A Slightly Fractured Cat Fairy Tail

cat tornado pic

Artist rendering of the eye of a tornado. Courtesy ArtWanted.com

By Kevernacular

There seems no elegant way to begin this little fractured fairy tale, so I’ll get on with it. I was seated on the false throne upon which I debase myself before Mother Nature every morning. Ah, but the Grande Dame had a new experience – and task – in mind for me today, telling this story apparently.

Because, dear reader, fractured as this fable may seem, it is true. I had heard that this sort of phenomenon happens, but only as an old wives’ tale (or an old soldier’s amazing tale of valor, to be more P.C.?)

But there I was, hearing the strangest commotion, a few feet away from me. Deep inside the tall walls of my flat’s old-fashioned claw-footed bathtub, a concentrated cauldron of circular chaos had erupted. This particular concentrated cauldron of circular chaos is named Chloe, so perhaps this was inevitable, you C.

Chloe is my very intelligent but slightly crazy cat. But what the hell was she doing in the tub? The shower curtain was pulled away, behind the free-standing tub, so it wasn’t occupying her, as it sometimes does. Then, her well-rounded, open-air fits and starts all of a sudden fell into place in my still-groggy morning mind.



You probably know how much cats like to get into circles. Now you know how tantalizing Chloe’s white tail is — to that end — sometimes, especially to her.

I think she’s chasing her tail!

She had hopped into the curved end of bathtub which may have sent her mind into a circular tizzy. So I leaned over to get a better view of the action, and sure as heck.

She was not only chasing her tail, she was stalking it, as cats are wont to do. Chloe happens to have a white tip on her darkly mottled Calico tail, which seemingly was now contributing to her self-involved intoxication, this small “I” of a tornado.

So part of her body waved the tail tip tauntingly at her face from below until she could stand the tension no longer in her contorted, curled-up crouch – She had to attack!

But, spinning madly, she failed miserably, of course. Still, she was now hell-bent on capturing the monstrous tail, dead or alive!! Like a manic ghostbuster chasing down the thump of an accursed, beating, disembodied heart!!!

I imagined Edgar Allan Poe nodding in demonic glee from his grave somewhere in New England.

Meanwhile, I also envisioned something else, A Red Badge of Courage, forming mystically upon Chloe’s furry breast.

Again, the tail swayed slowly back and forth, mockingly. Again, she pounced in ferocious, temporary (I hoped) insanity. And again.

I swear, this went on for several minutes and I figure that she traveled several cat lifetimes in pursuit of the white, phantasmagorical mouse she had trapped.

What goes through the mind of a cat in such times, aside from the wind blowing in one ear and out the other, registering a small echo in the empty cavern of her brain that sends her on such wild goose chases?

No wonder, it was a wild goose, or at least a goose poking its head up out of a hole in the ground. Wow, that sounds pretty tantalizing, to even me.

The reporter in me finally kicked in, and I thought, I can maybe capture some of this on video, for proof, if I can only reach my camera.

Done with my duty, I tiptoed into the kitchen, loaded the recharging battery into the camera, and made my way back. Of course, the tiny click and whir of the camera mechanism going on caught her attention, and her interest in the wild goose, or mouse – that, in fact, chases her all day long – suddenly abated, and she hopped out of the top with her little “Geronimo!” meow and was gone.

So now, rather than visual proof, you have merely my words and your own imagination to contemplate this modest wonder of nature. Or the truth of its telling, a tall order in these topsy-turvy political times.

Was this somehow a metaphor for dear, confused America, today? Or was the tail a mere fairy? I guess it’s time for me to get to work, while you contemplate.

If you happen upon any cosmic insights, please leave them here.


Pianist Tim Whalen brings his powerful tribute to Bud Powell to the Jazz Estate


Cover design for Tim Whalen’s “Oblivion: The Music of Bud Powell” by Jamie Breiwick for  B-Side Graphics. Courtesy www.timothywhalen.com

Oblivion: The Music of Bud Powell – Tim Whalen (WayHay Music)

The Tim Whalen Trio will perform on Thursday, April 6 at The Jazz Estate in Milwaukee.

“Oblivion,” the title of a Bud Powell tune, might be the single best word to describe the great pianist’s sad legacy. His name is in need of desperate repair, ravaged by the winds of time and his own peculiar fate. Pianist-composer Tim Whalen has gone a considerable distance in accomplishing that with his album Oblivion: The Music of Bud Powell. But we must backtrack a bit to understand the title’s significance.

It remains a matter of bald historical fact that Bud Powell was the mid-and-late 40s bebop era’s most sought-after pianist, yet he remains to this day probably the most underappreciated, given his true stature.

His direct contemporary Thelonious Monk has had his day in the sun, something to be celebrated, thanks significantly  to a composing style apart from, and more easily congenial, than the hard-core bebop that Powell excelled at. And their stories interwtine and lead to perhaps the most fateful day of Powell’s career, which also speaks to present-day concerns about police brutality against unarmed black men.

It’s unfortunate that Robin D.G. Kelly’s largely impeccable and voluminous 2009 biography, Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original, doesn’t note the cruelty and neurological damage done by a police officer on the night of January 21, 1945 to the man that Kelley calls Thelonious Monk’s best friend.  According to Duck Baker, album annotator of Bud Powell Paris Sessions (Pablo 2002), “Bud was foolish enough to interfere with some Philadelphia flatfeet who were getting rough with his best friend, Thelonious Monk.” The bludgeoning Powell suffered for his loyal courage “changed the course of his life, as Bud was led to a series of mental ‘hospitals’ where he was pumped full of pills and given shock treatments.”

Powell’s life generally spiraled downward after that, though he managed a resurgence in 1946, as evidenced by several recordings and, after being readmitted to a mental institution in 1947, by his celebrated Blue Note recordings (especially 1951’s The Amazing Bud Powell Vol. 1.) Also excellent are recordings in Europe in the late ’50s and early ’60s, including a late reunion with Dexter Gordon on the saxophonist’s superb Our Man in Paris. His career ended in “scuffling obscurity,” says jazz historian Alyn Shipton, due to his complicated mental problems and issues with drugs, and ironically to his return to New York in 1964. This was a man who, in his early 20s with the Cootie Williams Orchestra, had accompanied stage acts “so brilliantly that he outplayed the dancers he was supposed to be accompanying,” bassist Ray Brown recalls in Shipton’s book.1

Regarding the deleterious effects of shock treatment, I can attest, as it has been still used in recent years in sophisticated hospitals and clinics. I witnessed shock treatments given to my late ex-wife who suffered cognitive damage after undergoing them at the Mayo Clinic and other facilities.

Monk, for one, remained much attuned to Powell’s travails. “Bud was a genius, but you know, he was so sick, and now he’s fragile,” Monk once recalled. Another time, Monk commented, “Bud is beautiful. But he’s not doing so well in America, he’s sleeping in the gutter.” Those are both quotes from Kelly’s copious Monk biography, which amounts to a new sort of definitive history of the bebop era.

Nor have I done Powell justice over the years, having become enamored of the late recordings he did of Monk’s music for Verve Records (and his Portrait of Thelonious on Columbia), to the neglect of Powell’s earlier work. Those Monk recordings somehow managed to be marvelous but were recorded long after he had lost his prime bebop musical facility and suffered from many medical peaks and valleys. 2.


Pianist Tim Whalen at the recording sessions for “Oblivion: The Music of Bud Powell.” Courtesy timothywhalen.com

All of this underscores the importance and value of Whalen’s recording, which he will be playing from when he performs Thursday, April 6 at The Jazz Estate in Milwaukee with bassist Jeff Hamman and drummer Dave Bayles.

Comprising all Powell compositions except one by Whalen, Oblivion opens appropriately enough with “Hallucinations.” It conveys how much Bud possessed a spirit as high as his tragic bop kindred Charlie Parker. Whalen’s solo pushes hard, as if pressing to make a point about the tune’s odd juxtaposition of exuberance and sense of suffering. His heavy percussive attack recalls another bop-era pianist Eddie Costa, although he negotiates the knotty changes with aplomb.

What follows is one of Powell’s dazzling masterpieces, an impressionistic miniature comparable to Duke Ellington’s “Daybreak Express.” After a fine chordal intro, Powell’s “Parisian Thoroughfare” glitters with an ensemble line evoking a bustling street scene, with the band sounding like a crazy chorus-line of dancing cabs in a Folies Bergere fever dream.

Whalen finds fresh inlets of light by carving out spaces and adding garlands, a sort of blending of street smarts with Francophile ornamentation. Tenor saxophonist Elijah Jamal Balbed is a modern post-Coltrane player with a rich yet grainy texture to his tone that alludes to classic tenor players and adds an offhanded gravitas to his playing. Guitarist Paul Pieper proves a swift co-conspirator in Powell’s most challenging harmonic gauntlets. Drummer Sharif Taher here has a powerful chugging style reminiscent of Tony Williams.

“Kind Bud” is a deeper, darker aspect of Powell’s bebop and for its blues lament, almost intimates a political statement about the tragic fate of such a gifted artist, especially regarding his awareness of his place in society as a black man in a white man’s world.

“Un Poco Loco” is another ironic commentary on his own afflictions and perhaps the album’s hardest swinging tune, especially on Balbed’s surging sax solo. Whalen, by contrast, allows the music to breathe a bit, while never betraying the tune’s structural integrity.

The CD’s ensuing “Blue Pearl” is a rather glimmering beauty with a slight Latin tempo. The comparatively little-known tune has a lapidarian quality, reflecting a craftsman of precise discipline that begets beauty. Here and elsewhere, bassist Eliott Seppa’s harmonizing with the piano-guitar-saxophone frontline recalls the Heath Brothers at their peak.

One would expect the title tune “Oblivion” to sound as abject as say, Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life,” but the band understands it as a “bouncing with Bud” blues that signifies a devil-may-care attitude. That suggests Powell’s peculiar brilliance as searingly self-possessed in the knowledge of how his black genius was betrayed. Yet he’d never let on, never let you see him pitying himself.

Bud photoBud Powell during the years he recorded with Blue Note Records. Courtesy estaticos 02.elmundo.es

Sometimes Powell’s themes and solos can be almost overwhelming, but you get a heaping helping of bop at its most modernistic and visionary and yet with a long shadow cast over it, as the CD cover’s noirish watercolor landscape superbly conveys. So perhaps even now, this music isn’t for everyone, but there’s no doubt it’s a bracing and historic statement of an art form evolving to extraordinary artistic heights.

Whalen offers his own ode to Bud, in “I’ll Keep Loving You,” a brooding ballad that feels like a stealthy suitor stealing into the beloved’s heart even if the lover’s been long gone, off in another world.

Still, Whalen and company assure that Bud Powell has returned, in hallowed honor.

Whalen is a distinctly ambitious musician who has led both a popular R&B/funk jazz ensemble and a nonet, largely of Madison-based musicians, for a number of years. Among numerous accomplishments since moving to Washington DC in 2010, he orchestrated the string arrangement for the Oscar-winning song “El Otro Lado del Rio” by Jorge Drexler from the film The Motorcycle Diaries.


1 Alyn Shipton recounts Powell’s triumphs and tragedy in his A New History of Jazz on pages 491-495.

2. Despite Powell’s apparent loss of top-end technical facility in later years, the musical relationship between him and Monk remained crucial and vital. Some argue that Powell was Monk’s best interpreter. Seminal bebop drummer Kenny Clarke reputedly said, “Monk wrote for Bud. All his music was written for Bud, because he figured but was the only one who could play it.” https://www.amazon.com/Portrait-Thelonious-Bud-Powell/dp/B000002AHT





New Orleans jazz trio comes to Milwaukee staking its fortunes on the humble swamp rat named Nutria

Nutria jazz

Nutria includes Shawn Myers, drums; Byron Asher tenor sax and clarinet; and Trey Boudreaux, bass. Courtesy nutria.bandcamp.com. 

Nutria, a jazz trio, will play at Company Brewing, 735 E. Center St., in Milwaukee at 10 p.m. on Thursday March 23, on a bill with Mrs. Fun.

Nutria will then perform two sets at 7 p.m. Friday, March 24, at  The Jazz Gallery Center for the Arts, 926 East Center St.

“Named after the infamous South Louisiana swamp rat, Nutria is an acoustic trio that performs original modern jazz compositions with an emphasis on collective improvisation.  We creatively explore traditional music of the African diaspora & Eastern Europe as well as the avant-garde.” – Byron Asher, Nutria

How can you not be disarmed by a jazz band’s self-description, which begins so unassumingly, that willingly allows the band’s identity to wallow in such dank, swampy realms. Though the nutria may be “infamous,” probably for his cagey and nefarious ways, one can assume that the scuffling rodent does so for the sake of merely scoring a meager meal he might scrounge up from bits of human detritus.

nutria rat

A fanciful illustration of the “notorious” South Louisiana swamp rat called nutria. Courtesy nutria. com, the website of the jazz band named for the critter.

Nutria’s greatest association with fame to date may be a hat made out of the rat’s fur which Elaine Benes uses in a Seinfeld episode. “The Chicken Roaster” affair opens with Cosmo Kramer unwittingly becoming addicted to the roasted chicken of a Kenny Rogers fast-food franchise that beams its sign into his bedroom, disrupting his sleep.

In a subplot, Elaine charges $8,000 to her employer’s account for an extravagant Russian sable hat, for the sake of George Costanza, who covets it. But hapless George leaves it behind at the apartment of the hat sales clerk, in hopes of getting a second date with her, after he typically subterfuges his own first date.

george sable hat

In a scene from the Seinfeld episode “The Chicken Roaster,” George Costanza imperiously flaunts his $8,000 sable hat, charged for him by Elaine Benes to her employer’s expense account. Or is the hat just plain, old, ratty nutria? Courtesy newdressaday.com

When confronted about her account charge by the Peterman Corporation, Elaine tries to claim the mangy nutria hat as her actual purchase, but her ruse fails, and her job is on the ropes…The episode also features a scene of Jerry Seinfeld accidentally dropping nutria rat fur all over diners’ chicken in the Kenny Rogers restaurant.1

Given such sorry cultural province, there’s clearly self-effacing humor at work with this jazz trio but also, one discovers, a clear strategic intelligence and inventiveness that cajoles listeners to allow the mangy nominal being its small corner space in our environment. Indeed, is it beneath us to throw him a scrap from a deserted plate of food?

For there’s plenty more that this Nutria has to offer you in return, from the evidence of six original tunes I have recently heard on YouTube videos of the band, which will soon release a new album. And the range of musical influences show a substantial depth of artistic resourcefulness and assimilation in their trio style. Here’s a critical perusal of those tunes. I refrain from generalized comment as this doesn’t add up to a whole album or artistic statement. :

“Ghosts Before Breakfast”: A brooding opening melodic ambiance. Then a tempo arises, an almost tiptoe gait, and the second chorus becomes more syncopated and playful. Then improvisation seems to begin. As with the theme, the solo honors space and grace, while gaining momentum. Byron Asher’s large, generous tenor sax tone and melodic invention recall Sonny Rollins.

“Call to the Air”: The bassist Trey Boudreaux  opens, with Shawn Myers’ simmering drums and Asher again evoking Rollins in the jump down to a low, fat register. De-da-deeee. The bass and drums now fairly dance and the tenor circles languidly around the buoyant tempo. Then Byron inserts more rhythmically sharpened phases until he unleashes more fire while still showing respect for space, in an unhurried manner. As the tempo does pick up he fills that with rich tones and tart phrases. The groove carries on over a supple two-note sax vamp.

“The Hero” (Live at Old Mint, New Orleans): Here you feel the essence of Nutria’s very congenial style. A punchy groove is driven by the bass. At one minute, Asher’s clarinet enters, with a nifty little pirouetting riff theme. His solo characteristically works off his bandmates’ rhythm and this is the most swinging piece so far, with a bluesy ambience, yet the mood is buoyant and frisky. The bass solo is bounding and seems to possess some of the character of a person who asserts a stance in a manner potentially heroic. The clarinet returns with stalking phrases and ends with a witty little conversation with bass Boudreaux. The use of the clarinet reflects the timeless New Orleans tradition but the music is decidedly more contemporary than traditional New Orleans music.

“Trini-Gul” : Here’s the Sonny Rollins calypso approach, the tenor in a gutturally masculine-yet-songful voice sustaining the almost celebratory dance-like melody and feeling. A bass solo follows, then the tenor solo extrapolates on the mood and the tricky but amiable melody.

“Gloomy Pirate Tale”:  A minimal six-note sax riff finally releases and melts into an exposition which, at first, unfolds languidly then becomes increasingly voluble, one of Asher’s most inventive solos, in its scupltural twisting of rhythmic ideas. A unison bass-sax line seems to pose questions about the pirate’s gloomy tale, certainly something worthy of skepticism given the sly and avaricious nature of pirating. Back to the six-note riff, a curious tale indeed. As a postscript, look closer and you might see a water-logged nutria tiptoeing carefully across a hawser of the pirate ship, in search of tasty contraband.

“Knowing” opens with a brief, mournful but expressive bass solo reminiscent of the late Charlie Haden. The sax’s long whole notes slide into a tender theme, then shift to a high register and conveys lyrical insight of a situation or circumstance, all suggesting the nature of this “knowing” is sad, regretful, and only provisionally hopeful. But it’s a lovely piece of music with a strong psychological character and resonance regarding the nature of knowledge and, by extension, truth. This, of course, speaks ironically to out current political miliue of “alternative” facts, compulsive lying, and outright slander.


1 Thanks to Seinfeld aficionado Ann K. Peterson for reminding me of this episode.

In honor of the Irish holiday, the memory of Van Morrison’s great Irish record


Album cover courtesy irish-music.narod.ru


Something in the wind from the brooding clouds sent a shiver of melodic memory through me this afternoon. It’s St. Patrick’s Day and the song in the air seemed to nudge me with quiet insistence, as if to say, “How often ’tis, old lad, you’ve let the great Irish holiday slip by with nary a thought nor a hoisted glass of Guinness!”

It seemed to coalesce with the faint memory of this line from the traditional Irish song “Carrickfergus”: “My boyhood friends have all passed on, like the melting snow.” And I sure enough, such thought had finally roused something within when I had dinner a few days ago at the excellent Irish restaurant County Clair with four of my oldest friends, going back to high school and beyond, all of us now graying and slightly fading, compared to our youthful primes.

And further arose within the shadow of perhaps my best friend, an Irishman named Jim Glynn – a paraplegic  Vietnam-era veteran with a great passion for life, women and music – who has indeed passed, and returns only in the spring glisten of thirteen melting snows, since his death in October, 2004.

Kev and Jim wedding

A great friend and a great Irishman, the late Jim Glynn (right) with me on the occasion of him serving as best man at my second wedding.

So, I played the record from whence the song came, Irish Heartbeat by Van “The Man” Morrison and The Chieftains. In 1987, Morrison, our greatest contemporary Irish soul singer-songwriter, was touring through Ireland when he hooked up with Paddy Moloney, the Uillean pipes player of the greatest traditional Irish music band of them all. A chat over beer led to Irish Heartbeat, which gained widespread critical acclaim for its surprising and immensely-affecting twist on record industry norms, coming on the heels of Paul Simon’s Graceland. Morrison’s was a far more natural collaboration, given his affinity of heritage with the fellow Irishmen. But they were two albums of pop artists working with traditional ethnic musicians which helped unlock a great new strain of cultural possibility, and the popular flourishing of so-called “world music.” 

And I was again immersed in Heartbeat‘s winsome beauties, feisty spirit and stunning arc of trans-Atlantic wonders.

The toe-tapping album opener “Star of the County Down” boisterously celebrates the memory of a romantic memory. “There is no maid I’ve seen/ like the brown Colleen/ that I met in the County Down.” The lyrics summoned, for me, the memory of such a lass I’d met and known, a brown-haired Irish lass named Colleen from long ago, and then another, a German blonde Colleen from just a few years bye, and all- too-soon married. Her memory perhaps had been an ancestral response, too, as I’m as German as I’m Irish.

Then, another song fairly ambushed me, “As She Moved Trough the Fair,” which plays usually as a more upbeat song, as a dream of an impending wedding. But what Van and the boys do with it is like a haunting, as Rolling Stone‘s review noted the song, in their hands is “as overcast as an Irish afternoon” and, to me, a bit more like a fog rolling through the stark but sensual Irish hills, like the entourage of a ghost. They make you sense that the story’s really just a dream of love lost, but one that’s too hard to shake.

The Irish Heartbeat song that follows on the YouTube thread is a variation on the lost love theme, “Ragland Road” in a superb live video version with Van singing and playing drums convincingly (he also plays harmonica and saxophone). YouTube follows with the album’s recorded version of the aforementioned “Carrickfegus.”

And so much more, the bruised majesty of “My Lagan Love,” and well…

I could go on, but the Irish sap in me might get lost in mists of memory and melody and end up croaking “Danny Boy,” and the jig would be up for me, and for my poor suffering cat Chloe.

So please, don’t just steal away their artistry by merely listening on YouTube. If you like the music, buy the LP or CD or legal download as it was conceived and created, and give these artists their due.

So I’ll leave further discovery of Irish Heartbeat to you.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day to you and to all, and “may the road rise up to meet  you, may the wind be always at your back, and may the Lord always hold you, in the hollow of His hand.”

Riverwest: a place with its own face, of curious and wondrous facets, and a couple of perfect strangers

I have lived in a number of neighborhoods in my lifetime in Milwaukee and Madison, most of them quite congenial: A south side family bungalow right north of a Mitchell Field take-off strip where giant jets shook my youthful body and imagination with sonic booms. In Madison’s Nakoma neighborhood, a house influenced by Frank Lloyd Wright’s prairie style, and engulfed in tall pines, and a few blocks away from the city’s splendid Arboretum.

But there is only one neighborhood that I have returned to reside in, for a second time by choice, and that is Milwaukee’s Riverwest. I originally moved here when I bought a duplex with my sister Nancy In the 1980s, which she still lives in. It was a period of great cultural and political vitality, and an ideal location, as much of my journalistic work then was covering music at the original Milwaukee Jazz Gallery, right in the neighborhood, for The Milwaukee Journal.

So, when I moved back to Milwaukee from Madison in 2008, I knew I wanted to return to this unpredictably diverse, slightly funky and always vital region. The following photo essay comprises images compiled on a walk the full-length of Riverwest on the street that I live on, which ended on the North Avenue water reservoir overlooking downtown.
I’m sure any number of other photo portraits could be made by taking different routes around this consistently vibrant neighborhood. But this is mine, from a walk taken the last day of February as the smallest buds began to claim their place and space to grow into.

rw reflection

This image characterizes the interface of the urban and natural surroundings – an old, weathered Riverwest sidewalk and a crystal-clear puddle, revealing the tree overhead in which you can just sense the tiny buds emerging from its tips, reaching out to the sky’s fleeting blues. I’d also call this a Katrin Talbot photo, because she consistently gets highly observant shots of small or even grand beauties often standing right under our distracted noses, or toeses (Yes, I’m talking to “smart phone”-addled pedestrians.) Katrin is a gifted Madison photographer, poet, and symphony musician whose Facebook page I recommend you check out.

rw sign

Here’s a block of houses that perfectly reflects the architectural characterization of Riverwest residences as depicted in the neighborhood  signs recently placed all around our neck of the woods. The sign also suggests the way Riverwest overlooks downtown, especially from its high point, the North Avenue water reservoir.
It’s an absolutely big sky view of downtown, perhaps the best that a pedestrian can find. Though I did walk to the top of the reservoir on this day, I did not include that city skyline view, because the subject here is Riverwest.

rw marine

If the iconic image of the new Riverwest signs captures the neighborhood reasonably well, the next two images help dispel some of the stereotypes about who lives here. And I didn’t have to go far to find these – they were actually the first two photographs I took. In this one above, the apparent residence of a United States Marine proudly displays his or her service flag. And yet, this resident resolutely keeps this blue sign out front,  long after the intensely contentious and politically transformative 2011 recall effort to remove Gov. Scott Walker.

The neighbor’s long-standing statement of dissent might not seem typical of a highly disciplined military person, nor such a person’s typical politics. But it reflects a well-trained person who understands the role of a true citizen and patriot. I see it as an excellent example of the independent thinking one finds in this neighborhood, even if a majority of residents probably lean from the center to the left.

rw mary

Here’s another charming Riverwest stereotype refutation, and a close neighbor of the Walker-protesting Marine above. Clearly not everyone in the neighborhood is a lefty secular humanist, agnostic or atheist. The number of venerable, still-active churches in the neighborhood testifies to that, even if their attendance tends lower than it was a few decades ago. But these Riverwest neighbors put their love of Jesus Christ’s mother Mary out front for everyone to see, along with the rather mischievous-looking elves scampering around to behind her.

rw sailboats

There is certainly a profusion of artistic types in our neighborhood and here’s a delightful example. This painted metal relief sculpture gives you an idea where this resident might be if not at home – out on the waves amid sun, the clouds, the birds and aquatic sea life. It alludes to how close we are to Lake Michigan, just across the nearby Milwaukee River for which we are named, and yonder, though Shorewood.

rw books 2

The literacy of Riverwest residents is somewhat of a given, but our valuing of the written word is something we share with our community. On my walk down my neighborhood street alone, I counted four “LittleFreeLibraries” such as this one. There’s some predictable titles, such as one by mega-selling Da Vinci Code author Dan Brown on the left. But also discover, if you look closely, a copy of the last book that the late, great John Cheever wrote, a slim novella titled Oh What a Paradise it Seems, a characteristically bittersweet observation, published shortly before his death of cancer in 1982. Also note, on  the far right, a novel by the great Polish-American novelist Joseph Conrad, author of Heart of Darkness, Lord Jim, Nostromo and The Secret Agent. This slightly less well-known Conrad novel is Victory published in 1915, a psychological thriller set on an Indonesian island, and which draws from Shakespeare’s Hamlet and The Tempest.

I stopped by Riverwest’s storefront radio station WXRW-104.1 FM, but it wasn’t on the air and so there was little to see. But it’s a very interesting station you can check out here:

So, I went next door to the Fuel Cafe for a newspaper, and a quintessential Riverwest moment occured. Several people were eating late lunches and, as I walked out, one man stood up with a tray laden with a scattering of tortilla chips. “Hey, anyone want the rest of these chips?” he called out. “Otherwise I’m gonna throw ’em out.”

“I’ll take ’em!” another dude piped up, and the not-so-secret sharer delivered them to him. At what other restaurant would you see such an open act of sharing between perfect strangers, regardless of conventional decorum? That’s Riverwest, for you.

rw wp 1

At the “fork” in one intersection, I took the path more traveled for me, which has often made all the difference. That led me to Woodland Pattern Book Center, on Locust Street, which may be the intellectual and perhaps, despite all the churches, the spiritual heart of neighborhood.

rw wp 2

The long, white facade of the building announces it’s utterly unique nature. The facade changes from time to time, with varying names, quotations and imagery usually signifying human life, intellect and expression in relation to the grand natural environment we share.

rw wp 3

Woodland Pattern specializes in small press publications, and it may be the largest such collection in a bookstore between the coasts. You will especially find a vast array of poetry in full book form, and in numerous chapbooks on the card rack-like display in the photo above on the left, and even more of an eccentric collection of chapbooks in the file cabinets in the foreground.
The center, co-founded by artist Anne Kingsbury, regularly presents a stimulating panoply of cultural events – author readings, regular art exhibits in its far third room, and concerts of exploratory and avant-garde music, often improvisational in nature.
For all of this, Woodland Pattern sustains its highly non-commercial offerings by having established itself as a valuable state cultural resource.

So it gets a fair share of grants and government funding but also relies on the membership of its patrons. I renewed my membership on this visit, and picked up a small book by the great nature writer Barry Lopez called The Rediscovery of North America, which was actually a Thomas D. Clarke lecture Lopez gave in 1990, a sort of meditation on Christopher Columbus and the history of rampant exploitation of The New World’s astonishing natural bounty and indigenous peoples. The Spaniards began the cruel plunder, which continues as a large part of our capitalistic mentality and political culture. But Lopez also posits hope and evidence that we are “rediscovering” our own continent with a newfound caring, partly by listening to what our indigenous peoples and species have to tell us.

rw wp window

Before leaving Woodland Pattern, it’s worth noting the distinct and timely political consciousness that the store conveys, as evidenced by the sign in the middle of this photograph, taken from outside on the street.

I would’ve like to have stopped into another neighborhood institution, the Falcon Bowl Hall, on the corner of Clarke and Fratney Sts., but they were closed and, as a neighbor told me, they open maybe at five or seven but it’s very unpredictable. The Falcon bar has a bowling alley in his basement, a true working-class, middle-America past time that again goes against the grain of typical perceptions of this neighborhood. It will also host the Riverwest Follies at 7 p.m. Saturday, March 25.

Another closed place I bypassed this afternoon was the Jazz Gallery Center for the Arts on Center St., which continues the storied tradition of the original Milwaukee Jazz Gallery in its own way, as a multi-arts center, which I’ve written about quite a bit on this blog.

But another local bar did beckon me, shortly after 3 PM, with open doors, and typically alluring artwork.rw art bar 1rw art bar window

The Art Bar on Burleigh St. is my favorite tavern in Riverwest, and probably in Milwaukee, the city of taverns. That’s mainly because I’m more of an art lover than an alcohol imbiber. Besides the artwork in regular changing exhibits, the place also has a pool table and a dartboard, both which get regular use. Ah, but the art! Look above in another front-window shot, peeping in on the vividly colorful work on display, a  group show of portrait painters.

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Among the current Art Bar exhibitors, Elias Zananiri (top) shows personages with deeply radiant ethnic ornamentation and expressivity.  Les Leffingwell (above) meanwhile provides a personal inlet into the troubled but resilient souls of blues musicians.

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Mike Judy shows that an eccentric and humorous portraiture style can figuratively capture humanity with its pants down while allowing them a measure of personal dignity.art bar 2

“Everyday Portraits” by Jody Reid includes this affectionate, virtuosic and insightful portrait of a guy named “Brad.” It’s worth zooming in for some of the detail of the oil canvas.

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Further on down the street, I got to Fratney Street School, a highly-regarded bi-lingual elementary school, with some very small kids shooting a multi-colored basketball (top) and a very exclusive conference of two – make that three – young girls on this ingeniously engaging jungle gym.rw truck

Riverwest also expresses itself in its vehicles. Like an almost-forgotten beauty queen contestant, this bizarre four-wheeled contraption was just waiting for its picture to be taken, and to be discovered.

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We began our little Riverwest tour with a home making a political statement and we end with another home doing the same. Like the die-hard “Recall Walker” dissenter, this ingeniously homemade HIllARY Clinton sign, made out of painted tree branches and wire – which blazes in the night with Christmas tree lights – remains proudly and defiantly up, in this very strange Age of Trump. We all know who the people’s choice was in this election.

T’was a relatively serene midweek afternoon walk, with not a lot of people out, but plenty of life still abounded in our good, old neighborhood.

200 years of Milwaukee’s Musical Memories fill Historical Museum

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Afternoon light floods into the Milwaukee County Historical Museum’s west side, for the current interactive exhibit tracing 200 years of Milwaukee music history. All photos by Kevin Lynch, unless otherwise noted.

Light enters the Milwaukee County Historical Society from both the building’s oblong sides and intersects in the atrium with a bow effect of illumination, one side stronger, depending on morning or afternoon. This is due to the building’s narrow shape, almost recalling a flatiron building, and it’s location, standing free from other buildings, on the southeast corner of State Street at 910 N. Old World 3rd St.

Across the street is the closest structure, the low-lying Milwaukee Journal- Sentinel building. On the museum’s east side is Pere Marquette Park, and beyond the Milwaukee River and the courtyard behind the cream-white marble facade of the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts, which reflects even another subtle layer of light depth.

The natural light washes into the two-story open atrium encompassing a display area and even the museum offices, enclosed by a clear glass wall. And yet regal chandeliers add another luminous dimension. There’s no other public building atmosphere quite like it, that I can think of.  My photos below, all taken without a flash, suggest the warm aura of enlightenment, and the transporting quality that can fuel any visitor’s historical awareness and imagination.


The Milwaukee County Historical Society, from the southeast facade. Courtesy www.milwaukeehistory.net   

The purpose for our visit was the current exhibit, Memories and Melodies: 200 Years of Milwaukee Music. running through April 29. Hours are 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays, and admission is $7, and free for members, and children under 12 years.

It isn’t  just pure history, as real and aspiring musicians get chances dream or to recollect, or experiment by trying out – through headphones only – some electric drums, electric bass and a close knock-off of a Gibson Les Paul guitar, which I plucked a bit and heard the classic tonal purity and incision that has driven so many great guitarists to use it, since the mid-1960s. Less furtively, you can also test out a few ukuleles and a violin (for all to hear) and a few other acoustic instruments. In a side room stands on old upright player piano which will play its rippling roll, visible in a small window, if you pump the foot pedals with a touch of deftness.

The interactive displays include several head-phone listening booths in which you can choose touch screens from several different large categories of music, such as classical concert music, jazz, and a lively array of vernacular musics. The individual selection choices are superb examples of recorded music by famous Milwaukee musicians, singers, composers, arrangers, orchestras and bands.

The displays range from Native American music to Florentine Opera founder John-David Anello, Tin Pan Alley songwriter Charles K. Harris and the Milwaukee Police Band, the oldest in the nation. Also find here iconic and revered electric guitar inventor Les Paul, Country Music Hall of Famer Pee Wee King, The Talking Heads’ Jerry Harrison, the folk-punk rock trio The Violent Femmes and the Latin roots-rock band The Spanic Boys, among others.

I listened to music by the recently-passed singer Al Jarreau (as noted in a recent Culture Currents post on Al:

Al Jarreau (1940-2017): He “got by” and then some

). I also heard Grammy -winning jazz trumpeter Brian Lynch (no relation to this writer), playing his affectionately heady tune titled “Woody Shaw,” for the trumpet giant who influenced Lynch and many others. I enjoyed a lovely piece by the celebrated and prolific contemporary composer Daron Hagen, “Cradle Song (Intimamente),” the second movement from his Concerto for Oboe and Orchestra. The Milwaukee native gained fame for “Shining Brow,” his luminously-moving Madison Opera-commissioned opera about Frank Lloyd Wright, but has composed and excelled in virtually all forms of the classical music tradition.

In this show, you learn that Sesame Street’s lovably self-glorifying chanteuse Miss Piggy was based on Wisconsinite Hildegarde — in her vibrato-twirling vocals, curl-crazy hairstyle, long gloves and glittery garb, right down to her compulsive flirtatiousness.  She was born as Hildegarde Loretta Sell in Adell, WI, and raised in New Holstein, but the colorful cabaret diva trained at Marquette University’s school of music.


Miss Piggy

Hildegarde (upper), courtesy dwfmu.org, and Miss Piggy (above), courtesy muppetsonline.com

In a way, Hildegarde, though straight, was the female role model for another Milwaukee musical legend, Liberace, the profusely flamboyant pianist who was a pioneer of gay performers.

Given that it’s Black History Month it’s good that African American-dominated genres of jazz, R&B and blues stand strongly represented in the informative displays of Milwaukee beacons. Besides the multiple Grammy-winning Jarreau, who effortlessly traversed jazz, R&B and pop, there’s soul stylist Eric Benet as well as The Seven Sounds, led by irrepressible singer Harvey Scales, and a display panel on the highly original jazz saxophonist Bunky Green.

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In the blues category, you’ll find tribute to Short Stuff, the band that defined urban blues style here for decades. I recall, as a concert opener they once unforgettably stole the show from the famous San Francisco band Big Brother and the Holding Company, although this was after Janis Joplin had left the group. Short Stuff featured black singer and keyboardist Junior Brantley, along with firebrand harmonica player Jim Liban.

Also feted here in the blues category, The Stone-Cohen Blues Band lives on today in a different form as Leroy Airmaster, featuring the two nominal leaders of the original band, harmonica virtuoso Steve Cohen and guitarist Bill Stone.

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The exhibit honors Milwaukee jazz/R&B singer Al Jarreau, pictured at left, and local jazz greats including guitairist Manty Ellis and sax and flute player Berkeley Fudge, pictured here in a band with pianist Eddie Baker, bassist Harold (Hal) Miller, and drummer Sam Belton.

African American stalwarts of the Milwaukee jazz scene represented here include the still-active and vital guitarist Manty Ellis, who’s a walking history of Milwaukee jazz himself, and saxophonist-flutist Berkeley Fudge, a dominant figure here for decades, an example of unassuming creative class.

Exhibit curator Ben Barbera admits the exhibit is hardly comprehensive. It’s about artists who came from here. This exhibit does go “beyond genre and performer to explore  music’s role in Milwaukee’s economic, technological, entertainment, and social spheres.” But it doesn’t really cover historical events or performances, per se.

Off the top of my head, I would include as historically important many countless moments at Summerfest: headliners Sly and the Family Stone, The Band, Stevie Wonder, Paul McCartney, the Rolling Stones, and on side stages, Bill Monroe, Dizzy Gillespie, Los Lobos and Lucinda Williams among many others. Great local concert and club venues would need their due, though the show includes posters for the clubs Teddy’s, Cafe Voltaire and the Starship.

Then there was the Midwest Rock Fest at State Fair Park in the summer of 1969, which pre-dated Woodstock by several months, and a line-up nearly comparable, including the short-lived super-group Blind Faith and Led Zeppelin, in its ballsy and bluesy early days.  Virtually all the guitarists (Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, etc)  were playing the Gibson Les Paul guitar, like it was a new sort of competition for who could wrench the most power and soul out of the new guitar. I was there for the Midwest Rock Fest all three days and life wasn’t the same after that.

The Kool Jazz Festival in Washington Park in 1982 boasted a blinding jazz firmament, including the vocal triumvirate of Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, and Carmen McRae, along with Ornette Coleman, Mel Torme, Gerry Mulligan, Dizzy Gillespie, George Shearing, Spyro Gyra, Chico Freeman, The Modern Jazz Quartet, and The Great Quartet with Freddie Hubbard, McCoy Tyner, Ron Carter, and Elvin Jones.

Built in 1935, the historical facility’s relatively modest physical size limits the show’s scope. But bigger ain’t always better. You won’t get museum fatigue here, and perhaps we should be grateful that no one has tried to build a clumsy addition to this superb self-contained work of architecture, in the French Renaissance Beaux Arts style, which might look like a giant tumor more than anything else.

(More photos below)



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The jazz black-rock trio Harriet Tubman gives a gift of, and for, its namesake

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CD cover courtesy sunnysiderecords.com

Harriet Tubman Araminta (Sunnyside)

Guitarist Brandon Ross leads his jazz/black-rock trio Harriett Tubman with stylistic bravura and unabashed love of vivid distortion, evoking what Sonny Sharrock might be doing if still alive, but with a more poetic control of sonics.

Ross hasn’t recorded much as a leader but he’s shown great versatility in cutting-edge jazz. I heard him live and on recording accompanying Cassandra Wilson, so he has both the nuance to support and enhance a daring and soulful vocalist. He’s also a singer, though not on this recording. As a rhythm section, Ross, bassist Melvin Gibbs, and Drummer JT Lewis have collaborated with artists as diverse as Living Colour, Lou Reed, Herbie Hancock, Henry Threadgill, Sting, Arrested Development, Archie Shepp, David Murray and Me’Shell N’degeocello.

So, on this album Ross’s guitar howls at the moon with beautiful abandon. Yet “Nina Simone” paints a songful and pain-felt portrait of the black singer-songwriter who invoked social justice with unmatched power and poignance. It recalls Miles Davis’ “He Loved Him Madly,” for Duke Ellington. Guest trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith lacerates and burnishes his notes magnificently here, bleeding in the glistening sunlight of truth. Drummer J.T. Lewis punches and slashes like a black man who defiantly matters. Throughout, Smith unfurls deep textures, sustaining eternally spatial and grand pronouncements. 1

It closes gratifyingly with the almost submerged-sounding blues reverie, “Sweet Araminta,” tenderly referencing abolitionist Harriet Tubman’s birth name, without trivializing the grit and gravitas of her achievement.

Harriet Tubman photosstategov.com


  1. And Wadada Leo Smith, of course, is among the pre-eminent, most original and  conceptually ambitious brass players in jazz, in music, period. In fact, he’s sort of a jazz version of filmmaker Ken Burns, but in an abstract but wonderfully painterly way, playing that brings to mind both action painter like Jackson  Pollock. But you can also sense abstract color field painters, both big-gesture painters like Robert Motherwell and even sublime Zen meditators, like Mark Rothko.  Smith’s epic four-record set Ten Freedom Summers from 2012, musically re-imagined the black American history and the Civil Rights movement, and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. The Chicago native has done similar multi-disc takes on The Great Lakes, which evokes and reconsiders those mighty bodies of water that have defined so much of life from the East to the Midwest, since the days of the great pioneers. He’s now based in the New York area, but being from Chicago he understands The Great Lakes. And this year came Smith’s magisterial and mysteriously beautiful double-disc project called America’s National Parks. a comparable musical paean to those great irreplaceable natural resources.

This review was originally published in shorter form in The Shepherd Express

No Depression print quarterly investigates and celebrates Heartland music


The full cover of the “Heartland” issue of the Spring 2017 issue of No Depression, The Quarterly Journal of Roots Music. Cover painting by Iowan Greta Songe  


In Milwaukee at least, spring is in the air, and in the earth and the river. The pathway along the Milwaukee River down below Kern Park is still fairly muddy but leaf padding of decayed brown and faded gold along each side of the path allows fairly brisk negotiation.

Ah, but if you pause to observe nature’s inexorable might, the big river flows swift and strong in it’s fluid, forward tumble. The quirky rhythm of the meandering pathway and the propulsive rhythms of the river are part of the essential music of the heartland which helps, perhaps subconsciously, inspire the rhythms and melodies of human music which emerges from the vast, green, heaving chest of America, The Heartland.

So it is now time to respond to that embrace’s cultural power. There’s no better way to do so in one fell swoop, short of turning on a Jayhawks CD or a rootsy radio station, than the Spring 2017 issue of No Depression, The Quarterly Journal of Roots Music, entitled The Heartland.

Full disclosure: the issue includes an article by this writer, a survey of upper Midwest venues that cater to roots music, ranging from a working CSA farm to a poster-bedecked Madison basement house-concert venue.

The 160-page coffee table-sized journal began by defying most digital media trends through reasserting intellectual and aesthetic quality in real print. Editor-in-chief Kim Reuhl has stood on the shoulders of the strong journalistic tradition pioneered by her predecessors Peter Blackstock and Grant Alden when they began the original No Depression magazine in 1995, dedicated to the growing movement of roots music that looks forward as much as it reaches back into the past. When the magazine ceased operations it continued as a very strong community-oriented website. Then a new business partnership with The FreshGrass Foundation in 2015 opened the doors to reinvent No Depression as a new kind of print music publication.

Indeed, as you sit with a copy of the journal in your lap, the photography and artwork, often spreading across both pages, has the scale and quality of a wide laptop screen of digital imagery. This graphic sensation reminds us that the experience of roots music rises from the thick, layered and complex texture of American culture, the intersection of our strong ethnic musical traditions which remained the envy and allure of the world over.

Plus, you can sit or carry the journal anywhere and enjoy not only the lush graphics but a serious standard of music writing. I can attest, Reuhl works in much closer collaboration with writers in crafting stories than most editors I’ve ever experienced. Of course, the internet has facilitated that close interactive relationship, which was always more cumbersome for print publications with contributions from writers all over North America, and beyond (The summer edition will be “The International Issue,” defying the stereotype of roots music as provincial, hayseed or American-centric.)

Besides seasoned and skilled journalists, the quarterly features contributions by literate and eloquent musicians including, in the Heartland issue, Minnesota blues man Charlie Parr, Indiana blues man Reverend Payton, Illinois folk-wit Robbie Fulks, and a revealing piece by Alabama-born singer-songwriter Allison Moorer, who details her peculiar challenges in penetrating heartland radio, venues and audiences. Yet she persists towards mid-America, and quotes a favorite political maxim: “As Ohio goes, so goes the nation.”

Sparing more self-service, I’ll let my article “Fill the Room: Peeking in on the Upper Midwest’s Music Venues” speak for itself. I haven’t even read the whole issue yet, but it seems brimming with highlights, including Margaret Daniels’ examination of the Midwest seedlings of Bob Dylan’s voracious scholarly genius. She draws connections to Dylan’s fellow Minnesotan literary lion F. Scott Fitzgerald including, as Dylan put it in his recent Nobel Prize for Literature speech, how the two writers share “inarticulate dreams” which they both honed to gleaming and haunting vividness.

Katherine Turman’s far-reaching re-examination of so-called “heartland rock” reveals it to be a complicated and far-flung musical phenomenon with improbable classical music foundations, melding sophistication with the jagged edge. She also shows how such big-shouldered music has helped sustain the success of the Farm Aid benefit concert series by connecting with stadium-sized crowds, which the more coffeehouse-scale dynamics of much roots music can’t quite reach.

Historically deeper still is Stephen Deusner’s unearthing and reclamation of the seminal Indiana vernacular music “recording laboratory” Gennett. The label gave us, among other things, Charley Patton’s harrowing 1929 country blues hollers, and Louis Armstrong’s dazzling New Orleans-style jazz recordings with King Oliver, from 1923.

I was also impressed with an interview-profile with singer-songwriter Peter Mulvey, a figure with a street-corner Socrates flair. He annually travels around his native Wisconsin on a bicycle, which allows him to feel the warp and the woof of both cities and rural regions, above all his still-troubled hometown of Milwaukee. The article also reveals Mulvey’s passion and debt to poetry, in his use of concise imagery and artistic “breathing space.” Author Erin Lyndal Martin shows how Mulvey achieves a balance between the philosophical, the political and the poetical, while engaging and challenging with musical storytelling and a palpable openness of spirit.

That’s what much of the best roots music does, but in ways characteristic of each artist or group. When you open the wide pages of this journal, it’s a bit like peeking into that big, defiantly persistent American heart.


For a preview of the “Heartland” issue and mail ordering and retail outlet information, see below.

The Spring 2017 issue of No Depression, “Heartland,” explores the stories and music that thumps, picks, and breathes between the coasts. While mainstream music critics focus on cities like New York, Los Angeles, and Nashville to learn about rising stars and buzzworthy music, artists in cities like Cleveland, Chicago, Detroit, Milwaukee, Omaha, and Iowa City are making some of the purest, most honest roots music around. What’s more, artists from the coasts are increasingly touring the heartland — and some are even moving there — to find inspiration in the region’s big skies, honest people, and rich musical legacies.

Heartland Rock with John Mellencamp, Bob Seger, and Kansas / The influence of Hee Haw and Branson, Missouri / Native American music in the Dakotas / The unknown story of Indiana’s Gennett Records / The musical pipeline between Chicago and Austin / Why singer-songwriters like Jesse Sykes and Lissie are moving to Iowa

Bob Dylan / The Jayhawks / Conor Oberst / Over the Rhine / Peter Mulvey / Chicago Farmer / Bozeman, Montana / Cleveland, Ohio / Essays by artists like Reverend Peyton and many more

Al Jarreau (1940-2017): He “got by” and then some


The great singer Al Jarreau grew up not far from where I live, just south of Riverwest on Reservoir Avenue, west of Holton Street. Right up the street, an expansive view of Milwaukee’s picturesque skyline unfolded, which might’ve inspired him as a young man to greater heights in life and music, and to retain some precious memories of his hometown, which he captured in at least two different originals — the title song of his first album We Got By and “Milwaukee,” from his second album Glow.

You can imagine Al walking down the nearby Holton Street Bridge, singing and practicing by himself (as saxophonist Sonny Rollins famously had done on the Williamsburg Bridge in New York). The bridge carries you to the East  Side’s hippest sector, Brady Street, and to downtown beyond.

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A view of downtown Milwaukee overlooking the Holton Street Bridge from Reservoir Avenue, where Al Jarreau grew up. Photo by Kevin Lynch

When Jarreau released that debut album I was working at Radio Doctors “Soul Shop” at 3rd St. (now Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Dr.) and North Avenue. I fell hard for the album as did other “Soul Shop” workers and customers, including the store’s assistant manager Mark Olson, whom I remember a exclaiming, “This guy’s gonna make it, big!”

I had never heard of Al at the time, but he did not have a real long career paying his dues on Milwaukee music scene. His family migrated out to California and so he was still quite young when he started his recording career.

But even then, he didn’t sound like anyone else but Al. There was plenty of jazzy nuance and suppleness was singing and reflective moods. But he could also crank it up into a funky R&B groove and reach deep down for gospel depths. And that’s that was the combination and range is I’m sure what got him signed to a big label like Warner Bros. There were also tunes, like “Spirit,” that deftly juggled the stylistic differences.There were also songs in which he seemed to unlock his heart while declaring it was time to “lock all the gates,” knowing the harsh realities of the real world on the street.
But nothing of his ever beguiled me like that album’s title song, “We Got By,” a tender, ardent story of young life in Milwaukee:

I hardly had a bellyful
Never knew a new bicycle
Hand-me-down books and shoes
They brought the yule tides in July

I rode a bus, a train and sometimes
Strolling for miles to a movie show
Singing a song “Shoobedoo
“While birds and rich folks flew
Right on by

But we got by
Lord knows we got by

Winter wishes wait till June
We brightened July with
That hot dog fun
Tell your mama you’re with Sue
You bring the beans and I’ll
Find the wine
Them neon lights were bright
Till 2:00
And sneaking back home with
This girl named Jo
I hurried down to say do”
And stared my first man-child
In the eye

But we got by
Lord knows we got by

And now baby’s got his bellyful
And finally here’s that new bicycle
Working, praying, June to June
And mama’s got LA gleaming
In her eye

And we got by
Lord knows we got by

You see we kept on walking
And talking, hawking
Ooing, cooing, wooing
Loving, tugging, hugging, rubbing
Sugging, fugging, laying, praying, swaying
Letting, fretting, begetting, lying
Flying, trying, sighing, dying.

You see how Jarreau puts you right there, on the bus beside him. This story leads to a powerfully moving scat-song passage rippling with his highly-charged rhythmic phrasing and soulfully trumpeting high baritone.

The song “Susan” sounds like the sweet essence of his first love, herself and his irrepressible passion and tenderness for her.

“You Don’t See Me,” from the same debut album, is one of his first demonstrations of his extraordinary vocal elasticity, which he would explore in even more challenging settings such as his adaptation of Dave Brubeck’s famous rhythmic juggernaut “Blue Rondo à la Turk,” written in an 11/8 time signature.

Jarreau’s third album, Look to the Rainbow, demonstrated brilliantly his total command of live performance as it was a two-album set recorded live during a European tour. The doubled length allowed him to stretch out and show his jazz chops, especially the uncanny ability to mimic most any instruments.

He probably never reached any such extended heights on subsequent recordings, as he consistently conceded to his natural instincts toward R&B, and its inherent formulas, and to contemporary overproduction. However, jazz was never far away, as he demonstrated on his Grammy-winning Heaven and Earth in a fairly sublime two-part reading of the Miles Davis-Bill Evans classic “Blue in Green.” with his own original lyrics rendered with fine concision and an allusion to John Coltrane’s, A Love Supreme, then a medium-up tempo recasting of the brooding tune, which somehow worked superbly.

Personally speaking, Al’s death the other day was a real kick in the gut for me, because I had been thinking about him lately and about the sad fact that I had never seen him live. I moved to Madison in 1989 and stayed there for nearly 20 years working at The Capital Times, so I missed this reunion concerts in Milwaukee.

But I thought it would be great to see him before it was too late so I had sent the message just a few days earlier to Lynn Lucius, who does much of the booking of jazz and more creative music for the Sharon Lynne Wilson Center. I suggested that somebody like her should book Al again. She recounted the last couple times he was here and what a kind gentleman he was offstage.

I explained to Lynn that several years ago, I decided that if I ever did a radio show again, I would use Jarreau’s “We Got By” as my theme song. That’s because Al understood the meaning and value of one’s roots and expressed it so well in that song, and I figured I would do record a program that blended jazz and roots musics.

One way to remember him now is to visit the exhibit Melodies and Memories: 200 Years of Milwaukee Music at the Milwaukee County Historical Society, 910 N. Old World Third Street, running through April 29 (continue reading below information box):

Events & Exhibitions

The interactive exhibit includes listening booths that allow you to hear recordings by Milwaukee musicians, singers and composers. One booth includes Al Jarreau performing the aforementioned Dave Brubeck composition “Blue Rondo a La Turk,” a stunning performance of virtuosic and expressive vibrance.

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This interactive listening stand at the exhibit “Melodies and Memories” allows you to listen to songs by various Milwaukee-native musicians including Al Jarreau. Photo by Kevin Lynch

Along with Liberace, Al Jarreau is the most famous singer to emerge from Milwaukee. His music will always help us get by, and then some.





You can now pre-order “Heartland,” the spring 2017 issue of the No Depression print quarterly

Here’s the cover of the Spring issue of No Depression’s print quarterly, highlighting The Heartland.

Roots music fans,

My editor at No Depression has requested contributing writers share the announcement of pre-orders for the spring 2017 issue of No Depression‘s print quarterly. The issue highlights America’s heartland, the Midwest, and includes my own survey of Midwest roots music performance venues. It also includes a profile feature on Milwaukee singer-songwriter Peter Mulvey, among other articles.

If you haven’t seen it yet, the ND print quarterly sets new standards for quality in photography, artwork and and writing  in roots music journalism. The coffee table-sized journal is designed to be something you will enjoy, cherish and keep on your bookshelves.

I’m proud to contribute to this outstanding cultural effort.

For more information on the issue, and to order a copy or subscribe, here’s a link: