albion.