The Milwaukee Jazz Scene is still not Dead or Dying

Having been deeply rooted in the MKE jazz scene for my entire performing career, I have a pretty clear picture of the state of the scene. I have seen it’s ebb and flow and have witnessed multiple waves of growth and promise. Is Milwaukee New York? No. Chicago? New Orleans? Seattle? No, but we DO have a proud tradition and lineage here, and many many talented players who have chosen to make Milwaukee their home. I originally posted this on the old “Milwaukee Jazz Blog”. When I/we were in the early stages of developing what would eventually become the Milwaukee Jazz Vision. There were a few specific items that were flash points of inspiration. One of them was an interview by a notable Milwaukee arts writer/critic, in which he implied that jazz in Milwaukee was dead or dying. I couldn’t help but feel like something had to be done to change this perception, as I knew that was far from the truth. Here is my revised top 10 list which discredits the aforementioned point. There are far more than 10 reasons, however this is just a start! Feel free to add more in the comment section…


1.  The Jazz Estate – We are lucky to have a club of this ilk in our fair city. Mike Honkamp, Brian Sanders,  Matt Turner and now John Dye, have kept the flame burning at this historic venue for well over 15 years – before that, the infamous “Wickman era”, Sal Monreal before that,Chuck and Ed Pociecha before that stretching back into the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s. When musicians from out of town play at The Estate, universally, they feel the vibe & the history within its small confines. It is unmistakable. In its storied history the likes of Joe Henderson, Cedar Walton, Red Rodney, Eric Alexander, Al Foster, Chris Potter, Conrad Herwig, Brian Lynch, Eddie Gomez, Rudder, Arturo O’ Farrill, Jim Rotondi, Rick Germanson, David Hazeltine, Danilo Perez, The Bad Plus, Dan Nimmer, etc… For fans and musicians alike, the Estate is quite possibly the most important piece of the jazz puzzle in Milwaukee. I am excited to see what lies ahead under new ownership (John Dye of Bryant’s Cocktail Lounge). With a much needed facelift and a fresh perspective on the business side of things, the flagship of the Milwaukee Jazz scene returns this June and we are all waiting patiently! Every city needs a dedicated jazz club and this one has been it.


2.  Wisconsin Conservatory of Music – From its inception in the mid 1960’s, the Jazz Studies Program WCM has been at the forefront of educating our aspiring young jazz musicians. Milwaukee has consistently produced musicians who have gone on to become major figures in New York, LA, Chicago and other major jazz centers. Renown alumni include: Gerald Cannon, Carl Allen, David Hazeltine, Brian Lynch, Dan Nimmer, Lynne Arriale, and Rick Germanson to name only a few. The conservatory runs an excellent summer jazz camp and frequently brings in national and internationally renowned jazz artists to work with the students of the Milwaukee Community. Recent guests have included Charles McPherson, Phil Woods, Benny Golson, Eric Alexander, Slide Hampton, Vince Herring, and artist in residence/alum, Brian Lynch. The WCM recently unveiled the Batterman Jazz Institute at The WCM which is an expansion on their already highly regarded jazz studies program. In just it’s first few years of existence the Batterman Institute’s top group has already racked up numerous awards and honors including: multiple awards in the Charles Mingus Jazz Competition in NYC, last year’s Downbeat award for outstanding HS Performing Arts group. It’s current iteration of faculty makes up some of the area’s finest teachers and performers, including Mark Davis, the Eric’s Jacobson and Schoor, Paul Silbergleit, Jeff Hamann, and Dave Bayles.


3. MYSO Jazz Studies – Having not been around as long as the WCM program, the MYSO jazz studies program has been a wonderful addition to the Milwaukee Jazz Landscape. Starting in the mid-2000’s by Milwaukee Jazz Education guru Cliff Gribble, the MYSO jazz studies program offers opportunities to study this incredible music with some of the city’s finest musicians/teachers. MYSO also runs the annual Jazz and Heritage Festival providing a full day of educational activities for local schools and MYSO students. In the past couple years the Jazz Heritage Fest has brought in artists like pianist Dan Nimmer, and drummers Carl Allen and Pete Zimmer.


4. UWM Jazz/UWM Youth Ensembles –  What always has been a strong classical school, UWM now has a promising future in further helping catapult the rich Milwaukee Jazz tradition into the future. Headed by saxophonist/educator Curt Hanrahan, UWM’s jazz curriculum offers jazz history, theory, arranging, piano, 5-7 small groups, a big band, and the UWM Youth Jazz Ensembles, an elite big band made up of the area’s best High School and Middle School students. Recent guest artists have included Eddie Gomez, Arturo O’ Farrill, Jon Faddis, Micheal Philip-Mossman, Carl Allen, Marvin Stamm, Ernie Watts, and many others.


5. The Pfister Hotel – What is starting to be dubbed the “Jazz Hotel”, fittingly, features live jazz 7 nights a week, often times in multiple venues simultaneously. From the Mason Street Grill, to the Lobby Bar, to the crown jewel of Milwaukee’s downtown nightlife scene, Blu – you can catch top notch music nearly every time you set foot in this historic building. The Marcus Corporation has shown its commitment in valuing the local music and arts scene over and over again – most directly and boldly in its flagship, Pfister Hotel. Mason Street Grill features duos, trios, quartets 6 nights a week, standards, straight ahead, R&B and contemporary jazz while you dine in class and style. The Lobby Bar features solo pianist Jeffrey Hollander, taking you through the depths of the Great American Songbook, as well as classical gems and favorite showtunes. Blu features live jazz three nights a week, including Marcus CEO Greg Marcus himself swinging standards on Tuesday nights! Friday and Saturday nights feature top local straight ahead acts and touring national stars such as Peter Bernstein, Gerald Cannon, Rick Germanson, Duane Eubanks, Joe Magnarelli, among many others. 


6. The Sugar Maple – If New York has the Village, Milwaukee has Bayview. What is turning into a separate little scene on its own, Bayview is littered with cool bars, many of which feature live music & many featuring jazz. The first place I would think of would be the Sugar Maple. Owned by Adrienne Pierluissi the Sugar Maple provides the Milwaukee Jazz scene some left-leaning diversity. Frequent faces include Ken Vandermark, Joe McPhee, Peter Brotzman, Tim Daisy, and many others from the Chicago avant-garde elite. Also, they have 60+ beers on tap. ; )


7. West End Conservatory – The West End Conservatory has filled a much needed cultural and artistic gap in Milwaukee’s central city. Co-owners Neil Davis and Isaiah Joshua really stuck their neck out when starting West End, and the risk has certainly paid off. West End provides music lessons, classes, lectures, and now more frequently, performances. In just a short span they have featured international stars The Bad Plus, Tim Berne, Dave King’s Trucking Company, John O’Gallagher, Russ Johnson’s many projects – among many other national and touring bands. Lovingly coined by Milwaukee’s most ardent jazz supporter Augie Ray, “West End, where music finds it’s freedom, and it’s future.” I couldn’t agree more. Drummer, composer, teacher, Devin Drobka has almost single handedly transformed the scene himself bringing in frequent collaborators, friends and connections from his time in New York City, many of which have performed at WEC.


8. Jazz Unlimited of Greater Milwaukee – Since 1974 JU has been supporting the musicians and students of Milwaukee through concerts, scholarships, and developing community.

JU’s Mission Statement:

To support the art of jazz in all its forms and encourage local jazz musicians, composers and venues by cultivating an interest in jazz through local live performances, youth scholarship opportunities and community outreach throughout the Greater Milwaukee area.

As their mission states, cultivating an interest in jazz is priority. It is well worth the $25 membership fee alone for the fantastic “hard copy” monthly newsletter mailed right to your front door. They put their money where their mouth is and walk the walk, as they have for over 40 years. Former JU president and Milwaukee icon August J Ray, deserves an article all to himself – possibly a bronze statue downtown.


9. Caroline’s Jazz Club – In what is a difficult climate for businesses (let alone a jazz club), Caroline’s has been going strong since the early 2000’s, presenting great jazz and blues to Milwaukee’s near south side 4+ nights per week. Owners Paul and Carol have shown an incredible dedication, bucking trends and presenting the music as it should, live in the club!


10. Riverwest  – Not since the 90’s and the old Stork Club (The Clams, MCME, Def Harmonic) has Riverwest experienced such an explosion in the creative arts, particularly music – and including jazz. This rebirth has centered around Center St, particularly George Bregar’s fantastic Company Brewing,  the rebirth of the original Jazz Gallery Center for the Arts, and unexpected venues taking a risk on jazz such as the High Dive and others. A new crop of young, passionate, energetic musicians spearheaded by Jay Anderson have helped to jumpstart the scene and lead us into a new generation of Milwaukee music.

12 thoughts on “The Milwaukee Jazz Scene is still not Dead or Dying

  1. Yes but are any of these places paying their musicians what they deserve, or are the musicians coming down to their level? I think it is the latter. I don’t think any club owners are keeping jazz alive, it’s the musicians that are willing to play for nothing that are sustaining it.

    1. Yeah, it certainly isn’t like the glory days when musicians could raise a family playing in clubs 6 nights a week, but there are a few bright spots. Knowing several of these club owners personally, these places are not making any money by simply having jazz, so I think it ultimately IS up to the musicians maybe even solely to make it happen… To work on pr, to market their music. Many do what they can just to keep the doors open. To put it on the club owners to keep the music alive? It would die in a week… Absolutely it’s being kept alive by the musicians. I see it as my responsibility, to do so… I’m sure not all do.

      1. I recently saw an interview with Jazz singer Kenny Rankin. His thoughts were along the lines of “what an honor it is to be invited into someones evening”. They are paying a baby sitter, spending money on dinner and drinks and have include you into their evening. I think this is right on. I think that sometimes jazz musicians lose sight of this. When I hear things like you have to “lay down” to keep a jazz gig that tells me that a musician has become self absorbed and completely lost perspective. The audience has to have something to take home with them. It is either a song or an emotion that has made them feel something. When musicians get so far out that there is no tempo, no chord structure nor emotion I wonder who are they playing for. If you went to hear a speaker talk about building and furnishing a home and they talked about colors, decorating and layout, you would understand and could see yourself in that home. However, if they talked about code and the ingredients of the paint you would not ever listen to that speaker again because you would not feel anything. Another example, if you went to hear a comedian and his focus was on current events, you would get and understand every joke. But what if his material was about the life and times of nuclear scientist. You would not understand the material nor get the humor and again you would never come back.
        There is a great saying that goes, “If you give enough people what they want you will get what you want”. I applied this approach to the HobNob. When I started 18 years ago I drew them into my playing by giving them what they wanted. I played things like Girl from Ipanema, satin doll and even Mack the Knife. Now after 18 years they will listen to me play Bolvia, Spain, Giant Steps, Beatrice ect. My point is that 18 years ago this would not have been possible. Today it is because I have drawn them in by giving them something that they wanted. I don’t feel that jazz is dead by any sense of the word. I think that sometimes musicians can be their own worse enemy by not repecting their audience. These are just my thoughts and I repect everyones playing. I just feel that the first place a musician should look is in the mirror.

      2. absolutely wonderful points dave! I agree with you whole-heartedly

    2. John,
      Your sentence “it’s the musicians that are willing to play for nothi8ng that are sustaining it” kind of shocks me, and is exactly why it has become a race to the bottom. If you give your work away, whether it is jazz or anything else, it no longer has value, and destroy’s the market for musicians trying to make a living. It really bothers me to read things like that. Somehow I managed to spend 40 years playing jazz, and many other kinds of music, made decent money, and a good living. When I joined a new Buddy Rich Orchestra in NYC in 1976, Buddy had just given everyone a $50 raise, we made $400 a week, which was good money back then, and he had great musicians. Do you really think anyone would have played for free? Ya gotta be kidding me. I played the actual jazz clubs here starting back in 69 like Brothers Lounge, made $15 a night and all I could drink, but $15 bought a lot back then. I was hired at The Wyndham downtown for a 2 week run to replace Mel Rhyne and Penny Goodwin. Mel drew about 6 people when I stopped down there, my trio filled the room. We made very good money. I also came in with a P..A. system that cost thousands of dollars. We were hired for a 2 week contract, and we lasted 8 years through 3 changes of management, and it took the events of 9/11 to dislodge us. We not only packed the entire room, but also had people dragging chairs from the lobby over to the hallway on the side of the room to create their own seating. I was in the music business, and expected to get paid, and paid my musicians well so I could get the best. The generally accepted term of a “professional musician” is one who plays for money. If you do it for free, or so little money you end up losing after expenses, you are considered an amateur, and it is a hobby. Those are the IRS rules. People who play for nothing or very little destroy the market for those who built it up over the years, and were able to be paid decently. Do you really think Miles would have played for free? It is called the music business, and unless you see it as a business, you just end up killing what is left of the business for the musicians who made a living from it. Therein lies the difference between an amateur and a professional. When you pick up your horn to play, you are a musician. When you negotiate a contract, spend money, and take care of business so you make a decent profit, it is the music business. They are distinct and separate, but they go together. When you are willing to play for free, and somehow justify it, you are just killing what is left of the music business. It has nothing to do with living in the past, or being an artist, or any other B.S.. When you are willing to play for free when others are trying to earn a living by getting paid for their services, you end up being the one who kills the business, and puts musicians out of work.

      1. John,
        In my April 1 reply to your statement about how you said that “musicians who are willing to play for nothing are supporting jazz (it), I listed various amounts I had earned over the years approaching it as a business. I also mentioned how giving something away places no monetary value on it, and puts musicians out of work. To bring you up to speed on the dollar amount I listed, here is what they are in today’s inflated money. I used this handy, dandy calculator to come to the dollar amount. It coincides with other calculators.
        http://www.usinflationcalculator.com/
        This will give you some idea of how musicians have screwed each other out of work and money over the years with your approach in the race to the bottom.
        In 1969, when I entered the business, I earned $15 a night and all I could drink at Brothers Lounge, a real jazz club. $15 in 1969 converts to $96.91 today.
        In 1975 I played on the Sig Millonzi Monday night rehearsal big band at the Club Garibaldi. Sig had to pay union rehearsal scale which was $20. Today that $20 would be $88.15, and it was a 2 hour gig.
        In 1976 I joined a new NYC Buddy Rich Orchestra. Buddy had just given the band a $50 a week raise. That raise converts to $208.36 today.
        That gig, with the raise, paid $400 a week, which in today’s money would be $1,666.86. Perhaps that gives you some concept of what musicians earned playing jazz, how they tried to maintain a good business sense, and were able to be paid decently. They did not give it away, or work for peanuts or nothing. Keep in mind that what I got from Buddy was the minimum he paid. Guys like Steve Marcus or Dave Stahl on lead trumpet got paid much, much more. It was the music business, we played jazz, and we could make a living at it.

  2. I got two things that I can really remember growing up in the Milly:

    1. Tosa East High School Jazz Ensemble I:
    This is a great school, and one of many in the area that teaches jazz to its students through big bands, jazz combos, and student led groups. A couple years ago, Tosa East was privileged to go to the Essentially Ellington competition in New York, and play for the JALC musicians. Tosa East also has an annual concert featuring the Northern Illinois Jazz Ensemble conducted by Ron Carter. This is a truly amazing show, kicked off by a performance from the Tosa East Jazz I. Guest artists in the past have been Charles McPherson, Willie Pickens, and Wyclef Gordon.

    2. Sally’s Bar in South Milwaukee has a weekly Jazz night where musicians of all walks and talents are invited to come in and join in a jam session. The atmosphere is real relaxed and inviting, and the players there are excellent teachers. There is also a weekly Blues night which also turns into a jam session later on.

    Love what your doing, Jamie. I will never be able to truly leave Milwaukee. I love this city and will always remain a part of it.

    1. Thanks Jason! Is that Sally’s jam still happening? I’ve never even heard of it!

  3. Jamie,
    You may be deeply rooted in jazz for your entire performing career, but that is only a limited view of things based on the years you have been involved in it. You are still a young man. I started playing actual jazz clubs, which no longer exist as they did back in 1969. That is where my reference point begins. I played at Brothers Lounge (later renamed the Jazz Oasis) which was a real jazz club, and only a half block away was the Space Lounge, another jazz club. Hammond B3 organs were common in clubs back then. Musicians like George Pritchett made a living playing jazz, and I would follow him around town sitting in. We both spent time on the road playing with the Buddy Rich Orchestra back when big bands actually existed nationally. The Attic, the old one downtown would feature name big bands virtually every month. Guys actually made a living playing the jazz clubs, and then there were the “after hours clubs”, which stayed one step ahead of the law . It was a great era. Summerfest had the Miller Jazz Oasis. Think of it, a major Summerfest stage with only jazz, with a name act to close out the evening, and local bands all day. I spent over a year at Channel 10 in a full time, 28 piece house orchestra, and I led the big band that was part of it 5 days a week, either rehearsing or performing. A steady paycheck playing big band jazz. Musicians like Sig Millonzi was world class, and as good as anyone I ever heard come out of this town. I played on his big band starting back in 1975, and he traveled around with a Steinway grand to play on. He earned his living playing jazz. You have no idea of what existed back then. I would talk to older guys like Hattush Alexander who had played with Basie in NYC, and other guys who were around in the 40’s and 50’s, and there was a ton of work. Think 52nd Street in NYC. I guess it all depends on when you first started playing jazz in this town, or talking to older musicians who would let you know how it had been for them, and how much work there was. What we have now is just the fumes left, if that. All the national big band jazz acts are history, yet when I was starting out, there were so many of them, and I got to play on them. I also think about jazz on the radio. We used to have 3 local stations with jazz on FM radio, and Ron Cuzner who was a friend of mine, had his 6 night a week show, with classical music during the day on WFMR. All of that is just gone. As the song says, “Everything Must Change.” We all have a different reference point I guess when we look at the picture.

    1. Larry,

      I appreciate your comments. I certainly wrote the blog from my perspective, and in relation to the “wider angle” things absolutely do not compare. I am well aware of Milwaukee’s deep history. I started this to try and preserve that history so musicians and fans of my generation understand that history – http://mkejazzvision.org/milwaukee-jazz-archive/ – I also got tired of hearing people complain about how bad things are now, and how good they used to be, so I started this with some friends, http://mkejazzvision.org

      I know we can’t recreate the glory years, but I will ask you and everyone I come across, what are YOU doing to make it better? ; )

      1. Jamie,
        You obviously care a lot about jazz, it’s survival, and have a positive attitude which is great. I am retired from the music business, but still love music in all its forms. I honestly do not think there is very much that I can do to make things better. I am not complaining about anything, more just reflecting on how much things have changed not only in jazz, but in work for shows, touring, Broadway, the MSO, and peoples tastes in music. I just had dinner last night with an old college room mate who I had not seen in 45 years. He lives in Rochester N.Y, did his grad work at Eastman, and is active playing. Eastman has a great jazz program, and is perhaps the best music school in the country. It is also one of the most expensive. They turn out great musicians, but the work just is not there. He had just worked a gig a few nights before with a grad student there, and the best the poor kid hoped for was a gig on a cruise ship! I would rather pay the fine than have to live like that to earn a living playing music, and there is very little jazz on a cruise ship. This is not just jazz that is taking a hit, but live music. I have a friend who like you plays trumpet, and lives in NYC. He has all the credentials, toured with Buddy Rich for years, toured with Liza and was her orchestra contractor, did the entire 18 year run of CATS, had studio work up the yazoo, and played with the best of the best. It is just gone for him except to sub a few times a month on CHICAGO. The original orchestra for CATS was 24 pieces. It just came back to Broadway to the Neil Simon Theater, which is 2 blocks from his condo, and it now is an 8 piece orchestra with 2 woodwinds, 2 rhythm, and 4 synths. That’s it. The union has rules for minimum number of musicians to be employed at the theaters, but the union is weak, and the gigs are gone. So it is not just jazz, it is live music that is just evaporating. My friend started playing in NYC in the 70’s, and worked with the older guys who were legends. It is mind boggling to us how much work there used to be. It is just gone. I honestly do not know what musicians can do about that. Be glad for whatever is left. The future for jazz right now is in high schools and colleges. Unfortunately it is often taught by people who never actually earned a living playing it. I’m glad you are looking at the positive side of what is left, but I just do not see it getting any better for jazz, or any other live music unless you aspire to be a rap artist. Having said that, you do have the experience of playing the music in clubs, do it very well, and are involved in music education, so you can pass on your knowledge and inspiration. Keep doing it!

  4. Absolutely! Live music, in general, not just jazz. Totally agree. That is incredible about the CATS thing being cut down from 24 to 8. Wow! Definitely a sign of the times. I think a big problem is developing an audience again for the music. Which comes from cultivating listeners in school.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s