Milwaukee’s Revived Jazz Gallery: A Beacon for Creative Freedom Burns Again

The Marquis Hill Blacktet playing recently at The Jazz Gallery Center for the Arts in Milwaukee’s Riverwest neighborhood. 

The original Milwaukee Jazz Gallery transmitted a far-reaching beacon, a creative-freedom vibe even the Statue of Liberty might’ve caught, and tapped her toe to. America’s art of improvised musical expression thrived in arguably the greatest jazz club in Milwaukee history, with a reputation that radiated throughout the nation’s jazz-musician community.

Today the same address, 932 E. Center St., houses The Jazz Gallery Center for the Arts, a venue for performances and jam sessions and art exhibits. This honors and reinvents the tradition of the original.

After the club’s glorious but difficult run, from September 1978 to the fall of 1984, founder and owner Chuck LaPaglia moved on — to propose and then book live jazz at Yoshi’s in Oakland, today one of the premier jazz clubs in the world. “But many musicians still talk about how special the Milwaukee Jazz Gallery was,” LaPaglia recalls.

Here’s a review of the piano titan McCoy Tyner, at the height of his powers at the Jazz Gallery on June 12, 1981: “As he unleashes a solo, his left hand rears high above the keyboard delivering lightning bolts of bass. His right wrist appears to be pouring fingers all over the keyboard.

What you hear is music that swings, soars and erupts, often at once. In the intimacy of the Gallery Friday, you could feel it as well, such is the power of Tyner’s quintet… with ascending plateaus and sweeping arcs…”*

McCoy Tyner in 1996, still playing with the power and fire he displayed at the Jazz Gallery in 1981. 

And today?

“A whole generation of Americans has no idea what serious jazz is,” laments Mark Lawson, president of the Riverwest Artists Association, which owns the facility.

The original Jazz Gallery also staged Dizzy Gillespie, Betty Carter, Freddie Hubbard, Stan Getz, Dexter Gordon, Dave Holland, Wynton and Branford Marsalis, Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers and many more, a living jazz history.

You could catch world-class blues acts like Koko Taylor and Albert Collins, and local theater groups like Theater X — as it built a national reputation. The Jazz Gallery also nurtured local musicians who now have national stature, including Brian Lynch, David Hazeltine and Lynn Arriale, and even notable non-jazzers like the Violent Femmes and Paul Cebar.

Among other top-flight local musicians the venue staged were Melvin Rhyne, Manty Ellis, Berkeley Fudge, and What On Earth? and its lyrical brand of avant-garde. Renowned pianist-vibist Buddy Montgomery, then residing in Milwaukee, used the space for meetings of The Milwaukee Jazz Alliance, helping to define LaPaglia’s vision for it as a community resource.

The Brian Lynch Quartet (l-r, Lynch, Sam Belton, Manty Ellis and Jeff Hamman) at the Jazz Gallery Center for the Arts.

That legacy drives Lawson. “We are passionate about the mission to combat the commercialism that has swallowed up America’s original art form,” he says, noting the music’s paltry presence on local radio and in press coverage. African World Festival’s jazz is mostly the smooth variety. Even the huge umbrella of Summerfest has long since forsaken jazz, although several local groups made inroads on the Potawatomi stage this summer.

The new Jazz Gallery presents local and a few touring groups, including the Brooklyn-based trio Chives on Friday, Aug. 31. The Jazz Gallery CFA’s  managing partner is Milwaukee Jazz Vision, a musician-run organization that stages concerts and promotes the whole Milwaukee jazz scene with an impressive, cutting edge-quality website.For example, an MJV stage will debut  at Center Street Days on September 8 with the Milwaukee Jazz Vision Quintet  and other groups playing from 4 to 8 p.m.In May, the Jazz Gallery CFA participated in a national network event, involving   venues in various cities, The Undead Festival — Night of the DIY, with   top local bands including the Extra Crispy Brass Band, a rollicking and   popular neo-New Orleans-style ensemble.The new gallery presents visual   art just as resourcefully.Recent art exhibits have ranged from handmade Navajo   rugs to a vibrantly varied group show from the Milwaukee Institute of Art and   Design, where Lawson has curated exhibits for several decades.An art opening at the Jazz Gallery Center for the Arts

Another Jazz Gallery CFA partner   is the Milwaukee Youth Symphony Orchestra.“This collaboration is in its   infancy in finding ways to work with kids across disciplines,” says Jeno Somlai,   jazz studies director at MYSO. “I do see a renaissance beginning, and hopefully   a groundswell of activity will bring recognition to Milwaukee culture.”The opportunity to pursue   one’s creativity “changes a person’s life, whether it’s jazz, poetry, art or dance,” Lawson says.

Such intimate, informal venues remain the lifeblood of   the improviser’s art. The gallery hopes for more partners. MJV and MYSO have   given the grassroots facility citywide outreach and worldwide presence.

For information on Jazz   Gallery events and hours, visit . The   MJV site is

*LaPaglia’s collection of the   Tyner review and numerous articles about the club are documented in Milwaukee Jazz Gallery, an  8 x 11″ ring-bound anthology ($20), available   at the Jazz Gallery Center for the Arts.

This post was first published in an edited version in the Aug. 30th issue of The Shepherd Express.  



4 thoughts on “Milwaukee’s Revived Jazz Gallery: A Beacon for Creative Freedom Burns Again

  1. Kevin,

    An inspiring article about the past and present Jazz Gallery. What is clear to me is that Jazz in Milwaukee still has the potential it had while the original Jazz Gallery was alive. The times I have visited Milwaukee in the past couple of years I have felt the Jazz excitement begin to grow again. There are many talented young musicians being inspired by the many great older Jazz musicians who still live there. Beside the clubs, there are institutions like the Milwaukee Conservatory and youth Jazz programs that continue to produce young exciting Jazz improvisors. It should be remembered that Milwaukee has always been an important Jazz town long before the Jazz Gallery existed.

    • Thanks Chuck,
      I agree wholeheartedly about the quality of young Milwaukee jazz musicians, which amazes and inspires me since returning to Milwaukee. And you make a good point about the kind of jazz town it was before the original Jazz Gallery, though too few know that.
      It seems the music will not die, even though it needs all the support and sustenance it can get, or else we get the talent attrition that makes it a perpetual struggle as a local scene.

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