On a recent rainy Sunday evening, many of the storefronts on Larchmere Boulevard, near Shaker Square, are closed. They’ll awaken with the start of the workweek.
But Larchmere Arts, a performance and cultural venue, is alive. The door opens and sound vibrates out onto the street of shops, restaurants and other small businesses.
Conga drums. Bongos. Electric guitars. Electronic keyboard.
The musicians are on a small stage that juts out from the front display window. Vince Robinson is on keyboard, leading the Vince Robinson & the Jazz Poets band. Poster-size photos of musicians performing line the walls and part of the front window. They include Aretha Franklin, Wynton Marsalis and the late keyboardist Eddie Baccus Sr., who played in Cleveland clubs for six decades.
Three of Robinson’s artistic Side Hustles are evident: His band. Photography. Larchmere Arts, which he co-founded and now owns. Side Hustles have been his main focus since leaving a corporate insurance job several years ago.
“The vision was to create a community space that was conducive to cultural phenomena on different levels,” Robinson said. “We are not interested in having a lot of profanity, a lot of misogyny or disrespectful-type content. It is really about culture and creating art that has the ability to uplift. It’s a space for consciousness.”
There probably aren’t many places like it in Cleveland. A few days a month, Robinson’s photo studio and gallery transforms into a venue for eclectic artistic and cultural offerings. Sometimes it is a theater. In March, Ife-Gail Young performed her one-woman play about the life of Maggie Lena Walker. Near the turn of the 20th Century, Walker became the first Black woman in the United States to found and run a bank.
At other times, the stage becomes a platform for lectures. Historian Runoko Rashidi, who lectured internationally on ancient Egypt, spoke annually for a few years at Larchmere Arts until his 2021 death. Other events you’ll find at the venue include poetry slams, gallery shows, book readings and signings.
Whether it is an audience talkback with an artist after a performance, a Q&A after a lecture, or a casual conversation during the reception following a performance, many attendees can’t help but think of the salons of the Harlem Renaissance. The salons, usually held in homes, provided a forum for artists, activists and others to gather for deep conversation ranging from art to politics and economics.
John Omar of Euclid, who owns Uzuri Handcrafts, said artistic and intellectual stimulation are what make him a frequent visitor to Larchmere Arts.
“Vince is a person who tries to enlighten the whole community,” he said. “The people he brings are world-class performers. Even though this place is small, and kind of out of the way, it really attracts a very interesting clientele. There is always great conversation.”
Began in college
Robinson was introduced to jazz, photography and poetry at Kent State University, from which he graduated in 1980. He took a writing class with Professor Mwatabu Okantah. The class and office hours would prove pivotal to Robinson’s development.
“Okantah told me I was a poet,” he said. “I took him seriously and started writing poetry in earnest.”
When Robinson would visit his professor’s office, Okantah often would be listening to legendary jazz artists such as saxophonists John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins. Robinson liked the music so much that during winter break he bought about 50 used jazz albums and then secluded himself in his room in his parents’ Chillicothe home.
“I was in my room for about a week straight doing nothing but listening to jazz,” he said. “That was really my baptism in jazz.”
Robinson was soon combining the photography and darkroom technique he was learning with his newfound love of jazz. When jazz musicians such as saxophonist Sonny Stitt came to campus, he would photograph their performances. He liked shooting concerts because the photographic conditions were challenging. Concert photography has remained a staple of his portfolio, as photos on the walls of Larchmere Arts show.
“What is rewarding to me is being able to capture those images,” Robinson said. “Many times you’re dealing in a low-light situation, and you have to make the most of the light that’s available.”
Robinson’s photos have been shown throughout Greater Cleveland. They are part of The Black Experience: From Then and Now exhibit currently at Cleveland Hopkins International Airport. His work was featured in 2019 in an airport exhibit of black and white photos. In 2021, his work was part of the Sculpture Center’s “Crossroads: Still We Rise” exhibit.
Robinson, a former radio journalist, is a freelance photojournalist for area news and information organizations. They include CAN Journal, the East Side Daily News and the Real Deal Press. He has written for each of them. Robinson said doing so helps quell some of his journalistic urges. So do hosting “Open Door Cleveland with Vince Robinson” on WOVU 95.9 FM, producing the 360 Info Network program on WERE 1490 AM, and hosting another “Open Door” program on Spectrum’s Community Focus channel in northern Summit County.
As if that is not enough, Robinson also has a Side Hustle as a senior executive in a Black-owned hedge fund. It trades in cryptocurrency and foreign currency.
“Sometimes I don’t know how I am able to do all these things,” he said. “I know that sometimes I work into the wee hours of the morning.”
Regardless of his schedule, there is always time for music. First an avid listener of jazz, Robinson then began performing it. He founded Vince Robinson & the Jazz Poets in 1997. He remains the only original member. Sometimes members change daily.
“There have been days when I had two gigs and I would perform with two entirely different sets of musicians,” he said. “I consider them all to be Jazz Poets.”
Spoken word and more
On the recent rainy Sunday, the vibe at Larchmere Arts is part R&B/Pop jam session and part poetry reading. Vocalist RaShimba Bloom, also called Wild Bloom Sings, joins Vince Robinson & the Jazz Poets in performing old hits. They include Michael Jackson’s “I Can’t Help It” and “Butterflies.” Poet Rose Isis Foxx, also called RoseGold, performs some of her work.
Robinson stood before the audience. It’s often a full house. There were only about a dozen people seated in the 60 or so plastic folding chairs, some red and some white assembled to resemble auditorium seating. He said the titles of a couple of his poems and asked the audience to choose which they would like for him to perform.
They answered, “As the Band Plays On.” The poem offers an often dismal depiction of a society plagued by inequality and apathy. The best hope for change is to call upon “ancestors” such as Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth and Marcus Garvey. In African religions there is the belief that ancestors maintain a spiritual connection with their living relatives. Robinson believes this in a philosophical sense.
He told his band to play The Temptations’ “Ball of Confusion.” Robinson swayed to the music for a few bars before beginning his spoken word presentation.
“Strike up the band and play the anthem,” he spoke in rhythmic tone. “Power through the rain and storms on the horizon.”
The poem’s refrain is its title. Each time Robinson says it, Bloom and two other singers also seated in the audience followed by singing the refrain in three-part harmony.
Running the show gives Robinson the option of getting on what he calls his “economic soap box,” which include what some would consider unconventional theories. On this evening, it went something like this: The Federal Reserve System? Suspect. U.S. dollar? Shaky. Stimulus checks? Caused high inflation (many economists say checks contributed but didn’t cause inflation.)
A vegan since the 1990s, Robinson then moved to the topic of food. He said it is possible to live without it.
“As human beings, as divine beings, we can live off the air,” he said, adding that only those who have evolved to a certain level of consciousness are capable of doing this.
Robinson read the room. There were moans, murmurs and expressions of what appeared to be disbelief. Some members of the band softly started playing, as if to signal Robinson to wrap it up. A man yells out something about the value of bringing back the surplus government cheese program from the 1980s. Robinson told him it was a bad idea since many Black people are lactose intolerant.
Soon Robinson was back at the keyboard. Bloom was at the mic. The band started to jam.
Ancestors had a role
Robinson didn’t set out to start Larchmere Arts. He left his insurance job in 2015 after 27 years with no definite plans. All he knew was that he was compelled to do something with purpose. After being laid off as a radio journalist, he tried to find a similar job in the area because he didn’t want to relocate. When he wasn’t able to land a journalism job, Robinson reluctantly joined the insurance company. While there, the band and photography evolved as Side Hustles.
Soon after he quit his day job, fellow photographer Randy Norfus asked Robinson if he wanted to partner in starting a photo studio. The first time Robinson entered the building, he was pleasantly surprised to see a platform that could be used as a stage. Robinson, who began playing piano at six, always “just had this idea of having a venue somewhere.” But not just any venue.
“Eventually there came an understanding that Larchmere Arts is an ancestral cultural space, meaning that it exists by the will of the ancestors,” said Robinson, who has solely owned the business since 2018.
He opens each event with the African custom of asking the oldest person in the room for permission to proceed.
“Our debt to our ancestors is to carry forward the missions, the plans and goals that they had before they left the physical realm,” he said. “So, we honor the ancestors by moving forward with the things that we know will please them and be in the best interest of our people.”
Venue with purpose
Robinson enjoys owning Larchmere Arts because “it provides an outlet for my creative expression” as well as that of other artists. He believes “that art is one of the most important ways to heal people.” He said “it is extremely effective in addressing the stresses that people have in life by providing them a way to decompress.”
Ife-Gail Young, who recently performed the play she wrote about Maggie Lena Walker, said she intentionally chose Larchmere Arts. She likes Robinson’s following and the environment he has created. Young delivered her play to a full house. This was her largest audience for the 45-minute play, “This Woman Can.” Because of the venue, Young was counting on the audience to give thoughtful and honest feedback that could help her in tweaking the play.
“To me, it is one of the most meaningful places in the Black community,” she said. “It’s really almost the only place that doesn’t make you feel like it’s being monitored. You feel like a free artist. You can go there and express your art and whatever is on your mind.”
While it is a one-woman show, Young plays several characters. She depicted several men and women at a meeting by effortlessly changing hats and the tone of her voice in rapid succession. She sang songs she had written. The audience liked the performance and let her know with favorable comments during the talkback.
Several expressed dismay and even slight anger at never having heard of Walker. Walker, who focused on Black economic development and self-sufficiency, not only started a bank in Richmond, Va., but other businesses and social service efforts. Young also felt cheated by not having learned about Walker until several years ago. She stumbled upon a children’s book while working at Cleveland Public Library.
“I was just blown away,” she said of Walker’s accomplishments and mission.
After that, Young said, she was determined to tell Walker’s story. While moderating the talkback, Robinson said he was glad she had.
“It is our responsibility to bring our history to our people,” he said. “We cannot expect our oppressor, or those who seek to oppress us, to empower us with knowledge. Knowledge is power.”
In many ways the comment also spoke to Larchmere Arts’ purpose and mission. So did another comment he made in passing during the talkback. Robinson said there really wasn’t a way to make a lot of money in a 60-seat venue, where most tickets range from $10 to $20. He later said that money wasn’t the motivation for starting the venue.
“It’s always rewarding to me when someone comes to Larchmere Arts to share their gifts and talents,” Robinson said.