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.