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.

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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.

Hildegarde

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

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  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

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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.

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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

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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.

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