“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 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 (pictured below as a WCM music student) 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.

Trumpeter Brian Lynch (left) auditions music with another student in the Wisconsin Conservatory listening room in the early 1980s. Lynch’s auspicious career has since included two Grammy Awards. Courtesy Joey Grihalva and WCM. 

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.”


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.


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.


* 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.

Image may contain: one or more people, people playing sports and baseball
Image may contain: one or more people, people playing sports and baseball

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

Image may contain: one or more people, people playing sports, baseball, stadium, outdoor and text
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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.




What if happiness hung on a game-winning free throw?

Image may contain: 2 people, people playing sports

Even Malcolm Brogdon missed a big free throw late in the last game! Then there’s Giannis and Eric Bledsoe. A Raptor or two have FT issues. So this poem spoke to me because it puts sports in a bigger perspective while acknowledging its role in elusive human happiness.

“Happiness” By Lisa Zeidner

What it is
is the absence of pain. Nothing more.
Over a decade of life in the bull’s-eye
of the troubled cities in the Northeastern corridor
and I’ve never been raped,
never stabbed, burglarized, or even mugged
though I hate to say or even think
I never get colds (line italicized)
or hear a sportscaster brag
about a basketball player’s percentage from the line

Before the foul shot that would win the game:
why wave a red flag in the bulls face
if the bull is God
in happy pastures, chewing the grass?

Infinite disasters and fender bender’s lurk
around each corner
like the black holes that claim stray socks
at the laundromat.
Best to notice happiness peripherally,

The way walking in his city you take in a pretty weed
growing from a sidewalk crack
or a woman with slim ankles
passing briskly – to meet someone for a drink
perhaps, a man she has not seen,
back whole from a treasure hunt or war.

You, too, have someone waiting at home
and for a goosebumped second you know
that you are loved. That nothing,
at least today, has gone wrong.
— From Vital Signs: Contemporary American Poetry from the University Presses. An anthology edited by Ronald Wallace, UW Press 1989

Bay View Jazz Fest is Milwaukee jazz distilled into one night

Milwaukee pianist-composer Joshua Catania. Courtesy Milwaukee carpe-diem events

The Bay View Jazz Fest 2019 is Milwaukee jazz distilled into one day. Come down on Friday, May 31st and take a big swig or three or four. This should be musical intoxication as good as Milwaukee gets.

The fest is in it’s sixth year, and it keeps on showing what’s really happening in jazz today. Maybe it’s no coincidence that the evening-long bash at nine different Bay View venues kicks off with one of the hottest new names on the Milwaukee scene today, Joshua Catania, at 5 p.m. at Tonic Tavern. More accurately, the 18-year-old pianist-composer  is still getting warmed up, career-wise. Musically, he’s already full throttle. His debut album Open to Now speaks with uncanny authority. Right from the opening bars, you hear and almost feel the power of Catania’s musical chops.

The album of all originals unfolds with myriad shades and colors, dynamic brilliance, some artistic depth and an excellent rhythm section of guitarist Dave Miller bassist John Christensen and drummer Devin Drobka.

Acclaimed Milwaukee trumpeter Russ Johnson. Courtesy The Chicago Reader

Among some of the other recommended and intriguing acts:

  • The MKE Guitar Summit at 8 at Tonic
  • Cameron Webb & Chris Oliver at 11 at At Random
  • Johnny Padilla and Onda Tropical at 7 at Twisted Path Distillery
  • The Eternal Flame: A Tribute to Mahavishnu at 5 at The Back Yard
  • Mrs. Fun +1 at 7:30 at Sam’s Tap, followed by.
    The Chicago Gypsy Jazz All-stars at 9
  • Andrew Trim’s Ordinary Poems at 9:30 at Revel Bar
  • Russ Johnson Quartet at 8 at Magnet Factory

Here’s the link to the whole line-up:

Here’s the Bay View Jazz Fest 2019 lineup

Madison composer-arranger Paul Dietrich’s music looks backward and forward, like sonic cinema

Paul Dietrich Jazz Ensemble – Forward *

In essence, Maria Schneider brought native Minnesota landscape and beyond to the Gil Evans orchestral impression. To stunning effect, Madison’s Paul Dietrich has done as much for Wisconsin vistas. Akin to Schneider, hear sumptuous orchestral shapes draped over ostinatos or vamps, or elegantly unfolding chord changes. Brilliant accordionist Gary Versace offers Grammy-winning Schneider slightly richer textures. By contrast, Dietrich employs a wordless female soprano voice, perhaps imported from Pat Metheny’s ensemble concept. 

Composer-arranger-trumpeter Paul Dietrich (left) conducts his jazz ensemble in the recording session for the album “Forward.” Courtesy youtube.com

Forward ranks a mere notch below Schneider’s best album or two. Yep, it’s that good, bolstered by ace soloists among its Chicago-area and Southern Wisconsin musicians. On opener “Rush,” Milwaukee trumpeter Russ Johnson’s warm, stately lyricism rides swelling backdrops and kicking boosts from Clarence Penn, Schneider’s own band drummer. It takes it’s time, building with Tony Barba’s climbing-to-climax tenor sax, but the tune is a rush.

“Settle” suggests history, a homestead, putting down roots, embracing the future with quiet courage. Altoist Greg Ward intimates a family-like vibe of circling tenderness.

The closing “Forward” suite (titled for the state’s motto) first evokes, in playful horn counterpoint, Dietrich’s vibrant hometown of Ripon. 1

“I can return to my hometown..and feel right at home even as life experiences change my perception of the things around me,” Dietrich comments in the album liner notes.  Then “Snow,” a tone poem of enveloping majesty, glows in contours of shade and light. Ward’s ardent soloing melts the snow closer to “Like Water” (a previous tune’s title).

“Roads” unfolds through more nifty crisscross writing, then sequencing of the same phrases among ensemble sections, and Dustin Lorenzi’s burnished, Stan Getz-like tenor peals.

Milwaukee trumpeter Russ Johnson (foreground, left) is among the strong soloists amid Dietrich’s deftly interactive ensemble, in this recording session scene. Courtesy Isthmus.

The suite closes with the poignantly anthemic “Green Fields,” written for the late Fred Sturm, a brilliant Appleton composer and trombonist (with the acclaimed jazz-fusion group Matrix) and mentor to Dietrich and many musicians. His protege’s own trumpet here sounds like cherished memory.

“The former department chair at Lawrence University, my alma mater, remains the most important teacher I ever had,” Dietrich notes. “He was unfairly taken too young by cancer in 2014…his love of music and his radiant (and mischievous) personality left an indelible mark on all who knew him.” Here, the Schneider connection echoes again, as Sturm edited the published scores for Schneider’s album Evanesence.

For all the album’s backwards-glancing reflection and sense of place, the theme of “forward” keeps the listener attuned to Dietrich’s long, winding road over the horizon.


This review was first published in slightly shorter form in The Shepherd Express: https://shepherdexpress.com/music/album-reviews/forward-by-paul-dietrich-jazz-ensemble-with-clarence-penn/

  • photo of Forward album cover courtesy Jazz Trails

1 The Greater Madison Jazz Consortium commissioned Dietrich to write the Forward suite. The organization supports a wide range of jazz activities and ventures in the Capitol city. “The idea was to write music in a modern big band jazz style that represented my personal images and perceptions of my home state, Wisconsin,” Dietrich writes.  

Press Club prize winner: Review of APT’s gripping apartheid story “Blood Knot”

Gavin Lawrence (left) and Jim DeVita play South African half-brothers in Athol Fugard’s “Blood Knot,” currently at American Players Theatre. All photos by Liz Lauren, courtesy APT 

Editor’s note: Due to technical difficulties I wasn’t able to insert the link to this review in my last post. So I decided to re-post my review of American Players Theatre’s “Blood Knot.” The review won a silver award for best critical review last week from The Milwaukee Press Club. — Kevin Lynch (Kevernacular).


Blood Knot by Athol Fugard, Touchstone Theater, American Players Theatre, through September 28. For information APT

SPRING GREEN –  When you’re born in the heart of darkness you may begin to understand a world’s weird palpitations. The sun sets and darkness does a somersault.

South African playwright Athol Fugard can summon such effects, with brotherly insight and affection. I’ve hardly seen the entirety of August Wilson’s 10-play “Pittsburgh Cycle.” So suffice to say, south of Pittsburgh, Fugard’s Blood Knot captures one of the most complex aspects of the black experience ever dramatically wrought, perhaps in all the modern world.

Overstatement? Surely arguable, but the man’s a candidate for the Nobel Prize in literature for good reason. He turns up the dramatic heat with the slow, laser-focused pressure of a master welder, until the emotional and intellectual impact burns into the viewer’s mind. As per its mission, American Players Theatre offers a classic of modern drama and, at mid-run, they did so Sunday with a one-time, pay-what-you-can price matinee. It’s a professional Theater Guild production, but they want people to see this. It’s well-worth a full-priced ticket.

Regarding our increasingly crazy and disheartening planet, the greater developed world still strives toward liberal democracy. Yet we can get sticky when it comes to political correctness, which typically entails doing the proper thing even though it’s sometimes self-defeating.

I’m wading into that uneasy backdrop, because this play and its casting prove fearless and ultimately correct, in the best senses. Some controversy arose when Caucasian actor Jim DeVita was cast as Morris, one of the two South African brothers barely getting by in a one-room shack in the non-white ghetto near Port Elizabeth.

African-American director Ron O.J. Parson wisely stood by his cast decision. For starters, Fugard’s characters are half-brothers, with the same white mother. More significantly, the play updates the classic Cyrano de Bergerac, wherein a poetical man becomes stand-in suitor for a smitten friend, who’s ill-spoken and ill-suited for wooing a woman. In this case, Fugard boils it down to one brother simply capable of writing, the other illiterate.

DeVita has actually directed Cyrano and, in that sense, this intensely immersive professional has strong experience with Fugard’s source theme. DeVita also played the title role and later directed perhaps Shakespeare’s darkest character-portrait, Richard III. He’s APT’s preeminent actor, having played Hamlet, Tyrone in A Long Day’s Journey into Night, Eddie in A View from the Bridge and received an NEA Literature Fellowship. Specific credentials aside, he’s a hell of an actor who deftly juggles comedy and drama. He has the sonic range, timing and  expressive nuance of a virtuoso violinist.

The white South African playwright himself has said he was actually inspired by his own relationship with his white brother, “and how cruel time had been with him.” So clearly, though the cutting-edge subject matter is clearly race, Fugard aims for the universal.

Make no mistake, Gavin Lawrence proves wonderfully winning, even heart-wrenching, as the illiterate and darker-skinned brother Zachariah. I can’t do full justice to his performance in this context.  Further, the actual true progress of P.C. in theater is gender-and-colorblind casting, which far more typically benefits women and actors of color. Yet this white male actor, in final analysis, proved how wise that ideal can be.

I’m trying to convey the playwright’s mastery of P.C. as social and linguistic subtlety, and regards deeper-seeded matters of brotherhood and, finally, love. This unfolds and sustains superbly with Fugard’s magnificent writing which, with the inevitability of nightfall, casts musical linguistic images in deft shadows, what I would call an ashen lyricism. From seemingly simple images, “the ruins of an old Chevy,” to grander utterances: Zachariah’s “I may be a shade of black, but I will go gently as a man,” or Morris’ mystery-invoking speech at the end.

For sure, this man bears the weight of life’s mysteries. By contrast to his exultant, go-for-it brother, Morris, a seemingly unemployed writer, struggles under a mountain of neurotic and fraternal complexities. Each night, after Zachariah’s shift as a park gate-keeper, the lighter-skinned Morris soaks his brother’s aching feet in epsom salts, a gesture of abject fraternal bond.

The two also recall John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, another parable about two apparent losers in life. Whereas Steinbeck’s slow-witted Lenny habitually looks to the future as a dreamer-fool, Morris calculates obsessively for the shared future of the two brothers, fully sensing how fragile that is. Yet he takes pleasure, even short-lived vicarious delight, in penning little love letters for his brother’s response to a white woman’s personal ad. Remember, this is apartheid South Africa.

“What you have thought, that’s the crime,” Morris warns his brother. “They’ve got ways and means, mean ways.”

Bible-quoting Morris is so deeply repressed that, when his brother asks him whether he’s ever been with a woman, he curls up like a flower burning into an ash.

Fugard richly weaves together symbolic objects, including an all-white suit that Zachariah buys with all the money his brother has squirreled away for their future. At this point, the layered complexity of their relationship unfurls, from teasing to playful exuberance, to turning inside out, so we see truth more clearly.

Finally, the play evoked W.E.B. Du Bois’ famous explanation of the “double consciousness” a black man must endure in a society that refuses to see him as a man. Du Bois himself was a rather light-skinned black man, well-educated and capable of passing as white. In this play, Morris carries such tricky “passing” consciousness with the weary endurance of Sisyphus. His brother signifies his potentially liberated spirit, the brother for whom life is too cruel.

Rarely have two so seemingly different brothers been bound together in a “blood knot” that might burst their hearts. And yet, Fugard resists any easy summation, because his ashen lyricism never really rests.

Listen to Morris, obliquely affirmative, near the end:

“Yes, It’s the mystery  of my life, that lake. I mean. . . It smells dead, doesn’t it ? If ever there was a piece of water that looks dead and done for, that’s what I’m looking at now. And yet, who knows? Who really knows what’s at the bottom?”



Culture Currents wins Press Club Award for best critical review of American Players production

For the second consecutive year, Culture Currents blog won a Milwaukee Press Club award for best critical review of the arts. Culture Currents won a silver award for the review “American Players Theatre’s ‘Blood Knot’ Reaches Deep for Ties that Bind.” The play Blood Knot, by South African playwright Athol Fugard, scrutinizes the complex relationship between two South African half-brothers, one black and one white, during that nation’s notorious era of apartheid.

The review was published here on Aug. 13 of this year and is viewable in a Culture Currents archive search, or re-posted in the most recent post, 5/15/19.*

Gavin Lawrence (left) and Jim DeVita played South African half-brothers living together in the era of apartheid, in American Players Theatre’s staging of Athol Fugard’s “Blood Knot.” Photo by Liz Lauren, courtesy APT

Last year, Culture Currents won the Milwaukee Press Club’s gold award for criticism for a review of a retrospective art exhibit of work by the late Adolph Rosenblatt. This blog also won the press club’s gold award for best critical review in 2013. The blog’s author, Kevin Lynch, has won a total of five Milwaukee Press Club awards over the years. The Milwaukee Press Club carries a certain distinction as the oldest continually operating press club in North America.
Judging for the critical review awards – as well as numerous other awards by Wisconsin competitors in many aspects of writing, visual media, radio and production in the news media – is done by out-of-state judges.

The annual “gridiron dinner” to administer the awards includes two other special awards. The Headliner Award is presented annually to honor Wisconsin leaders for their contributions to the community. This year the awards went to Martin J. Schreiber, former Wisconsin governor and award-winning advocate for Alzheimer’s caregivers and persons with dementia, and to Mary Lou Young, former CEO of United Way of Greater Milwaukee and Waukesha County.

In his address, Gov. Schreiber recounted the extraordinary challenge of caring for his longtime wife, Elaine, who suffers from Alzheimer’s, and how that experience inspired him to greater activism for the cause.

The second special press club award is The Sacred Cat Award, presented annually to recognize outstanding achievement by a journalist at the national level.
This year the Sacred Cat Award was given to Chuck Todd, moderator of Meet the Press on NBC and host of MPT Daily on MSNBC. Todd is one of the most respected and recognizable journalists in television today. Todd accepted the award and spoke about the urgent need for journalists to pursue the truth in an era when proper journalism has been called into question for its veracity, very often in a gratuitous manner by subjects of news, such as President Donald Trump.

Longtime “Meet the Press” moderator Chuck Todd makes a point in his speech after accepting The Milwaukee Press Club’s Sacred Cat Award for outstanding journalism at the national level. The press club awards event was held in the ballroom of the Pfister Hotel on Friday. Photo courtesy Milwaukee Press Club

Todd warmed to his Wisconsin audience by speaking of his “second great passion,” after politics: The Green Bay Packers, and sported a Packers tie for the occasion (see photo above). Todd also praised the Press Club for providing awards to outstanding journalists, something he wished Washington D. C. would do more of. There, he said, journalists are often spoofed in “skits” at comparable press gatherings.


*technical difficulties prevented a direct link to the “Blood Knot” review.