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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.
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Inspiration and humanity in music

My own feelings about the direction in which jazz should go are that there should be much less stress on technical exhibitionism and much more on emotional content, on what might be termed humanity in music and the freedom to say all that you want.

— Booker Little

I think we have all have had experiences of pure inspiration in music. These moments leave us with much to think about regarding our own directions and ideas about music and life. One such experience… I feel so blessed and humbled to have had the opportunity to play with pianist/composer Arturo O’ Farrill and alto saxophonist David Bixler. I must admit, I had been more aware of Mr. O’ Farrill’s work as an arranger and bandleader, not as much as a pianist. After hearing the first notes he pulled out of that well-worn piano at the Jazz Estate, however, I and everyone else in the room was well aware of the magnitude of this incredible musician. We played a mix of charts I brought in, and some of Mr. O’ Farrill’s originals. After getting a chance to talk with Arturo for a bit on the break(s) and after the gig, I came to a few realizations/re-affirmations:

1) I had never really heard anyone sound like this on the piano. What I was hearing was a unique voice, void of recycled cliches, licks, patterns, etc. Yet at the same time, I could hear the entire history of the piano from Art Tatum through Brad Mehldau. It is ok to be yourself, after understanding your place/role in the tradition. Vis a vis the great Coltrane quote: “I’ve found you’ve got to look back at the old things and see them in a new light.” It is important to possess a vast library of vocabulary that can be delivered eloquently, intelligently, originally, and authentically. 

2) Humility is an essential element in maintaining growth as a musician. Here is a musician playing as much music on the piano as I have ever heard in person…. and he is as gracious, courteous, and open minded as can be. There is NO room for ego, pretentiousness, attitude in this music (and in life). The only way to improve as a musician (and as a person), is to acknowledge your shortcomings and to address your weaknesses. 

3) It’s about what you say AND how you say it. I am reminded of a particular performance with a good friend. As we were about to begin the set,  he leans over to me and says “Alright now, no licks!”. Much easier said than done for certain… Actually, this was really difficult and I certainly played plenty of them that night. However it caused me to think very deliberately, “I am going to really try and say something and say it with some force and some depth and some meaning and some direction.”

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Clamnation

Every musician has a number of experiences that form who they are to become, from inspiring teachers or performances, to one-time live concerts that leave a lasting impression.


I was fortunate at a young age to have teachers that exposed me to great music at key points in my development. My 7th grade guidance counselor gave me a copied cassette tape of 60’s-era Miles Davis, when he saw and heard that I had an inclination toward jazz music. My private lesson teacher in middle/high school and I would often spend our entire lesson trading choruses and fours along with Aebersold records – absorbing the feel and spirit of the music, not worrying about licks and patterns. One particular college professor and I would spend entire lessons playing a single tune, him accompanying beautifully and artistically on piano, with only a few words of advice… Professor: “Did you realize you were breathing every four measures?” Me: “No. No, I didn’t” Prof: “Well… don’t do that. Don’t let your ideas be confined to just four-bar increments.” All of these things were important guide posts along the way to me forming my identity as a musician.

Around 1997 or 98, I was invited to attend a rehearsal with a band that was looking to add a trumpet player. Being about 18-19 years old, and not having had worked a whole lot, it was an exciting proposition. I only knew the saxophonist and trombonist casually, having played in the University Big Band with them for about a semester. The first rehearsal was in a dingy basement in a mysterious house shrouded by overgrown bushes and odd/abstract homemade sculptures – this itself was an eye-opening experience. I entered the rehearsal space cautiously and I walked in on an incredible thing – a deeply organic, earthy, spiritual – thing. I looked around the basement and saw six musicians who cared deeply about music… upright bass, hollow body guitar, drumset, congas, baritone saxophone, and trombone. I remember timidly playing through a couple charts before launching into an Afro-Cuban arrangement of “Stolen Moments” by Oliver Nelson, which I knew well. We played through the head per usual and hit the solo section into a raging 12/8 percussion deluge. My mind and soul was instantly blown wide open. Everything I knew about music was about to change.


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Why Thelonious Monk?

Never before has the music of a particular artist taught me more about myself. Maybe more importantly, that it is OK to be myself.

Two years ago, I began a “journey” studying the music of Thelonious Monk. I was talking with my good friend Steve Peplin, who was in the midst of an intense study of Monk’s music himself. He was thinking of putting a group together to perform only Monk compositions. While preparing for the gig with Steve, I quickly realized I only knew a handful of Monk tunes – the ones that everyone knows/calls at jam sessions (Well You Needn’t, Blue Monk, Straight, No Chaser, etc). I remember the gig vividly, and I remember trying to play “Think of One”, having never played it before – maybe, having never even heard it before .

I remember having the feeling that the composition led me into different melodic and rhythmic directions. Directions I might not have otherwise chosen. I also remember feeling like whatever I decided to play, would fit – free, blues, fast, slow, spacious, angular. It intrigued me, and the adventure began. It led me to explore other artists who found inspiration in Monk’s compositions such as: Steve Lacy, Barry Harris, Don Cherry, Alexander Von Schlippenbach, Bud Powell, Jason Moran, Sonny Rollins, Ethan Iverson (his writings on the topic of Monk are detailed, read more here > Do the Math), among many others. One of the things I started to do was analyze how others approached improvising over those difficult harmonies and forms. Continue reading “Why Thelonious Monk?”

Manty Ellis, Midwest Jazz Master

Manty Ellis is certainly what you call a treasure. His perspective on life and music is what we all hope to attain as musicians. He has recently formed a new project – The Milwaukee Jazz Foundation – as a means to invigorate the Milwaukee Jazz scene. Manty is a master musician, and a master story teller.


By Aaron Cohen 1997 Midwest Jazz Masters Journal volume 4, number 3 – Fall 1997, page 29

“Personally, I just like the city,” Ellis said recently. “And I have a little more of an attachment. Most people in any city were born in hospitals. I never made it. I was born in a house right here in Milwaukee on North 5th Street. And I can go back there every day of my life and I can sit in front of that front window where I was born. That house has all kinds of memories when I go back over there.” These memories include the first musician Ellis heard: his father, Grover Edwin Ellis, a pianist with a strong interest in Louis Armstrong. “I started going to the piano as soon as I could to emulate what he was doing.” Ellis said. “He saw this and started directing me a little bit. Pretty soon he started teaching. I knew more about music than the ABC’s for some time because that’s how I was taught. Just basic theories of how scales are constructed, I learned that before I started school.” Under his father’s tutelage, Ellis became accomplished enough – at age 9, no less – to be a sideman in bands around Milwaukee.

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Spirits

If you wonder if Milwaukee can sound like New York, give the latest by this trumpeter a spin and wonder no more. – Midwest Record

Jamie Breiwick | Spirits (BluJazz 2013)

Open the door on the album cover and you enter the Jazz Estate, a Milwaukee club that exemplifies a venue that nurtures modern straight-ahead jazz and makes money at it. This recording was made there one night, even if the program has the well-considered sense of purpose of a studio recording.

The melody of the opening “Gig Shirt” has a slightly skewed trumpet-saxophone harmony, recalling Ornette Coleman’s classic/radical quartet, which certainly influenced the album’s piano-less instrumentation. The theme bodes well for a musical departure, especially in its expansive rising last notes. Continue reading “Spirits”