BY JIM D’VILLE | FROM THE SPRING 2022 ISSUE OF UKULELE
Ever since legendary disc jockey Alan Freed signed on the air at Ohio’s WJW-AM on July 11, 1951, Cleveland has rocked! Freed was the first DJ to play Black rhythm and blues records on a major-market radio station. He was the first to associate the term “rock and roll” with the music he played. And he was one of the promoters of what is often regarded as the first major rock ’n’ roll concert—the Moondog Coronation Ball, at the Cleveland Arena on March 21, 1952. Since then, Cleveland has been an important and influential rock radio market and tour stop. So, it made perfect sense when the city was picked to be the home of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1986. The impressive I.M. Pei–designed rock mecca opened in 1995.
It’s fair to say that Cleveland also boasts one of the most rockin’ ukulele scenes in the country. In fact, all over the Buckeye State, from the shores of Lake Erie, where the RRHOF is situated, to Cincinnati, Columbus, Akron, and other cities and towns, love of the fabulous four-string has exploded during the ukulele’s current “third wave.”
Let’s take a look at some of the clubs and people who are rockin’ the uke in Ohio.
Cleveland Jumping Fleas
It’s called the ripple effect: Toss a pebble into a pond and watch the concentric circles manifest across the still water. The ripple effect also applies to ukulele clubs. Melissa Bloom started the Cleveland Jumping Fleas in 2008 at the Coventry Library in Cleveland Heights. The result of that simple act rippled across the metro area, inspiring new musicians and other clubs, and as Bloom says, “I helped create something that changed people’s lives.”
An offshoot of the Cleveland Jumping Fleas is the performance outfit the Cleveland Fleaharmonics. Group member Vicki Richards says, “We don’t accept payment for our gigs, but we ask those who book us to donate to the Ukulele Kids Club and/or Music and Memory—two excellent musical charities. Our payment is the great feeling we get when we share music with the audience and see how much they enjoy it.”
The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame (Cleveland)
Some people might be surprised to learn that the ukulele has found a home at the museum of rock ’n’ roll. The Garage exhibit in the Hall is filled with guitars, basses, keyboards, and drums, which visitors can use in collaborative audio and video recording or freestyle jam sessions. And yes, The Garage is also stocked with ukuleles! The Rock Hall is a must-strum stop when visiting Cleveland. And, if this writer is working there on the day you visit, we can strum a few songs together.
The Northeast Ohio Ukulele Group (NEOUKES) (Olmstead Falls)
One of the most active ukulele groups in the greater Cleveland area is the Northeast Ohio Ukulele Group. Ukulele maven Sheryl Edwards started NEOUKES to serve players in the west and south suburbs of the Cleveland metro area. “I felt the joy of the ukulele in my life, and I wanted to share that joy with others,” she says. Sheryl is a tireless promoter of the ukulele and is the person who introduced me to the northeast Ohio ukulele community. Talk about an influencer—I moved to from New Mexico to Cleveland! Future plans for NEOUKES include organizing a no-songbook, by-ear ukulele retreat at the beautiful Cuyahoga Valley National Park just south of Cleveland.
Tiki Ukes Cleveland
Pardon the shameless self-promotion, but the newest uke club in town is one that I started when I moved to the city in September of 2021—Tiki Ukes Cleveland, the name inspired by a fabulous tiki bar in the Ohio City neighborhood a mile from my house, the Porco Lounge & Tiki Room. Our group meets on the third Wednesday of each month from 5:00 p.m. until whenever. The format for TUC gatherings is unusual in that there are no music books, music stands, or other distractions that can hinder listening to and playing music with others. The repertoire is tiki, which can include anything from Don Ho to “Iko Iko.” With very little advance notice, our first Tiki Time Jam attracted music and cocktail lovers from far beyond the metro area. Our motto: “We’re Rummin’ and Strummin’!”
The Ukebug (Spencer)
A mere 40 miles south of downtown Cleveland is one of the most unique ukulele destinations in the country—the Ukebug. Greg and Barb Brainard transformed the first floor of their spacious home in Ohio farm country into a ukulele showroom and lounge. After a failed attempt by Barb to learn guitar, she bought a ukulele. Then Greg bought a ukulele. Fast forward 27 ukuleles later, and a diagnosis of a severe case of Ukulele Acquisition Syndrome (UAS), one of their sons suggested they open a ukulele store in their home.
Says Greg, “Being out in the middle of nowhere Ohio, there are no ukulele stores.” Barb adds, “We also wanted to step up and offer instruments above the entry-level ukuleles that the big box stores carry.” And just like that, the Ohio countryside had its own ukulele Field of Dreams. And the people did come, from far and wide, even crossing state lines to visit. Barb explains the draw of the Ukebug: “We love people, and we love making them feel comfortable when they visit.” A visit to the Ukebug can last one to two hours and probably includes a cup of coffee in the kitchen.
The Ohio Ukulele Campout (Loudonville)
The mass migration begins as fall approaches and the calendar winds toward the last full weekend in September. Ukulele players from Pennsylvania, Michigan, Indiana, Kentucky, and throughout Ohio converge. Their destination: the annual Ohio Ukulele Campout. The event will mark its the tenth anniversary in 2022 at its regular spot: the Mohican Adventures Campground, just outside the quaint village of Loudonville, located halfway between Columbus and Cleveland.
OUC started as an event similar to the Ukulele World Congress, which is held each June in central Indiana. Suffice to say, you’ll find many of the usual ukulele suspects at both events. Uker Fred Snipe started OUC and organized the event for nearly a decade. Now it heads into its second decade under the leadership of Chris Da Barber of Batavia, Ohio. Yes, he’s a barber. Chris describes the Ohio Ukulele Campout: “Basically, it’s a smaller version of the Ukulele World Congress in Indiana, with bathrooms and showers.”
Rubber City Ukes (Akron)
In the summer of 2015, Maggie Collins-Harris and Chris Miller had the crazy notion to start a ukulele group in Akron, Ohio—the Rubber City Ukes. According to Collins-Harris, “The idea was to create a group that could perform in public and help enhance the image of the self-proclaimed “Rubber Capital of the World.” That fall, during an RCU meeting at the local library, a woman named Jodi DeLamatre, who was attending another meeting down the hall, walked by and exclaimed. “You sound great!” She said she also played the ukulele but couldn’t attend the RCU’s Tuesday night sessions. The solution: She started her own group, Highland Square Ukulele. Six years later, the Rubber City Ukes and Highland Square group have merged into a dynamic ukulele force in northeast Ohio.
Summit Jumpin’ Fleaz (Cuyahoga Falls)
This “friendly group of all levels of ukulele players” was started in 2014 by professional singer Mia Hess, who says, “The reason I got into the ukulele was my piano player, who was approaching 90 years old, told me he was retiring. So I was like, ‘Oh my God, I don’t have a piano player anymore!’” The solution to her dilemma was revealed after her husband bought Mia her first ukulele. “I had a gig down in Florida, and I spent the entire drive down from Ohio learning ‘Dream a Little Dream of Me.’ My poor husband!” A film trivia note: You can catch a glimpse of Mia in an opening scene of the classic Cleveland-set film A Christmas Story. She’s dressed in a WWII WAC uniform.
Steel Valley Ukers (Youngstown)
After teaching a small group at a senior center, Richard Wyant started the Steel Valley Ukers five years ago. The club has donated several ukuleles to its local library. Another example of the ripple effect of the ukulele influencing a community.
Stirrings in Columbus
Columbus is not only the largest city in Ohio, it’s also the capital. Until recently, the city had at least four active ukulele groups: the Buckeye Ukulele Society (aka BUks), Strings Attached (“part ukulele class, part sing-along”), Ukulele Party, and the Ukulele Club at Ohio State. Sadly, with the lack of in-person get-togethers over the last two years, uke activity in Columbus has greatly diminished. But don’t despair ukers of central Ohio! One man, a force of nature, really hopes to resurrect the ukulele scene in Columbus. That man is Jonathan Levy.
After falling in love with the ukulele three years ago, Jonathan has been on a mission to soak up as much ukulele knowledge as his brain can assimilate, attending online festival workshops, studying with leading instructors (including Peter Luongo and Del Rey), and driving endlessly to participate in jam sessions around the state.
“I want to create a club that has a defined social element,” he says. “Many clubs will get together, strum through some songs from a book, and that’s that. They never get time to socialize and get to know one another.” If you live in the Columbus metro area and would like to help Jonathan in his quest you’ll find him on Facebook.
The Cincinnati Ukulele Scene
The beautiful city of Cincinnati sits at the furthest southwest corner of Ohio, on the majestic Ohio River. Just across the river lies Kentucky, and to the west a few miles is Indiana. Within the Cincinnati metro area, you’ll find no fewer than three ukulele clubs.
Kevin Wolfe, the de facto president of the Cin City Ukes, met co-conspirator Ron McCamey at a Ukulele World Congress gathering ten years ago. Both were uke players from Cincinnati but had never met before. They were also eyeing the same mainland ukulele. And, when Ron wasn’t looking, Kevin bought the ukulele out from under him. So a friendship was born. Two other players from Cincy, Bruce Scroggin and Carl Dorsch, were also at the same UWC. Realizing fate had brought the four of them together in a field in Indiana, then and there, Cin City Ukes was born. Their Facebook page calls the CCU “Greater Cincinnati’s Ukulele Support Group. We have a four-string program. But we think we might be making our condition worse.”
Other clubs in Cincinnati include the Cincinnati Ukulele Ensemble, which is set to reconvene meetings at the Groesbeck Library in January 2022, and SOUL (Southern Ohio Ukulele League), which meets at the March First Brewery.
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