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.
Continue reading “The Milwaukee Jazz Scene is still not Dead or Dying”

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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What do you believe in?

For as long as I have been an active musician in Milwaukee (since about 1997) one of the biggest gripes among musicians and fans alike is that there has been an extreme lack of national acts coming through Milwaukee.


It would appear that Milwaukee’ s jazz scene, which once boasted numerous jazz clubs, a world class festival (Summerfest – Miller Jazz Oasis), numerous local festivals (Jazz in the Park, 3rd Ward Jazz Fest), great concert series (Pabst-Hal Leonard) had all but dried up – or as many in the media have stated time and time again – died.

I was fortunate to catch the tail end of some of the great old clubs of the previous era like The Main Event and The Jazz Oasis – and even started gigging at The Jazz Estate at the end of the now-legendary “Wickman era”. When the Milwaukee Jazz Vision was formed, we wanted to attack these “gripes” head on. Why weren’t people coming through?

Case #1) The two prominent  jazz clubs that were presenting national acts during my time both closed due to poor management and ultimately financial disarray. I just missed “Christopher’s” which was located downtown and had tremendous potential, but just couldn’t sustain itself. I heard it described by friends as “maybe the largest jazz club in the world”. Many marveled at its sheer square footage, and wondered from the beginning if it would last. A more recent casualty (ca. early 2000s), “The Red Mill East” on Good Hope Rd, blew a ton of cash on an incredible but largely unpromoted and unnoticed series that presented the likes of Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter, among others.

Continue reading “What do you believe in?”

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

spirits

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”