How Gabe Pollack ’11 turned an individual major into a career in jazz management.
A circuitous route through Oberlin led directly to a dream job for Gabe Pollack ’11. After initially majoring in environmental studies in the College of Arts and Sciences, he added a conservatory major in jazz trumpet during his sophomore year. By his fifth year, the double-degree student changed course in the conservatory, designing an individual major in jazz entrepreneurship that was geared toward the music business and venue management.
“For my final project, I wrote a business plan for a jazz club and applied for some grants,” he says. He earned funding through Oberlin’s Creativity & Leadership program, which supports innovative entrepreneurial efforts by Oberlin students. He spun that into a summer internship at the Cleveland jazz club Nighttown, whose marketing coordinator, Jim Wadsworth, he had met through a class at Oberlin.
“Jim was a guest lecturer,” Pollack recalls. “When I received the grant, I asked him if I could intern at Nighttown to get more experience. I moved to Cleveland and worked for him for a summer. When the grant ran out, he hired me. I worked there for three years as a booking agent during the day and doing sound production at night.”
As Pollack was learning the industry on Cleveland’s East Side, another jazz club across town found itself at a crossroads. Built in 2002, the sleek and intimate Bop Stop had enjoyed a run of several years at its home overlooking Lake Erie, but was situated in a West Side neighborhood that had yet to catch up to the venue's cool vibe. When the Bop Stop went on the market, one of its suitors envisioned the place as a burger joint, Pollack recalls hearing.
“The potential buyer said, ‘This is a great space, but what am I going to do with that?’ and pointed to the stage. After that, the owner kicked him out.”
Instead, the building was donated to the Music Settlement, a community music school in Cleveland’s University Circle neighborhood that had developed a vision for the club's revival. When the Music Settlement began looking for Bop Stop leadership, Pollack updated his résumé—and dusted off his old business-plan project from Oberlin.
“I interviewed for the management job and submitted my final paper with my application,” he says. “And they hired me.”
Under Pollack’s direction, the Bop Stop has thrived, with a steady schedule of local and touring jazz acts, including some 30 Grammy Award winners and counting. It was voted Best Jazz Club by Cleveland Scene in 2015 and 2016—and was even named Cleveland’s best date spot by the online matchmaker eHarmony, an honor Pollack calls “hilarious.”
Not coincidentally, the Bop Stop's Hingetown neighborhood has witnessed a rebirth along with it, with the addition of an art gallery, shops, restaurants, and other businesses that have made it a lively and eclectic hub on the outskirts of downtown.
The club also boasts a new recording studio donated by Cleveland radio personality Robert Conrad. “We can do high-end recordings here,” says Pollack, noting that the studio recently hosted a Blue Note session for Terence Blanchard. “It’s pretty cool to have Blue Note call you up and ask if one of their artists can record in your studio!”
The Bop Stop also maintains close ties to Oberlin, with student groups and faculty members regularly making the rounds onstage. “The space gives student musicians an opportunity to play in Cleveland,” says Pollack. “It can be hard when you’re relatively far from a major city like New York.”
Pollack’s own Oberlin years included several crucial steps toward where he is today. “Being part of the conservatory was challenging but worthwhile,” he says, recounting his own experiences making music. “It seemed like a lot of doors were closing, but when one door closes, another one opens. My experiences in the conservatory helped me figure out what I wanted to do after graduating.
“You learn a lot from your courses, but the connections I made with people as a student were important too,” he says. “There are lots of Oberlin graduates that are touring musicians, and it’s fun to book them at the Bop Stop. It’s important to take advantage of opportunities outside the classroom, too.”