The original Milwaukee Jazz Gallery transmitted a far-reaching beacon, a creative-freedom vibe even the Statue of Liberty might’ve caught, and tapped her toe to. America’s art of improvised musical expression thrived in arguably the greatest jazz club in Milwaukee history, with a reputation that radiated throughout the nation’s jazz-musician community.
Today the same address, 932 E. Center St., houses The Jazz Gallery Center for the Arts, a venue for performances and jam sessions and art exhibits. This honors and reinvents the tradition of the original.
After the club’s glorious but difficult run, from September 1978 to the fall of 1984, founder and owner Chuck LaPaglia moved on — to propose and then book live jazz at Yoshi’s in Oakland, today one of the premier jazz clubs in the world. “But many musicians still talk about how special the Milwaukee Jazz Gallery was,” LaPaglia recalls.
Here’s a review of the piano titan McCoy Tyner, at the height of his powers at the Jazz Gallery on June 12, 1981: “As he unleashes a solo, his left hand rears high above the keyboard delivering lightning bolts of bass. His right wrist appears to be pouring fingers all over the keyboard.
What you hear is music that swings, soars and erupts, often at once. In the intimacy of the Gallery Friday, you could feel it as well, such is the power of Tyner’s quintet… with ascending plateaus and sweeping arcs…”*
“A whole generation of Americans has no idea what serious jazz is,” laments Mark Lawson, president of the Riverwest Artists Association, which owns the facility.
The original Jazz Gallery also staged Dizzy Gillespie, Betty Carter, Freddie Hubbard, Stan Getz, Dexter Gordon, Dave Holland, Wynton and Branford Marsalis, Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers and many more, a living jazz history.
You could catch world-class blues acts like Koko Taylor and Albert Collins, and local theater groups like Theater X — as it built a national reputation. The Jazz Gallery also nurtured local musicians who now have national stature, including Brian Lynch, David Hazeltine and Lynn Arriale, and even notable non-jazzers like the Violent Femmes and Paul Cebar.
Among other top-flight local musicians the venue staged were Melvin Rhyne, Manty Ellis, Berkeley Fudge, and What On Earth? and its lyrical brand of avant-garde. Renowned pianist-vibist Buddy Montgomery, then residing in Milwaukee, used the space for meetings of The Milwaukee Jazz Alliance, helping to define LaPaglia’s vision for it as a community resource.
That legacy drives Lawson. “We are passionate about the mission to combat the commercialism that has swallowed up America’s original art form,” he says, noting the music’s paltry presence on local radio and in press coverage. African World Festival’s jazz is mostly the smooth variety. Even the huge umbrella of Summerfest has long since forsaken jazz, although several local groups made inroads on the Potawatomi stage this summer.