To put the original Milwaukee Jazz Gallery in the proper prism of my personal historical perspective, I regret somewhat that this small tribute must dispense with a disclaimer. I intend not one iota of the disrespect and neglect that jazz still endures, symptomatic of America’s peculiar culture, and the plight of the African-American — who spawned this serious art form. I try to lessen the music’s cultural neglect; yet I can only be honest. Jazz is not me; but it floats my aesthetic boat more consistently than any other form, in pure musical terms. It also fires my blood more than any other.
However, for several decades, my own professional identity has involved a struggle to escape the pigeonhole of being a jazz writer, which I am and hope to always be. Don’t infer ingratitude, for I believe the music has as much to say to the human soul about democracy and creativity as any art form, wordless or not.
But one reason I’m more than a jazz head is that I’m fascinated by our incredibly fertile culture (I suspect many jazz fans are too) : You can find art under any given rock, regardless of the paucity of pedigree or pretense of whatever crawls out.
I took quite seriously my decade-long role as The Milwaukee Journal’s jazz critic and as a freelance writer for various publications. Covering the Jazz Gallery was a big part of my beat. Yet one of my most indelible memories was an in-person interview in 1981 backstage at Summerfest with Bill Monroe, the father of bluegrass (which I will resurrect at the appropriate time). It felt like a coup; Monroe was a notoriously tough interview and I was a young-pup reporter in sneakers. I have always covered country artists as well as blues, rock, R&B, bluegrass, folk, and classical music, and served as backup art critic and wrote for the Lifestyle section.
I then covered all of the arts and books, as arts reporter for The Capital Times in Madison for 19 years.
That range of interest and experience is why this blog is called Culture Currents. And my insistence on the cultural vitality and importance of American vernacular music today is what the blog subtitle Vernaculars Speak is all about.
Nevertheless, jazz writing established me as a professional journalist, especially covering the improbable phenomenon of the Milwaukee Jazz Gallery during its prime in the late ’70s and early ’80s, as an ambitious venue for national and local acts. (I’ve blogged previously about it and the venue’s new incarnation, the Jazz Gallery Center for the Arts, a very interesting and exciting multi-arts center.)
The Milwaukee Jazz Gallery’s founder and owner, Chuck LaPaglia, was recently in town from Oakland to hear David Hazeltine, the great Milwaukee-born pianist who is now New York-based and one of the top pianists in straght-ahead jazz. A bit of reminiscing led Chuck to recall an eccentric trait of the old Jazz Gallery grand piano, an 1888 Steinway owned by a concert pianist. It only had 85 keys, rather than the normal 88. I guess it befit a club somewhat cramped for space, though there are many smaller jazz clubs.
But Chuck recalled that one pianist would rehearse on the Jazz Gallery piano and — when leaning hard into a long, ascending arpeggio — his right hand would fly off the “short” end of the keyboard and tumble down into space, a bit of Chaplinesque mime humor. I suspect the perpetually impish Milwaukee pianist Barry Velleman might’ve started the gag, and word got around about the digitally challenged piano.
Nevertheless, that old instrument was the heart, and a big part of the charm, of the club and invariably well-tuned.
In honor of the original Milwaukee Jazz Gallery, I choose to share an unpublished poem unearthed from my body of work for my Master’s degree in English – creative writing, from UW Milwaukee in 1988. The club had closed by then, but not after significantly triggering a vibrant local jazz scene that included a handful of cozily funky inner-city clubs, a few steady lighthouses of radio programming (notably Ron Cuzner’s deeply nocturnal The Dark Side), and the flourishing of the award-winning Wisconsin Conservatory of Music jazz program.
The four persons alluded to by first name in the poem are pianist-vibist Buddy Montgomery, guitarist George Pritchett, clarinetist Chuck Hedges (three of Milwaukee’s jazz royalty) and finally LaPaglia, who made it all happen with rare dedication, impeccable taste and a deep sense of the music’s history. The magnificent jazz singer Betty Carter, who played there several times, should need no introduction.
I and this poem implicitly concur with singer-songwriter Mike Mattison, who asserted at the end of part two of my recent blog about the Tedeschi Trucks Band: The blues are the fount of American music.
I believe the poem’s shadow metaphor arose from The Dark Side’s melancholy soundtrack to my dreams and my appreciation for Ralph Ellison’s great essay collection Shadow and Act, which articulates the cultural centrality of the blues as well as any text I know. I think the depth and complexity of “the blues act,” haunted by the shadow of the black person’s experience and identity (with the “double consciousness” that W.E.B. Du Bois first described), is the subject of his monumental novel Invisible Man. I hope these revelations do not explain this brief poetic elegy completely away, into invisibility.
For A Jazz Gallery
As the cat goes chasing
shadows I wonder
if I’m chasing shadows,
the shadows of a lifetime
unraveling blues held tight
by a drum.
Are they really unraveling?
Is the shadow being
shut in a closet,
vanquished from the
light of collective rays
beaming all colors
contained in the
So many are unwanted
by the controlling few
yet wanted by the
needed by how many more.
Buddy George Chuck and Chuck
Where do we go
Where do we stay
when the places
wearing Betty Carter’s
old smile and a padlock?
Photo at top: Vibist Milt Jackson performing at the Milwaukee Jazz Gallery in the late 70s. Photo by Tom Kaveny.