Magnificent retrospective of visionary nature painter Tom Uttech closes this weekend at Museum of Wisconsin Art

Nin Gassinsibingwe (I Wipe My Tears), 2019. The size, 84 1/8 inches x 95 7/8 inches, is typical of the large scale the artist works in.

Tom Uttech, Into the Woods, The Museum of Wisconsin Art, 205 Veterans Avenue, West Bend, through January 12. wisconsinart.org 262-334-9638.

Time honors those who honor time, especially gifted cultural misfits, those who follow their vision, even to the most remote, forbidding or mystical realms, to the most precarious peak, who then muster the spiritual courage to take the deepest plunge that fate’s cavernous voice demands.

That seems like Tom Uttech’s artistic odyssey.

First, let me reach back, nearly a half a century, into the early stages of his saga, from my own nearby perspective. As a sculpture-concentration art major at UW-Milwaukee in the early 1970s, I had very little direct contact with painting professor Tom Uttech.

We sculptor-types hunkered and toiled in the blasted heat of the bronze-melting furnace, amid the grime and dust of the sculpture department in the fine arts building’s basement. Uttech, and his fellow painting faculty and students, dwelt in the comparatively exalted strata of the building’s top floor, blessed by generous shafts of illumination, only skylights separating them from the heavens.

There was a political aspect to this. The painters possessed a sheen of superiority, far above the sweaty, purgatorial Neanderthals pounding hammers and chisels, grunting to hoist crude masses of stone and wood, or be-goggled to wield flashing welding torches or hellish cauldrons of molten metal. Sure, in our dreams, artistic glory lay, a la Michelangelo, entombed in those recalcitrant, flinty hunks, and Rodin-esque eloquence within the laboriously-assembled casting molds.

But, yeah, we knew our bottom-rung place in the realpolitick scheme of our art department. Yet, that doesn’t mean that, at some psychic level, I wasn’t intensely aware of Uttech’s quietly gathering power, as a somewhat mythic artistic presence in the building.

I’d occasionally see him floating through the department’s mid-level floors, where I took life drawing and other required 2-D media courses for art majors, and which he occasionally stooped to teach. The verb is multiply apt because Uttech’s looming presence had partly to do with his physical stature as surely the tallest person in the art department, during those years. His lanky body seemed to meander slowly to airy realms. Like many tall, gifted persons, he had a slightly aloof bearing about him.

This mural, created by Red Grooms, is in the UW-Milwaukee art department commons, and depicts art faculty and students from the early 1970s, with painting professor Tom Uttech towering over the others. Photo by Kevin Lynch *

His stature and aura befit him as the undisputed North Star of the art department faculty. This had to do with the peculiar gravitational pull of his genius, something which this sculpture major felt, but only came to understand in time, perhaps begrudgingly. Maybe, like the many towering trees he painted, he often felt the wind whistling though his high-perched ears and eyes, singing siren songs of the north country. He doggedly trod a pathway to his visual and thematic sources across the region between Wisconsin and the Quentico Provincial Park in Ontario, Canada.

Bud Lake, from a 1974 photo print Uttech dubbed “Onimik Sagaigan,” was an area of Ontario that inspired the painter’s imagination. 

So, time has decidedly honored Tom Uttech, as he’s done more than his reciprocal part for career destiny, and the grand strangeness of nature. This is abundantly clear by the magnificent and transporting retrospective of his work, Into the Woods, at The Museum of Wisconsin Art. It will close Sunday, January 12.

So heed my warning: Do not missed this exhibit encompassing, as nothing ever has, the grandiloquent accomplishment of one of the greatest artists Wisconsin has ever claimed her own, a man who’s mapped out a vast landscape of singular fashioning, as a true American original and visionary.

More than most artists, Uttech possesses the powers of a sorcerer wielding paintbrushes – if he swirled them just so they’d open a swirling vortex into a realm of nature as otherworldly yet vivid as one is a likely into encounter in one’s lifetime.

And yet that uncanny effect feeds on quietude, deriving from the extraordinary scale and imaginative leaps he takes consistently in his canvases. One senses a contemplative, even Zen-like authority in his artistic travels, as exotic as they appear, something deeply moving the more you open yourself to this work. Here, Nature gives birth to a thousand nights and lives, to myriad snorts, cries, growls and howls – emitting from the weirdly eloquent creatures that haunt the twilight of this man’s fertile imagination.

Of course, this art is soundless, but it seeps into the viewer as if all five senses quiver under exquisite siege. In some canvases, peculiar dramas stand poised to play out: Flora and fauna seem like they might just die even as they radiate strange, regenerative power. They might become another version of themselves, reincarnate.

“Makwa Pindig Wabashkiki” 2011

For example: The painting “Makwa Pindig Wabashkiki” centers on a tall, standing black bear peering out towards the viewer. Two great-antlered elks flank the bear, also looking towards the viewer in alert sentinel posture. All wait from a safe, wary distance. These two species, natural enemies, here seem allies; atmospheric mist shrouds the forest. All around them, highly animated tree branches and other flora perk up, as if anticipating something. Is the presence they sense a blessing or a curse, harbinger of tragedy, or transformation?

One may be inclined to stand before such a canvas, as with others in this show, and wait for something to happen. Such pregnant ambiguity typifies the aura of mystery that Uttech masterfully trades in, painting after majestic painting.

But how did Uttech get to such a certainly unfashionable artistic place? As a university professor in the 1970s and ’80s, he was intensely aware of trends in contemporary art, fading abstract Expressionism, pop art, minimalism, conceptual art, etc., all of which left him uneasy, and ultimately an outlier. But a fearless one who knew where he needed to go, to a realm more personal than an art movement, and perhaps more far-reaching. He arrived at a sort of Zen maximalism, if that makes any sense. Early modernist surrealists certainly took their imaginations to extremes, often tuning them inside out, as does Uttech. Yet, he’s worked in a private yet generous a realm derived from traditional nature painting. His titles mostly employ language of the native American Ojibwa tribe, who inhabited the region before European colonization.

Further, his work seems that of a much older and more literary soul than the surrealists, perhaps one borne of the 19th century and its transcendentalists, notably Emerson, but with a hoary helping of Thoreau, and deep inlets to the haunted black forest dwellers of Hawthorne.

Yet to see this art, one senses a man who evolved into a sort of contemporary mystic, as well as an obsessive virtuoso. A key work illustrating the former trait is “Painting for Buckingham Lake,” a luminous early painting from 1973. Unlike most of these color-saturated works, this one appears to have given up the ghost, a central specter-like figure bathes in pale blue and white light. The silhouette appears human but a mighty rack of elk antlers seems to emit from his head, recalling The Magus, the titular half-man, half-horned mammal god-like creature inhabiting a mysterious island in a magical post-modern novel by John Fowles.This is something the painter only could’ve encountered in the deepest forest of his dreams.

Painting for Buckingham Lake, 1973

More typical here are large, stunning scenes teeming with birds and furry mammals, often all rushing together off the canvas view, drawn by some obscure force beyond. These are rendered in breath-taking detail and into almost infinitely deep perspective — an artistic style and vision I have never quite seen elsewhere in 35 years of writing about art. (see Nin Gassinsibingwe (I Wipe My Tears) 2019, at top) The paintings persistently evoke the questions: What larger spirit-force holds these scenes in the hollow of its hand? To what end? And what does it feel like to sense such questions?

Uttech today, now an avuncular 77, may have once, deep on his quests, mutated into an unfettered shaman, with craggy roots sprouting from his orifices. He does remain a bit of a spell-casting oracle, speaking today of a “secret” as the key to not only his art but also to our species’ troubled relationship to nature.

Uttech offers quiet empowerment, a sense of belonging, affirmation and adventure in a comment on a website marketing his artwork: “Since these pictures are about nature and our role in it, the knowledge gained might grow into love of nature, and thus into concern for its well-being,” he says. “This concern could lead to action to protect nature and, therefore, ourselves. The best response to my paintings would be for you to go straight to the wildest place of land you can find and sit down to let it wash over you and tell you secrets.”

Tom Uttech’s art creaks wide a vast doorway, luring all viewers to enter with open imagination and heart, to travel the right way back, into our whole humanity on earth. Perhaps the secret has something to do with survival.

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Uttech art images courtesy Museum of Wisconsin Art.

  • The Red Grooms mural is also the new theme image for my Culture Currents blog, at the very top.

 

 

 

Jerry Bergonzi Quartet displays inventive mastery of modern jazz

 

Jerry Bergonzi blowing at Bar Centro. Photo by Leiko Napoli

An ease of execution arises when musicians achieve full mastery of a creative medium like jazz. The relaxed energy evident in this authority emanated from all four corners of the Jerry Bergonzi Quartet Sunday at Bar Centro. This allowed many outlets of excitement, ideas, passion and soulful style. The most stunning moment came quite soon, when the tenor saxophonist-leader, in effect, cut off the right arm of John Coltrane.

In that act, he demonstrated mastery of his own voice, laden as it is with influences. I’ll get to my perhaps-startling metaphor shortly.

The quartet opened with a “simple blues” they titled “Let’s Pretend,” which Bergonzi revealed afterwards as his adaptation of Coltrane’s “Village Blues.” That tune, from the classic Coltrane Quartet’s first recording in 1961, affirmed Bergonzi’s deep sense of modern jazz tradition. It’s a terse four-note phrase, extended slightly. Bergonzi asserted a powerful Trane-ish tight-reed tone that allowed fiery expression through discipline. Yet it helped the band warm up their chops perfectly. Bassist Billy Peterson especially showed he was poised for the show, with elastic, throbbingly-musical dexterity.

Gear-shift to a fast tempo for the standard “Green Dolphin Street” but here “de-harmonized” and with other alterations, Bergonzi explained. What happened would’ve stunned Coltrane were he sitting in the crowd. He once famously declared that he would “give his right arm to play like Stan Getz.” Sure enough, we witnessed — in a few short moments — Bergonzi shift from Coltrane to Getz mode. Not many saxophonists can do this with such swift execution.

So suddenly his sinuous solo sounded at once like he’d “reharmonized” the changes and that Getz’s ghost had arisen, with his famous bittersweet lyricism in a tone suggesting fine-hammered, burnished silver. But the solo bore Bergonzi’s own ideas, a flinty sort of cubist reshaping of “Dolphin Street.”

Lest anyone doubt his stylistic latitude, Bergonzi quoted from Getz’s most-famous hit “The Girl from Ipanema,” in a solo later in the set.

Jerry Bergonzi Photo by Leiko Napoli

The ensuing tune, Kenny Dorham’s “La Mesha”(from tenor saxophonist Joe Henderson’s debut Blue Note album.) is ballad-like, with a fairly beguiling melody. Pianist John Campbell gave it a striking pivot point with an acerbic Monkish chord that he stopped and let ring out for several beats. This pinpointed the taking off of the tune’s flight and Campbell’s own wide-ranging facility on the keyboard throughout the set. Bergonzi’s blowing here was as passionate as it was pretty.

Another sly tune reinvention was punningly presented as “Table Steaks,” as a musical quiz of the source tune. By its end, a few folks figured out it was Benny Goldson’s “Stablemates.”

Here and throughout, drummer Adam Nussbaum buoyed the band’s hard-swinging invention with a circular slash, bash, and shimmer attack.

Drummer Adam Nussbaum with the Jerry Bergonzi Quartet at Bar Centro Sunday. Photo by Leiko Napoli

Two originals offset the reinvented standards: the genial and glowing “Love Thy Neighbor” and as “Freedom From.” “This was  originally called ‘Freedom from Religion’ but too many people took that the wrong way,” Bergonzi explained.

“So now it’s freedom from gluten!” he joked. Here’s where he quoted “Ipanema.” The effect was to assert that the veteran Bergonzi was free from, as much as indebted to, his influences. He seems to believe passionately in the jazz tradition without making a religion of it, with faith in its power to generate artistic creativity and, just perhaps, a measure of humanity’s enlightenment and liberation.

This was one of the biggest events to date for Bar Centro, a  fast-growing Milwaukee jazz venue.

The Jerry Bergonzi Quartet at Bar Centro L-R: Adam Nussbaum (drums), Billy Peterson (bass), Bergonzi (sax), John Campbell (piano). Photo by Leiko Napoli

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Culture Currents has been down for quite a while due to technical difficulties. We’re glad we’re back, and that you’re back, Thanks for you patience. — Kevin Lynch 

 

Our House is on Fire! Hear it. See it. Believe it.

“This planet is our home, and our house is on fire!”

Singer-songwriter Harvey Taylor says he’s not sure what one “small song” can do but, he has to sing it. Every one of us must speak out in the best way we can against the self-destructive madness of climate change and global warming. This video is much more potent than mere words, as impassioned as those are. Taylor has a gifted collaborator in videographer Susan Ruggles, who illustrates each of Taylor’s dire points with raging and ravishing potency.

This is the real world we live in today, the real planet we are destroying, our home and that of every other earthly creature and plant. Here’s hoping this video will inspire others to other creative means of fighting the madness.

Thanks to Harvey, Susan and percussionist Jahmes Finlayson.

Stephan Crump’s Rosetta Trio follows it own dedicated path, like musical Robin Hoods

Stephan Crump’s Rosetta Trio performs “Memphis.” Courtesy Just Jazz

Stephan Crump’s Rosetta Trio:

Saturday: Jazz Gallery Center for the Arts, Milwaukee 

Sunday, Sept. 22: Arts + Literature Laboratory, 2021 Winnebago Street, Madison, 8 p.m. Tickets are $15 in advance (https://rosettatrio.brownpapertickets.com) and $20 at the door. Student tickets $5 off with a valid school ID. Advance ticket sales end 1 hour before the show. Doors open at 7:30 pm. 

Outside of classical circles, astringent might describe a string trio. But once you hear Stephan Crump’s Rosetta Trio, especially in person, such austere implications melt away into pools of concentric counterpoint, and welling surges of warm passion. The passion and warmth radiated primarily from the bandleader Crump and his buoyant, enveloping bass-playing at center stage, Saturday night at the Jazz Gallery Center for the Arts. The bandleader seems to possess an innate but well-cultivated musicality and soulfulness, even as it vibrates at a slightly more subtle, lower dynamic level then his two guitar-playing band mates.

Bassist-composer.-band-leader Stephan Crump. Photo by Ralf Dombrowski

Often Crump seemed to talk or sing to his bass, to spur it to some higher level of communication. For one tune, he literally used the big, upright bass as a percussion instrument, slapping various parts of its wood body, and zinging sharp effects along the side of the instrument’s neck.

That tune was called “Rose,” named for one of his formative artistic inspirations, a woman he knew in his early years in Memphis, Tennessee. The group may even be named for her.

This piece had strong country overtones embedded in its modern overall style, bringing to mind the atmosphere plectral magic of Bill Frisell who coincidentally played the night before not far south in Evanston, Illinois. Considering I almost attended the sold-out solo Frisell event (with tickets ranging from $25 to $55), I daresay I got more for my money Saturday with the Rosetta Trio, especially in the intimate setting of the Jazz Gallery, amid a too cozy-sized audience.

These are all world-class musicians, with Crump best-known as one of the formative members of the celebrated Vijay Iyer Trio, and with credits ranging as far afield as Portishead’s Dave McDonald and The Violent Femmes’ Gordon Gano. Yet Crump has been so dedicated to his personal vision in this form that this trio has soldiered on for 15 years in its exact same configuration of players. The guitarists are Liberty Ellman – well-known for performing with an array of progressive jazz artists, including Pulitzer Prize-winning saxophonist composer Henry Threadgill, Wadada Leo Smith, Gregory Porter, and Jason Moran – and the somewhat less-renowned but no-less-talented Jamie Fox.

In this group, Ellman dedicates himself to acoustic guitar with subtle and sparkling elan, while Fox handles the hollow-bodied electric duties with great aplomb. What’s also impressive about this group is, for all the virtuosity and conceptual sophistication, there’s an unassuming humility to their presence, especially in Crump’s almost shy-but-eager way of sharing anecdotal information about each tune. This lent the music a human aspect even as it sometimes veered into the abstract, as it does with several tunes by Ellman, the most-overt intellectual in the group.

But what consistently engages listeners is the interplay among the players, most conspicuously the delicious array of contrapuntal felicities rising from the two guitarists together, riding Crump’s fulsome bass.

It was perhaps most purely engaging on the bandleader’s tune “He Runs Circles” inspired by his young son’s “eloquent” manner of literally running circles around his father when he practiced. The evocative effect of the three musicians here was an infectious three-part swing that almost prompted at least one audience member to dance circles around the trio. Here and elsewhere, the group engaged the body, heart and mind with music as stimulating as it was sometimes challenging.

If you have a chance, don’t miss this group, which happily presses on like slightly covert Robin Hoods – taking from the richness of both vernacular and art musics, and giving back to the musically hungry fortunate enough to cross their path. That artistic realm is encapsulated in the title of their latest abum, Outliers.

Stephan Crump’s Rosetta Trio has just embarked on an extensive Midwest tour in support of Outliers, so check out their website for a concert near you: Rosetta Trio tour

Blood is at the Doorstep of Congress

 

A gun safety rally speaker in Milwaukee’s Red Arrow Park shows a photo of Stephen Romero, age 6, a child killed in a mass shooting in California. All photos by Kevin Lynch, unless otherwise indicated.

I really want to celebrate Labor Day today, the working men and women of many immigrant backgrounds who built his nation, and sustained its success and glory, time after time after time. I hear their work in my mind, the rhythms of the hammer, and of the sewing machine, of the printing press, even the offbeat hits of the teacher’s chalk on the blackboard. They are why America is still a great nation and continues to be. I fly my American flag proudly today in front of my home.

But Lord, we have our profound faults and that drives me to this post, because of the profligate abuse of guns everywhere, because of the seemingly mindless, or racist or vengeful carnage, and the heartbreak, the shattering of families and the blood-spattered social fabric. And because of the facile, pathetic rationalizations for inaction.

I am prompted to revisit a rally I attended on August 18, after the very latest mass slaughter in Texas and elsewhere –– how do we keep up with them all? – and another protest for gun safety this weekend, which I missed. The gun safety rally in Milwaukee I attended was held in Red Arrow Park, the site of the killing of Dontre Hamilton. This was a powerful and moving experience. I try to gain inspiration from it. So I am sharing some photos and video from that event in hopes blog readers will gain some inspiration for action.

Red Arrow Park is profoundly significant because part of our nation’s terrible gun problem is the militarization of the police, and their excess of deadly weapons, their institutional and, for some, individual racism, and their reflex to shoot in the slightest doubt, and argue that it was self-defense. In 2014, Hamilton was shot 14 times by a Milwaukee police officer who approached him where he was sleeping under the Red Arrow Park sculpture, a block from City Hall, and across the street from the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts (I’m happy that Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett attended in support of this event.)

Maria Hamilton (far right, in white), mother of Dontre Hamilton speaks a few feet away fro the red arrow sculpture, under which her son Dontre was killed by a Milwaukee police officer in 2014.

Police had previously responded to a call about Hamilton sleeping there and determined that he was causing no harm. But another officer, Christopher Manney, didn’t get that message and showed up and woke up Hamilton who, after being confronted, apparently grabbed the officer’s nightstick, at which point Manney immediately emptied his gun into Hamilton.

The late Dontre Hamilton. Courtesy USA Today

The full Hamilton family story, tragic but also inspiring, is told magnificently in the award-winning film Blood is on the Doorstep which wrote about in depth in this blog at its Milwaukee premiere, and which I dearly recommend to anyone who cares about the deaths of unarmed black men. Here is a link to a trailer, and access to the film which is available by streaming currently, and available through Netflix: Blood is at the Doorstep

The protest event I attended was extremely special because of the presence of Maria Hamilton, Dontre’s activist mother. She spoke briefly, saying “now is the time” for common sense gun safety measurements like background checks. We also need to get rid of the military-style assault rifles on our streets, and in the hands of more potential mass murderers.

Maria Hamilton (top, right) speaks with U.S. Rep. Gwen Moore beside her. A rally attendee (above) consoles Maria after the rally.

When Maria Hamilton took the microphone, it hit me very hard. She spoke only a few feet away from the spot where her son was gunned to death. All new reports I’ve read say he was either “beneath” or “beside” the red arrow sculpture. Then, after the rally, I was stunned by something I saw, when I sat down on the base of the sculpture. I looked down at my feet at the granite surrounding the sculpture and I noticed some stains in the stone, faint red stains that many might easily overlook at this point in time. But I could not help feeling that I was looking at bloodstains and that, whose else might they be but Dontre Hamilton’s?

After the rally, I sat down at the base of the red arrow sculpture (top) and saw these red spots (above), next to my shoes, right on the location where Dontre Hamilton was shot 14 times in 2014. Now I believe they are Dontre’s blood stains.

I don’t even know if Maria Hamilton knows that the stains are there. I did not feel like approaching her afterwards. But I took a photograph of the stains and you can think what you might about this. But, believe me, those stains haunt me, even symbolically, even if it is not really what it appears to be. Philip Roth once wrote powerfully of “the human stain” of racism, and the phrase’s symbolism resonates to the deep heart’s core of the America.

Several speakers spoke on the broader issue of gun violence at the event which was one of over such rallies 100 nationwide that day, sponsored by Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense, Students Demand Action, and Hometown for Gun Safety, the nationwide organization which I was happy to help support on my birthday on Facebook with the assistance of various friends, whose contributions I am very grateful for.

A young college student activist speaks extemporaneously at the Every Town for Gun Safety rally on August 18 in Milwaukee’s Red Arrow Park

One of the most impressive speakers was a young black woman activist (above) who had said she had a prepared speech. But when she got up there she was so fired up that she simply spoke spontaneously for about five minutes. She spoke intelligently, directly, eloquently, and passionately.

I will try to post the video of this remarkable young woman on my  Facebook page (Kevin Lynch, Milwaukee) posting of this blog post. It is too large for this website. 1

The blood is clearly on the doorstep of Congress, just as were the numerous pairs of shoes that were laid out symbolically on the lawn in front of the Congressional building In Washington, representing the hundreds (thousands?) of children we have been killed by gunfire since the Sandy Hook massacre of school children and their teachers.

A recent protest involved placing pairs of shoes on the lawn of Congress to signify every child killed by gunfire since the Sandy Hook massacre. Courtesy GettyImages

Any paranoid gun owner who worries about the ridiculous “slippery slope” notion of gun restrictions, is basing his fear on no evidence.

Neither I nor anyone who cares about reasonable gun safety gives a hoot about your collection of guns. We just want to stop the insane carnage in the only advanced country in the world in which this happens to this degree, by a long shot (sad pun intended).

Guns do kill people, about 40,000 in America every year. When the NRA says “no, people kill people,” remember, no person has ever killed any person by pointing with a forefinger and a “cocked” thumb and shouting “bang!”

A killer has to have a gun in his hand, dammit. I’m sorry, like Beto O’Rourke in Texas and most of America, I’m beyond horror, unhappiness and grief. This is our nation and these deaths were our lives, our mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, our dear friends. They will continue to be.

Every citizen and inhabitant must play a part now, in changing this self-destructive and self-centered brain-lock, and heart-lock — at least among a small group of powerful American politicians and gun industry lobbyists.

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1 Full disclosure, I attended this rally as a belated participant, not as a reporter. Consequently I didn’t take notes (my hands were full) so I don’t have IDs on all the speakers pictured in the photos. There was very little post-rally news coverage of the event that I can find, with such details. My apologies.

 

 

“Milwaukee Jazz” breathes the life of the city’s history in America’s original art form

Jazz singer Jessie Hauck performs with two other key members of “Milwaukee Jazz” history, saxophonist Berkeley Fudge and guitarist Many Ellis. Courtesy Wisconsin Conservatory of Music

Book review: Milwaukee Jazz by Joey Grihalva, Arcadia Publishing $21.99

This illustrated history lives and breathes with its images, almost literally. The profusion of photos, from the 1920s to the present, lets you see horn players blowing fire, drummers thrashing and paradiddling, and singers wailing the blues. Milwaukee Jazz jump-starts the memories of anyone who lived through even some of the city’s remarkable jazz creativityFor young readers or non-Milwaukeeans, it should be revelatory. It’s loads of fun, but also significant in several ways. 

Milwaukee Jazz, part of Arcadia Publishing’s Images of America series, helps substantially to correct a widespread impression. Milwaukee is considered a jazz backwater in many larger cities, most conspicuously Chicago, with which Milwaukee has, well, a complicated relationship. And yet, among the numerous illustrated gems in the book is the ironic tidbit that Herbie Hancock, arguably Chicago’s most famous pianist, got his first professional gig up the dusty country road here in Polka City.

Front and back cover of “Milwaukee Jazz,”  Photo courtesy WCM

Having closely covered Milwaukee arts during what author Joey Grihalva appropriately calls a “jazz Renaissance” in the 1980s, I see that scene as reflecting Milwaukee as an archetypal American city. It is the essence of the urban heartland (more on that later) And this notion helps us understand why, without much fanfare, most any other medium-to-large-sized American city has its own distinctive jazz scene, Madison being another example I can attest, to first hand. 1

So let’s dive into some of the images and memories vibrating through this almost effortlessly digestible book.

Do you remember, or know, that Duke Ellington seemed enchanted (as you see here) by Milwaukee entertainer and nightclub owner Minette Wilson, better known as “Satin Doll,” for whom he wrote and named one of his most famous tunes?

Duke Ellington (center) makes the jazz scene in Milwaukee which includes (directly below him) a possible muse, entertainer/club owner Minette “Satin Doll” Wilson. Courtesy Wisconsin Black Historical Society

In far less exalted terms, by the late 1950s the jazz club The Brass Rail “had primarily become a strip club with local musicians providing the soundtrack. This was true of most of the Mafia-owned venues downtown, of which there were many,” Grihalva writes. So, Milwaukee musicians did what they needed to make a living.  We later learn that, in 1959, Brass Rail owner Izzy Pogrob (pictured with renowned bandleader Louis Jordan) was almost certainly murdered by the mob for stealing a boxcar of their alcohol (probably illegally obtained to begin with).Thus, the shadows of this quintessential American city’s deeply ethnic-immigrant grain reveal themselves. Italian and other ethnic club owners did help sustain the music, though too often musicians went poorly paid, despite a musicians union.

By contrast, among the happiest stories is that of Al Jarreau, who grew up on E. Reservoir Avenue, developed in local clubs, and became a multi-Grammy winning vocalist with a chameleon-like stylistic and tonal latitude. But here we learn that Al’s father played the musical saw – with award-winning virtuosity. One infers from this information that young Al may have developed his almost bi-tonal singing ear by absorbing his father’s wowing, sing-song saw!

Jarreau return to “sweet home Milwaukee” frequently and lent his name to a scholarship at his alma mater, Lincoln High, before dying in 2017 at 76.

The city has also attracted great talents from elsewhere including, in modern times, pianist-vibist Buddy Montgomery from the famous musical family from Indianapolis, including his more-celebrated brother guitarist Wes Montgomery. Another Indianapolis transplant, organist Melvin Rhyne, and Montgomery became important figures in Milwaukee, by force of their prodigious talent, ability to develop young sidemen, and for Montgomery forming the Milwaukee Jazz Alliance to advance the interests of local musicians.

Another great musician, from Minneapolis, who grew up here (with local guitarist Manty Ellis as a sort of brother figure) was bop alto saxophonist Frank Morgan. He had a promising career snuffed by a 30-year drug bust jail term, but Morgan returned in the 1980s to international acclaim as an elder jazz statesman.

Alto saxophonist Frank Morgan (here with pianist George Cables) grew up in Milwaukee and, after decades of jail time for a drug bust, his career revived in the ’80s and ’90s to great acclaim. Courtesy Pat Robinson

As early as the 1920s, Georgia-born trumpeter Jabbo Smith was considered a rival to Louis Armstrong in traditional jazz. In the 1930s, he moved to Milwaukee where he stayed for decades, perhaps experiencing, even as a black musician, the city’s well-known bonhomie.

One of the city’s greatest native-born instrumental talents was also marketed as a rival to another more famous musician. Grihalva does this story justice, with four pages devoted to pianist/bandleader Sig Millonzi. Capitol Records signed him in the mid-’50s, hoping to market him as the “American Oscar Peterson.” Millonzi didn’t quite see himself as a version of someone else, so his national recording career was short-lived. But he dominated the Milwaukee scene in the ’50s and ’60s.with his legendary trio and his big band, which would become the Jack Carr-Ron DeVillers Big Band, after Millonzi’s death.

Celebrated Milwaukee jazz pianist and inter-racial pioneer Sig Millonzi leads his big band at Club Garibaldi in Bay View, where the group played every Monday night from 1975 until Millonzi’s death in 1977. Courtesy Stacy Vojvodich

This great Italian-American musician also contributes to one of the most important stories coursing through Milwaukee Jazz – the sometimes delicate but compelling saga of race relations in what remains one of America’s most racially fraught and segregated cities (partly due to its peculiar geography).

Grihalva reports that, in the 1920s, “the hottest (jazz) rooms were in the black neighborhood of Bronzeville. Located just north of downtown, most Bronzeville clubs were known as ‘black and tan’ because they welcomed both black and white patrons.” And yet, in 1924, black musicians in Milwaukee had to form their own union after being excluded from the local American Federation of musicians union.

This history is another reason why Milwaukee is an archetypal American city, as a microcosm of our nation’s troubles, complexities and sins. America’s indigenous musical art form, forged largely by descendants of African-American slaves, was embraced by various ethnic groups, which eventually led to crossing color lines. Millonzi recorded with black jazz entertainer Scat Johnson (who begat two talented musical sons) and Millonzi later became a big local draw at Summerfest performing with Berkeley Fudge and Manty Ellis, two leading local black players.

Another integrative exemplar was virtuoso Milwaukee guitarist George Pritchett, a  somewhat irascible character who, perhaps because of his willfulness, consistently employed black rhythm section players, including drummer Baltimore Bordeaux, “integrating otherwise all-white south side bars and clubs.”

Actual integration of local bands reaches back at least to the 1940s. A Milwaukee Jazz photo shows black and white musicians from that period jamming, including Jewish saxophonist Joe Aaron and (possibly) black local singer-pianist Claude Dorsey.

Black and white Milwaukee musicians from the 1940s jam, including Jewish saxophonist Joe Aaron (center) and possibly black singer-pianist Claude Dorsey (left). Courtesy Rick Aaron

Of course, the mythology, and often the practicality, of the jazz life told young, ambitious musicians to eventually test their mettle in New York or Chicago. So inevitably this city lost major talent, such as saxophonist Bunky Green and pianist Willie Pickens to the Windy City.

Then something happened in the early 1980s – Milwaukee’s “jazz renaissance.” Several important inner city clubs played a role, including Brothers Lounge, Space Lounge and The Main Event. But two crucial entities arose in synchronicity. In 1978, Chicago community organizer and amateur musician Chuck LaPaglia opened the Milwaukee Jazz Gallery on Center Street and – with his strong Chicago connections – got his ambitiously fledgling club on the touring circuit for national jazz performers.

The club location, in Milwaukee’s Riverwest neighborhood, on a direct artery into the inner city, facilitated integrated audiences and LaPaglia booked national acts several weekends a month, and filled out his calendar with an eclectic array of Chicago and Milwaukee performing arts talent.

Concurrently, The Wisconsin Conservatory of Music had established a jazz degree program (focusing on small combos unlike most jazz ed) led by Milwaukee guitarist Manty Ellis and pianist-educator-mentor Tony King. Avuncular and oracular, he was a harmonic genius, emerging from the tradition of Earl “Fatha” Hines. King traversed the bridge from early to modern jazz theory. His hunger for knowledge arose from “the Jim Crow segregation he endured as a child in southern Illinois.” King, Ellis and others, like saxophonist Fudge and Chicago pianist Eddie Baker, helped mold the school’s burgeoning baby boomer/Gen X breed of players.

The Wisconsin Conservatory of Music’s Tony King (right) instructed and inspired students and co-founded the school’s important jazz degree program. Courtesy WCM.

Crucially, these young musicians had the chance to intimately see and work with world-class musicians at the Milwaukee Jazz Gallery, including Milt Jackson, Dexter Gordon, Chet Baker, Dave Holland, Henry Threadgill, Anthony Braxton, Muhal Richard Abrams, Betty Carter, The Monk-alumnus band Sphere, Art Blakey and the Marsalis brothers. Summerfest already had a big-name Jazz Oasis.

Yes, the music coursed through the thick, nocturnal city air with a darkly swinging pulse, as an ongoing alternative to disco and pop-rock. Dedicated disc jockeys like drive-timer Howard Austin and all-night jazz guru Ron Cuzner fed the real jazz thing into local airwaves and perhaps the subconsciousness of those sleeping to Cuzner’s music, “in my solitude.” On the Milwaukee River, it flowed too, through a riverfront jazz club in the up-the-Mississippi tradition, and on the East Side at the Jazz Estate.

Local record stores stocked the Savoy, Blue Note, Prestige, and Impulse labels and then, Afro-electric Miles Davis (!). A multi-venue Kool Jazz Festival with jazz superstars, from Sarah Vaughan to Ornette Coleman, came to town in 1982. Grihalva also rightly notes the jazz influence on the city’s internationally renowned punk-folk rock band, The Violent Femmes, which emerged during this renaissance. Newer Milwaukee groups like Foreign Goods work the crossroads of jazz, hip-hop and R&B.

Grammy-winning trumpeter Brian Lynch (who later joined Blakey’s Jazz Messengers), pianists David Hazeltine and Rick Germanson, bassists Gerald Cannon and Billy Johnson, drummers Carl Allen and Mark Johnson and others arose to national success from this northern gumbo of old and new jazz tradition – “paying dues” in jam sessions and for-the-door gigs, and the higher education standards that the lucrative big-band era begat modern jazz in high schools and colleges around the country.

Wisconsin Conservatory alumnus Lynch, now a music professor at the University of Miami, exemplifies the history-conscious American jazz artist, passing the music forward. This extensively-honored musician is capable of transmitting and embodying the music’s glory and its ghosts, having authored tribute albums to unsung trumpeters and, most recently, Madera Latino, a magnificent Latin-jazz interpretation of the music of Woody Shaw, an electrifying and advanced post-bop trumpeter who died before his time, under tragic circumstances. Lynch also frequently returns to Milwaukee for student workshops and concerts. A younger Milwaukee-area jazz trumpeter-educator-advocate with admirable historical perspective is Jamie Breiwick, who provided the book’s introduction.  

As a historical writer, Grihalva is comparatively young, but dedicated, and he has done  smart and diligent research to create this book. There are some notable omissions, such as the utterly original avant-garde bands Matrix 2 and especially the brilliant What On Earth? (identified in passing as a jazz-fusion group). Also one must note important 1970s jazz-fusion groups like Sweetbottom, which produced progressive fusion guitarist Daryl Stuermer – of Genesis, Jean-Luc Ponty-George Duke fame – and Street Life, the Warren Wiegratz-led house band for The Milwaukee Bucks for years. Reed wizard Wiegratz now works often with an award-winning Latin-jazz fusion band VIVO. Nor can we forget the stellar ensemble Opus, which remains active, educating and recording, with its original personnel.

And for the book’s panoply of artists and jazz-scene builders, Arcadia should’ve provided an index.

America, and the world, suffer profoundly today for having forgotten the wonders, complexities, and tragedies – the hard lessons of the 20th century. Yet, some of the best of the century was jazz, here, there and everywhere, now a global art form of the improviser-composer in a blues-based language, or freely spun ones. Celebrate and support it wherever you live. And best of all, hear it live, with friends, especially in a time when our sense of community has splintered radically, increasingly abstracted into “sharing” on miniature electronic devices. Jazz remains doggedly, a lifeblood of humane and democratic art, a music of tradition and liberation.

Especially in such a decreasingly literate age, image-rich Milwaukee Jazz is a vibrant document for any jazz lover, or music lover with open ears. It brings to mind the idea of American novelist William Faulkner, a quote adapted by Barack Obama in his “A More Perfect Union” speech: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

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Milwaukee Jazz is available at local bookstores, and from www.arcadia publishing.com  To purchase a copy autographed by the author, visit http://www.mkejazzbook.com

Book signing events will be held Friday, October 11, at the Wisconsin Black Historical Society. Another event is tentatively planned for September in Sherman Park with the Manty Ellis Trio. Details coming soon.

Grihalva also plans an online e-supplement to the book, with more photos, and written contributions from others, including this writer.

  • 1 I explore this idea of Milwaukee as an archetypal American city in greater depth in my forthcoming book Voices in the River: The Jazz Message to Democracy.
  • 2 Milwaukee’s jazz-classical-rock band Matrix should not be confused with the same-named fusion horn band from Appleton, which became recording artists for RCA in the 1970s. An original member of that Appleton group has recently blessed Wisconsin music history with the book Wisconsin Riffs: Jazz Profiles from the Heartland, a fairly comprehensive history of Wisconsin jazz musicians by Appleton educator-musician Kurt Dietrich. He’s the father of a gifted jazz orchestra leader/composer.arranger based in Madison, Paul Dietrich, who recently released a brilliant debut orchestra album.

 

Bronze sculpture of W.E.B. DuBois is highlight of Sculpture Milwaukee

Special event: A Magical Day with Sculpture Milwaukee

The event features Mayor Tom Barrett and Sculpture Milwaukee Director of Exhibitions and Programs, Marilu Knode. Meet at Richard Wood’s “Holiday Home (Milwaukee)” at 2:00 p.m. to be a part of the tour.

The tour concludes back at Museum Center Park (formerly O’Donnell Park) with a show starting at 3:30 p.m.
Magician Glen Gerard puts on an act inspired by Actual Size Artwork’s “Magical Thinking”. This is part of Mayor Barrett’s Walk 100.

For more info visit:https://www.sculpturemilwaukee.com/events/a-magical-day-with-sculpture-milwaukee-2019-08-24/8-24-2019  

This eloquently expressive bronze sculpture (above) from the current Sculpture Milwaukee exhibit on Wisconsin Avenue especially moved me. Radcliffe Bailey’s “Pensive” depicts African-American writer, historian, sociologist, editor and activist W.E.B. Du Bois (1868 1963) in the position of Rodin’s iconic work “The Thinker,” originally designed in 1880 as the cornerstone for Rodin’s masterpiece “The Gates of Hell.” In Rodin’s version, “The Thinker” is 14th-century Italian poet Dante Alighieri, author of “The Divine Comedy,” completed in 1320. Dante sits in his well-known position, contemplating the circles of hell as described in Christian theology. In his epic poem, Alighieri wrote about his own life and exile, mirroring perhaps DuBois’ own alienation. Both Du Bois and Alighieri are depicted as deeply philosophical men, pondering the harsh realities of human behavior although separated by centuries of time.

Bailey’s work is “…a meditation on “double consciousness,” a term coined in the section titled “Of Our Spiritual Strivings” in Du Bois’ seminal work, The Souls of Black Folk, published 1903….[DuBois) describes (a black person’s plight in a racist society,) a second sense of self that is seen through the eyes of others.”

DuBois’ The Souls of Black Folk is also one of blogger Kevernacular’s all-time favorite books. For info on the book, visit: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Souls_of_Black_Folk

DuBois sculpture is located on E. Wisconsin Ave. between Jefferson & Jackson Sts. Milwaukee.

A frontal detail of “Pensive,” the DuBois portrait sculpture on Wisconsin Avenue in Milwaukee. Photos by Kevin Lynch

 On a lighter note (though gastronomically heavier) is this scene from Red Grooms’ tableau “Tango Dancers.” This hound chows the dogs down, from the same Sculpture Milwaukee show, running through October 27th.

Another piece that impressed was the heroic-scaled “Penguin” by noted artist John Baldessari. Here’s a detail shot of the great bird’s head. It’s located on Wisconsin Avenue just west of Prospect Avenue.

Perhaps the show’s most intriguing and formally compelling sculpture is “Hera (half)” by Tony Matelli. It combines pure stone carving with the whimsical smattering of watermelon and other fruit, I believe cast-and-painted metal objects,  in this multi-media sculpture.

There’s also a sculpture by Sean Scully located outside the St. Kate Art Hotel, at 139 E. Kilbourne Ave.

This is just a sampling of the show’s 23 sculptures, all on Wisconsin Ave, except the one noted above.

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Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House” remains one of the world’s greatest dramas, steamy and relevant

Power dynamics between husband Torvald (Nate Burger) and Nora Helmer (Kelsey Brennan) shift precipitously through APT’s “A Doll’s House,” running through Oct. 4. Photos by Liz Lauren courtesy APT

SPRING GREEN — Henrik Ibsen’s spectacles probably steamed up while he wrote “A Doll’s House,” but his brain surely boiled as well. One of classic theater’s sexiest plays also provided American Players Theatre’s audience witness to one of the world’s greatest dramas — published in 1879 but now in 78 languages, inspiring countless performances and adaptations.

It’s a woman’s personal odyssey, proto-feminist, and somewhat comparable to Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. But Hawthorne’s a Puritan prude compared to this Scandinavian and lacked Ibsen’s genius for dramatic, even explosive, story craft. Yet there’s nary a gun nor blade visible. Psychological suspense intensifies, as if the well-stoked stove upstage is steadily swallowing the set in flames.

It opens with grabby, bourgeois husband Torvald treating his young wife like a doll, or “my little hamster.” Initially, nothing but “gold-digger” shines in Nora Helmer’s slightly manic eyes. Swift plots turns bring a man to her doorstep with a secret, held over her like the sword of Damocles, and an old girlfriend who may help her survive.

A visitor (Juan Rivera Lebron) arrives with information that could shatter the delicate structure of Nora Helmer’s  “Doll’s House.”

Old “family friend” Dr. Rank (Marcus Truschinski,* with dancing eyebrows and humid spectacles) lurks, secretly craving vivacious Nora.

A box of chocolates are only part of Nora’s wiles with well-off and frequent family guest Dr. Rank (Marcus Truschinski)

Along the way, Ibsen deposits plenty of pregnant symbols: a Christmas doll’s house — “It’ll just break anyway,” Nora says with unwitting portent, — a white dress, then a red one (perhaps in homage to The Scarlet Letter), a box of “forbidden” chocolates, a game of hide-and-seek, important letters stuck in a mailbox, a post card with a black cross…

Nora endures dark nights of the soul, and actor Kelsey Brennan dominates the stage with her radiance and increasingly tortured being. Her closing-scene transformation is breathtaking, but feels inevitable, as does the shattering demise of Nate Burger’s Torvald. Nora must finally dance a gypsy tarantelle for her fantasizing husband. But she pirouettes along a cliff and, somewhere between salvation and damnation, lies her humanity, a quivering lifeline in the “#Me Too” era.

Through October 4, in APT’s Touchstone Theater, For tickets, visit americanplayers.org.

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* Marcus Truschinski is also playing the title character in Macbeth, perhaps the plum role of APT’s season this year.

A slightly shorter version of this review was published in Shepherd Expresshttps://shepherdexpress.com/arts-and-entertainment/theater/a-dolls-house-still-one-of-the-worlds-greatest-dramas/

 

 

Mike Moustakas has a lot of Eddie Mathews in him

A little fantasy baseball move I like is to compare Mike Moustakas to another great Milwaukee third baseman, Eddie Mathews (B&W photo). Here you see Mike with the Royals where he went to two World Series, like Eddie, with the Braves. They’re both dagerous lefties. And they sure both hit home runs!
Mike (the Moose) just banged a pair yesterday and has 18 already this year. He’s beginning to chase teammate Christian Yelich for the league lead! Feel’s a bit like Mathews and Aaron.

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Brewer Mike Moustakas still reminds me of Milwaukee Braves great Eddie Mathews. So, growing Brewer fever brought to mind the very first cover of Sports Illustrated in 1954: Eddie Mathews batting at County Stadium. Photo credit:By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=22655745

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The Dave Stoler Jazz Orchestra honors the legendary Thad Jones’ music in Madison

Pianist and jazz orchestra leader Dave Stoler. Photo by Bobbie Harte.

Dave Stoler Jazz Orchestra, Cafe Coda, 1224 Williamson St., Madison. Saturday, June 8, 8:30-11;15 p.m. Cover $20  608-630-9089

My bet is on the Dave Stoler Jazz Orchestra to show, and big time. I think they’ll have the horses and they sure will have the fodder, when they perform a concert of compositions by the great jazz brass player-composer, and arranger Thad Jones this Saturday at Cafe Coda, in Madison.

My stance derives primarily from my knowledge of the dedication with which pianist and bandleader Dave Stoler abides the modern jazz tradition. A former quarter-finalist in the Thelonious Monk Piano Competition, the ace veteran is esteemed as a classic jazz trio pianist, with the Tony Castaneda Latin Jazz Sextet, and as co-leader of the large-group Steely Dan dedication band, Steely Dane. His trio and quartet play in New York not infrequently. So his musical cred lines up perfectly to do this, an ambitious first time project for him.

Anyone who knows Stoler, or his frequent postings of beloved modern jazz recordings on Facebook, has some sense of his dedication. And that word brings me to a quintessential Jones tune “Dedication,” which he and co-bandleader Mel Lewis recorded with their orchestra, on the great 1970 Blue Note album Consummation. “Dedication,” which Stoler’s orchestra will perform, is a fairly sublime piece actually somewhat reminiscent of Gil Evans, which brings me to an interesting point of mutable comparison and contrast. Madison has also recently provided us with another brilliant big band dedicated deeply to the Gil Evans tradition by way of Maria Schneider, that being the Paul Dietrich Jazz Ensemble.

Dave Stoler’s Jazz Orchestra will do music from this classic Thad Jones-Mel Lewis recording, among other Jones tunes, on Saturday at Cafe Coda,  Amazon.com

The Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra wasn’t as impressionistic as the original Evans-Schneider style. And in that sense, Thad came more from an older jazz lineage just as did Evans.

To somewhat simplify, if Gil Evans’ sensibility and style draws from the deep coloristic well of the Duke Ellington Orchestra, the original Jones and Lewis orchestra was ultimately more of a swinging machine, but in the finest sense of the word, as in the glorious Count Basie Orchestra.

Of course, the swing era of prime Ellington and Basie way back in the day. The Jones and Lewis aggregate was thoroughly modern and perhaps the most acclaimed jazz orchestra during their heydays in the ’70s and ’80s, when they performed legendarily Mondays at the Village Vanguard in New York. They could really “do it all” musically speaking, which often set their contemporaries in awe. To wit, Stoler’s Thad Jones project has a little magic in store, he says, with two French horns in the ensemble. The horn is a relatively rare jazz orchestra instrument that Jones’ arrangements handled with aplomb.

Actually, one could argue that Gil Evans gradually picked up on Jones and Lewis, as he became funkier in his later years, one of the latter ensemble’s many vibrant traits.

Speaking of Madison ties, The Jones-Lewis orchestra’s primary bass player was none other than Madison legend Richard Davis, now largely retired but still active (but not in this event).

So who’s to say if the spirit of that now-departed Thad and Mel orchestra doesn’t come visiting their old band mate in Madison once in a while, enough for orchestra-whisperer Dave Stoler to one day pick up on it and run with it. As I said, I’m betting on this band to show, and then some.

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