ROCK HILL — There was once a day when blues and jazz poured out from the pool halls and clubs along Black Street in Rock Hill. That was back when nearly 100 Black-owned businesses lined the road over a 70-year period.
That world no longer exists on Black Street after the city displaced the businesses in the name of urban renewal.
But the music still does.
Those trumpets and saxophones will fill Main St. in Rock Hill, just one block from Black Street, during the 19th annual Blues & Jazz Festival hosted by the Arts Council of York County.
The main event, “Old Town Crawl,” will take over Rock Hill on Oct. 6 from 7 p.m. to 11 p.m.
For $20, visitors can wander across six locations within the downtown area, including Rock Hill Brewing Company, The Flipside Restaurant, Player 1 Up, The Mercantile Caldwell Courtyard and Tom S. Gettys Center Courtroom.
The nearly two-decade-long festival has transformed into a tradition that residents come to expect every year — one that pays homage to the genres’ roots in Rock Hill and conjures up memories of Black Street
“Being that close to where Black Street is … you have to kind of think about it if you are of a certain age,” said Bobby Plair Jr., who helps produce the event.
Plair has helped organize the festival for more than 19 years, before it was even named the Blues & Jazz Festival— back when people called it the Jubilee or Harvest of the Arts festivals.
He has an intimate knowledge of the music in Rock Hill.
His father, Bobby Plair Sr., taught band at Fort Mill High School, Clinton College and most notably, George Fish School, where he won multiple state titles.
Plair Jr. knows the rich lineage of jazz and blues musicians who emerged from Rock Hill, including Jimmy Ellis of the Trammps and Johnny King,who performed with the Bill Doggett band.
Over the years, the festival has brought world-renowned artists to Rock Hill, such as Biscuit Miller and Adrian Crutchfield.
But this year, Plair wanted to focus solely on local artists, a list that includes Mellogroove, Weekends, Jay the Blue Thriller, JazzGroupProject and Plair, a jazz band that he leads.
It isn’t just about the music, though. It’s about pulling people to downtown Rock Hill, a section of the city that for decades featured few stores and saw little foot traffic.
Now, as the growth streams down from nearby Charlotte, a new business seems to appear near Main Street every couple months — and organizers want that to continue.
“This is where festivals can really help the arts intersect with business in terms of economic development,” said Lori Robishaw, executive director of the Arts Council. “We know that if we can drive visitors downtown, they’re likely to eat and drink and shop.”
In the future, Robishaw said she wants to continue expanding the event from Main Street.
This year, on Sept. 30, it hosted a kickoff concert at FARMarcy Community Farmstop on the south side, an underserved, majority-Black area that the Arts Council plans to make a priority with more events along with the city’s Clinton ConNEXTion plan.
And as the city continues to develop the downtown corridor, Robishaw hopes to extend the music to Winthrop University and Rock Hill’s forthcoming $400 million performing arts center. Most notably, she hopes to bring blues and jazz past Dave Lyle Boulevard to the University Center, where new apartments, a food hall and breweries have risen in the past year.
The festival has evolved over the years. It’s gone from three days to two days, national acts to local acts, inside to outside to both.
But regardless of the style, Blues & Jazz Festival has never stopped — even during the COVID-19 pandemic — making it one of the longest-running festivals in the city.
And that, Plair said, is a testament to the music.
“These are two art forms that were formed on American soil,” he said. “These are American art forms that so many people relate to.”