Neal Chandek is gone. May his trumpet bellow from the heavens, and shake our souls with his power.


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January 29, 2022, 11:45 a.m.
Had a marvelous, stimulating nearly 3-hour visit yesterday with my old friend (and former upstairs duplex neighbor), jazz musician Neal Chandek, who is in St. Mary’s hospital with a bad respiratory condition. He’s one of the most vibrant, knowledgeable and intelligent persons I know, and was in top form yesterday, aside from still being very dependent on induced oxygen, which he’ll need to continue with when he leaves. Thankfully now, he can periodically remove the full face mask to visit with friends (see photo). So please do so, he craves company.
***
“Descanse en Paz Amigo RIP” — guitarist Javier Mendez, in a farewell message to Neal Chandek
This death is devastating for me, the first personal friend of mine to die of complications of Covid. But I can only imagine what it means for the fellow musicians who were closest to him, and to family members.
Neal Chandek once dwelled near the heart of a booming Milwaukee jazz subculture, then for too long, in the shadows of even modest personal success – ever vital, yet a poor man in earthly goods. I suspect he even went hungry too often  And yet, what comes to mind is a quote from a film he might’ve “died for,” Babette’s Feast – “An artist is never poor.”
The notion serves up as mostly cold comfort to me today and yet, deep down, in the vast and sprawling feast-and-famine of life, I feel the warmth of this man’s heart, and the radiant energy of his creative intellect, and hunger for knowledge, beauty, and truth.
Yes, my still-warm and even pulsing memories of him center upon that wonderful afternoon in late January. This deeply-stricken keyboardist and somewhat-forgotten trumpeter had asked me to visit him, and to lend him a book, a biography or autobiography, he said, to immerse himself in, I think. to assuage, and perhaps find meaning for, his suffering.
So, I lent him my copy of Miles Davis, a biography by Ian Carr, a noted British jazz writer and trumpeter. Yet, when I spoke to him for the last time, by phone a few days later, sadly, this voracious reader and maven of jazz and history, could only tell me to come retrieve the book. He feared it might get lost when he is soon transferred. I never made it back in time.
I think he was also pondering a lifetime, his own, and perhaps how it might take the form of a biography, even if it is never quite written. But I hope it is inscribed somehow, on the stone beneath which he might lie, or in the wind of his ashes, even if only a musical sequence of dark marks dancing in the currents that eventually carry him to a higher ground.
My mind traces him with such a notion because, among the remarkable things we touched upon in that deeply-gratifying last conversation – mostly driven by his own desperate need to seize the day, a rare heathy one – was of a higher power.
As we talked, he delved into a profound justification for such a truth, by deftly exposing what he saw as the castle-on-a-cloud constructions of certain neo-atheist theorists, like Richard Dawkins.
I can’t do justice to how surgically he stitched together the underlying truth, as so much is implicitly understood, even hermetically sealed, yet so righteous, a perfectly resolved harmony of the spheres. His thoughts aligned beautifully with that which I carry within me, as a sort of spiritual ballast. I explained to him, I’m an agnostic who spends an inordinate amount of time searching, believing in something, even in the unprovable, which often seems to me so manifest that even The Greatest Silence resounds wordless in The Song of the Wind.
This admission of mine came as a great relief to him as, for some reason, he assumed I was an atheist. I now hang onto this harmonized exchange as a small reward of solace we shared, for him most preciously – for most persons encounter fears of the empirically unknown, while beginning to face mortality’s cruel countdown.
He also urged me to read the great lay theologian C.S. Lewis, who seemed a touchsone for Neal, and I plan on it, probably his Mere Christianity and The Problem of Pain, for starters, as I’ve read more about Lewis than his actual work, except as a adolescent, the children’s classic The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. I also will follow his urging to see the apparently extraordinary Nazi-era film Mephisto, an adaptation of the story of Doctor Faustus. And if I feel up to it, a book called Military Justice is to Justice what Military Music is to Music, a book by Robert Sherrill, with a title employing a Groucho Marx quote.
In those final 40-plus hospital-imprisoned days, the two-headed monster of COVID-19 and COPD pneumonia seared and ravaged his lungs. His pain and angst grew, until finally he could only reach out through social media with beckoning for prayers, the most genuine anyone could muster:
Neal Chandek Facebook Feb. 10, 11:52 a.m.
“Well, here I sit/lay. 34th day at St.Mary’s Hospital. Covid has scarred my lungs so badly that my body won’t absorb any oxygen. They’re not optimistic. I need your prayers. REAL PRAYERS!
READ MATTHEW 6/5 and you’ll know what I mean.”
Here’s Matthew 6/5 and 6/6, from The King James version:
6:5 And when thou prayest though shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, they have their reward.
6:6 But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly.
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Doubters, especially now, may reasonably question whether those “secret prayers” were “rewarded.” For sure, Neal clearly loved and cherished life, as a song in the wind he needed to draw from as long as possible. Might some measure of faith allow us to surmise that, by invoking the sacred Biblical wisdoms, Neal began gulping in a long breath of grace? Something to bellow his spirit upwards, and beyond?
The bellow would be the baying of his own trumpet, too-long forsaken, but essential to the musician he was.
Neal Chandek (right, on trumpet) with Bembe Orchestra, at Marcus Center for the Performing Arts, Rainbow Summer, 1994. Pictured also, Alan Johnson, (left, on trumpet), Carlos Eguis Aguila, (center, on Bata drum – Okonkolo). Photo by Pat A Robinson.
I am deeply grateful that many friends have already honored him with spiritual salutations of many sorts on his Facebook page. In his last days, he surely had joyous memories of his 60th birthday celebration at Transfer Pizzeria Cafe, where a fulsome variety of friends, fans and well-wishers gathered that evening to hear him play with the Transfer Pizzeria Band, which he led there for more than a decade.
My oldest memories of Neal are of far-more-distant happy days in Milwaukee, when he lived upstairs from me on Astor Street, with fellow musician John Foshager. This was the mid-1980s, when I was covering jazz for The Milwaukee Journal, and he was playing piano and trumpet with La Chazz. That was a marvelous Latin-jazz group led by guitarist Toty Ramos. So Neal and I hit it off, with common interests extending even beyond the grand cavalcade of music of The African Diaspora.
I find it significant that, in the photo below of La Chazz, the band is gathered around a grand piano. That’s the instrument that Neal (second from left, in the photo) played and, as his very first Facebook honorific writer, Michael Reyes, recalls, Neil the pianist “could play a solid montuno, (and) he would often double on trumpet in the same ensemble.”
Image of La Chazz Courtesy of Cecil Negron Sr.
I’ll continue with a copy of Michael’s excellent memorial tribute to Neal:
Michael Reyes 
Facebook 
Tuesday, February 15, 5:42 p.m. 
A monumental figure in the history of Milwaukee’s jazz scene has left us today at age 66. Neal Chandek was a trumpeter, pianist, arranger, educator, historian and provocative devotee of jazz, blues, latin jazz, salsa, son, rumba and beyond. Neal’s work with the groundbreaking Wisconsin-based supergroup “La Chazz” was nothing short of inspirational. A pianist, who could play a solid montuno, he would often double on trumpet in the same ensemble.
He dedicated his life to the music he loved. An alumnus of the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music and the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, Neal was part of a contemporary group of virtuoso musicians that included Jeff Pietrangelo (trumpet legend), Brian Lynch, David Hazeltine, Jeff Chambers, Carl Allen, Toty Ramos, Cecil Negron, Walter “Wally” Robles, Albert Rivera, Jerry Grillo, Dennis Fermenich, Bill Martin and many others.
Neal’s commitment to music was 24/7. He would practice, teach, study, perform, rehearse and then read and reflect and meditate on music as much as his mind and body would physically allow him. He loved music of the African Diaspora as well as European Classical Music.
During the late ’70’s through the ‘80’s , Neal would often invite musicians to his home for after-hours listening parties (and jam sessions) that would extend past sunrise. Neal’s former room-mate, Grammy-winning jazz trumpeter Brian Lynch, composed and recorded a song entitled “Chandek’s Den” in 1989 memorializing those moments on his album “Backroom Blues” (Criss Cross Jazz 1042CD). Legendary Drummer Art Blakey also included “Chandek’s Den” in his final album “Chippin In” (Timeless) in 1990.
After a period of wide ranging musical freelancing, he started to give lessons on a larger scale. Thanks to musician and business owner Russell Rossetto, Neal began to enjoy the blessing of a steady weekly gig as leader of the Neal Chandek Trio at Milwaukee’s Transfer Pizzeria.
There he would hold court before excited audiences who often were treated to special musical guests who would sit in. Some of those guests included members of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, as well as local, regional and national musicians who would stop by to say hi. Neal also invited young students to sit in to get experience.
Condolences to Neal’s sister Jane Prentice and her family. Sympathies go out to all of Neal’s friends, family, students, bandmates and loved ones.
Farewell Big Brother Neal Chandek RIP (b. 6-30-1955 d. 2-15-2022)
Neal Chandek. Photo by Leiko Napoli
I’ll conclude with a few final thoughts on Neal the man, the artist, and the jazz communitarian, partly inspired by this delightful photo (above) of Neal by noted Milwaukee jazz photographer Leiko Napoli. I think she captures the mature Neal Chandek’s personality as well as any photo that I’ve seen.
The man had a huge heart and a huge mind. The heart I hope to characterize by one more anecdote of my last visit with him on January 29. He was talking very hopefully and boldly as we were discussing common interests. He discovered that I, like him, am a golfer, and we compared notes on local golf courses and agreed that we should play a round as soon as the weather permitted. How much of this was wishful thinking, I wondered, given his state of possibly a chronic deficiency of oxygen, if somehow his lungs could recover. I had heard he was even a candidate for a lung transplant.
Another subject he brought up was gospel music, and he asked if I would be interested in going to a church service with a powerful gospel choir. It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a long time, and I enthusiastically said yes. As it is, perhaps I will hear a gospel choir some time which will bring me a little closer to Neal, and what I fancy to be his archangel’s trumpet.
And then, as we were talking about gospel singing he let loose with a few bars of resounding gospel-like soul singing of his own. I’ve heard a recording of him singing “Georgia on My Mind.” So I knew what he could do with his voice, but I was stunned that he could even belt out a few bars in his oxygen-compromised condition.
Yes, he was a little larger-than-life nearing death, on that afternoon. As the photo above suggests, he had an impish wit and intellect.
He could discourse on any number of subjects of historical or cultural significance. Sometimes, when he was really cooking, his flow of ideas and opinions could get a bit overbearing. But I think he was conscious of that, and during our conversation he frequently pulled himself back, to hear my response. I, of course, wanted to feed him all the intellectual oxygen he could ingest, to transform into golden moments of give-and-take.
I have one last anecdote about Neal, the jazz-jam maestro, which is part of my forthcoming (I swear!) book Voices in the River: The Jazz Message to Democracy. I will save it for the publication of the book. Neal knows the story very well, and it demonstrates how his ability to connect with, and gather, musicians extended to some of the most celebrated jazz players who ever visited Milwaukee in the 1980s and early-1990s, a heyday of jazz in this city.
Descanse en Paz Amigo RIP.
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Two Milwaukee-bred trumpeting beacons illuminate the city’s music scene this month

Multi-Grammy-winning trumpeter Brian Lynch. Courtesy news miami.edu

Trumpeter Jamie Breiwick with his hip-hop/jazz band KASE (l-r, Breiwick, John Christensen, bass, and Knowsthetime (Ian Carroll), turntables and electronics. Courtesy Brian Myr and Tone Madison

A pair of prodigious trumpeters blaze a sky-streaking reveille for Milwaukee music fans this month.

Perk an ear, to catch two of the best this town’s modern trumpet legacy has ever produced. The mirroring city-bred names are Brian Lynch, on Thursday, February 10, and Jamie Breiwick, on Friday, February 25.

In fact, these two trumpeters seem to have a mystical sort of synchronicity going, as they both graced Milwaukee with notable concert events exactly four years ago this month. See my article on that double event here:

Opening doors of modern jazz history with Milwaukee-native trumpeters Brian Lynch and Jamie Breiwick

To be clear, Lynch hasn’t resided in Milwaukee in decades. But he was raised in Milwaukee, attended Nicolet High School and The Wisconsin Conservatory of Music, and developed his musical wings on the local jazz scene in the 1980s. A storied career  has seen him arguably surpass even legendary Green Lake-native Bunny Berigan as the premiere trumpet icon in state history. Yet he remains actively loyal to this city, returning annually for a trumpeting workshop and a recital.

This time, Lynch will do a free workshop at 6 p.m. followed by a 7:30 p.m. performance by his quartet at Bar Centro, 804 E. Center Street, the first local club date he’s done in quite a while. For tickets and information, visit: Brian Lynch Quartet at Bar Centro Feb. 10

Lynch’s quartet will include pianist Mark Davis, head of the events-sponsoring Milwaukee Jazz Institute; bassist Jeff Hamann (best known as longtime accompanist for the NPR radio program (now a podcast) “Whad’ya Know?”), and drummer Kyle Swan.

Lynch has never had a popular hit as big as Berigan’s “I Can’t Get Started,” but Berigan claimed that distinction way back when swing jazz was the popular music of the day.

Lynch, has the honor of two Grammy awards and has reached perhaps unparalleled heights in recent years as a Milwaukee-bred jazz musician. Like Breiwick, he’s built on a historically informed mastery of the instrument and its musical tradition, most notably having won a Grammy award last year for Best Jazz Large Ensemble, for The Brian Lynch Big Band recording The Omni American Book Club/My Journey through Literature in Music.

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA – JANUARY 26: Brian Lynch of Brian Lynch Big Band accepts the Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album award for The Omni-American Book Club onstage during the 62nd Annual GRAMMY Awards Premiere Ceremony at Microsoft Theater on January 26, 2020 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

The two-CD aIbum grew from his deep reading of, among other writers, the pioneering African-American sociologist, socialist, historian and civil rights activist W.E.B. DuBois. The album — featuring Donald Harrison, Dave Liebman, Jim Snidero, and Regina Carter, among others — climaxes a series of concept albums involving tributes to “unsung heroes” among trumpeters, a sequence which included his 2016 album commemorating the work of the great, short-lived post-bop trumpet master Woody Shaw, titled Madera Latino. That two-CD set — which also features fellow trumpeters Dave Douglas, Sean Jones and Philip Dizack — was Grammy-nominated for Best Latin Jazz Album. All of the trumpeter-tribute albums and the big-band recording are on Lynch’s own Hollistic Music Works label.

So, even if Brian himself is of Irish descent, most all of the trumpeters he has honored have been African-American, as have been the writers whose work inspired the big band album. 1 So, in several senses, his work honors Black History Month.

Over a long career, Lynch has done more than tribute the work of trumpeting predecessors. His latest album Brian Lynch Songbook Vol. 1: Bus Stop Serenade, suggests his own street cred, and shows that he long ago found his own voice as a composer, as well as a trumpeter, on previous recordings, often with African-American recording collaborators and mentors like Milwaukee’s Melvin Rhyne and Buddy Montgomery, and saxophonists Harrison, Ralph Moore and Javon Jackson with whom he paired up for the front line of the final edition of Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, perhaps the most legendary hard-bop band in jazz history. He also worked with another iconic hard-bop group, The Horace Silver Quintet.  

The cover of Brian Lynch’s latest album. Courtesy lastrowmusic.com

And this Songbook Vol. 1 recording includes, besides longtime collaborator Snidero, two Black players, pianist Orrin Evans and drummer Donald Edwards.

The new album is the first in a series of “Songbooks” intended to reclaim the many original compositions that Lynch has recorded for other labels throughout his career. Those include at least one other tribute-type piece, Charles Tolliver, for yet another underrecognized post-bop trumpet stylist and composer. But the mining of his own material also reflects a great American tradition of freedom to pursue personal destiny: “I seem to have become quite stubborn in recent years about invoking artistic self-determination for myself at every opportunity, and having masters of my complete catalogue in my possession has become a bit of an obsession,” Lynch explains.

He has also specialized in Latin Jazz, having earned his first Grammy for the Brian Lynch/Eddie Palmieri Project’s Simpatico, as well as recording with The Buena Vista Social Club, Sheila E., Miguel Zenon, Roberto Magris, Tito Puente and Dafnis Preito, among others. 

I could go on about Lynch’s credits but, suffice to say, his is a musical career as auspicious as it is reflective of the great tradition he has extended.

So one expects, in his own compositions, the same high standards he has maintained for the exposition of historic figures deep within the jazz tradition.

***

Jamie Breiwick, actually a Racine-native, might be seen as a younger version of Lynch’s enterprising ambition via the instrument Louis Armstrong made the pioneering tool of supreme jazz soloists. He’s recorded several excellent albums of modern jazz and has, like Lynch, honored artistic forebears, with projects ranging from Thelonious Monk to Don Cherry and Ornette Coleman. Breiwick has most recently exploded in the last year or so with a series of fascinating recordings facilitated by the creation, a la Lynch, of his own label, B Side Recordings.

The recordings have included several duets with resourceful partners, but Breiwick’s primary new vehicle has been a hybrid group called KASE, which synthesizes hip-hop instrumental aspects with jazz. One of the group’s pinnacle performance events to date was a collaboration with the jazz-oriented hip-hop singer-songwriter-instrumentalist Klassik, in a concert at the Stoughton Opera House. That collaboration has produced a new album on digital and very limited-edition cassette called Live at the Opera House. Breiwick will produce an album release event for the recording on Friday, February 25 (doors open 7 p.m., event at 8) at The Ivy House, a stylish new events-and-concert venue, at 906 S. Barclay Street in Milwaukee’s Fifth Ward.

Klassik, an extremely-gifted vocal stylist and songwriter, will perform a solo set at 8 p.m., followed by another set by KASE at 9, and a closing set by KASE and Klassik together, at 10 p.m.

Klassik (Kellen Abston), Courtesy Milwaukee Magazine.

The event will also be a print-media coming-out party for the B Side, if you will, of Breiwick’s talents, as a graphic artist, and his second business venture, B Side Graphics. This evening will debut the publication of Sound Museum, a book collection of his striking and stylish album covers, concert posters, and other graphic manifestations of his artistic talent. If you have seen any of Breiwick’s graphics work, you know it’s at a professional creative level comparable to his music. The cassette cover of Live at the Opera House (below) is a prime example:

Cover of “Live at the Opera House,” on B Side Recordings, designed by Jamie Breiwick. 

The event will also feature a pop-up shop by 262 Vintage, with select quality vintage clothing items for sale.

For information and tickets visit: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/kase-klassik-tickets-235636855177#map-target

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  1. Brian Lynch is no relation to this blogger, Kevin Lynch.

 

 

Ron Cuzner: Behind the cool, eccentric facade, a people person

Cuzner hangin’ with a celebrated Milwaukee guitarist, Manty Ellis.

The sublime strains of Duke Ellington’s nocturnal reverie, “Solitude” faded away. A voice arose in your radio, now, a few minutes after midnight:

“Good morning! And welcome to Friday…Ron Cuzner is my name. And this is The Dark Side, The Dark Side of Friday…the fourth of February, nineteen seventy-seven. This is jazz.”

Today, on March twenty-seventh, two thousand and three, Ron Cuzner made his last earthly exit. I wanted to honor his memory with reflections and documents never before published, photographs of Cuzner and his milieu by jazz photographer and quiltmaker Charles Queen, which clearly blend artistry and Milwaukee cultural history. 1

Cuzner often declared on the air that Billy Higgins was his favorite drummer, and part of me suspects that Higgins was his favorite musician period, because, not unlike Higgins, Cuzner was a master of rhythmic phrasing, of textured dynamics…of nuanced articulation…of the pregnant pause…of the held-breath ellipsis.

If Cuzner’s breath and voice weren’t akin to a drummer’s, consider an artist’s paintbrush and oils. But his medium was modern, electronic. He was an original in the medium of Marconi…the radio. On a stage, as the city’s first-call jazz concert emcee, he was almost equally at home. He commanded the stage with an offhanded grace, even when you had to snicker when he stood before a crowd, say, at Jazz in the Park — in his sports-car driver cap, funky shirts, shorts, sneakers and white socks. He often said that if he had not discovered jazz and radio, he would’ve gone into theater.

Ron Cuzner warms up the crowd as (l-r) Berkeley Fudge, Manty Ellis, and Victor Soward prepare to perform at Jazz in the Park.

Fudge and Ellis jamming in the Park

A bassist performs in front of the iconic St. John’s Cathedral at Jazz in the Park

Yes, “Ronald Graham Cuzner” had an ego, but he enfolded himself into the music like a man embracing the vibration, the sumptuous arrangement, the paradiddle parade, the butterfly melody. These were his vibrations, he felt, and they were his audience’s. In other words, I’m probing for a clue to the man behind the stylish vocal curtain.

The curtain was significant, it was clearly presentational and, perhaps some thought “Here was a Wizard of Oz,” or just a wizard of odd. Like the art form he loved, he wasn’t the right thing for everyone. In a way, Ron kept himself inside his own world, the world of Monk’s ” ‘Round Midnight,” the ultimate 100-proof jazz ballad (or is that Strayhorn’s “Lush Life”?). At the same time, he loved sharing, saying, in effect, isn’t this hip, or magnificent, or sheer brilliance?

I hope this photo essay reveals something anew, because Cuzner was invisible in his element, on the airwaves, seeping his intoxication into your subconscious. He was constantly reaching out. And, I would posit, there was a people person — there, behind the stylized hipster.

Jazz record store owner Ron Cuzner (center) displaying his Milwaukee Gemeitlekiet with a record store employee (left) and jazz pianist Frank DeMiles.

Though he didn’t ask for callers like a talk show, he welcomed them, because he was human, and how many people aren’t lonely sometimes in the wee, small hours of the morning? His classic time slot was midnight to 6 a.m. And any time I ever spoke with him, he was cool, and easy, but warm, like one last martini at closing time.

His playful friendliness was typified by a favorite line of his: “I sincerely hope you are warm tonight, and that you are together tonight, and that your cookie jar is filled to the very brim … with the cookies of your choice, of course.”

Cuzner (right) and his employee Sam Linde, welcome towering trumpeter Kaye Berigan, to the shop.

After you called him during his show for a request or a chat, he would often play a tune for you, but with a sly-but-personal manner. Many musicians especially may recall this post-chat Cuzner rap (fill in your name…): “It’s the suggestion of Kevin Lynch that you drive with caution this evening. You see, his life . . . may depend on it. A message of safety from Kevin Lynch and WFMR, Milwaukee.”

How cool is that? Huh? On one occasion I remember especially, we had a sweet little phone chat and then, immediately he played a tune from Dave Holland’s Conference of the Birds album. I was so impressed by his tacit musical dedication because he nailed me and my taste, because he knew me. Of course, my work as a Milwaukee jazz journalist helped him know my tastes, too. He would later have the remarkable graciousness to recommend me to replace him as a jazz radio host, when he left WLUM, an urban radio station.

These photos notably include his last public “gig,” as a record shop owner, at Ron Cuzner’s Mainstream Jazz Cellar. The place is where Ron literally met his audiences, musicians and lovers of the music, and of the moon’s moody atmosphere.

It became a slice of local jazz history as he hosted chamber jazz events, like one jam featuring then-budding jazz musicians (left to right, below), now-internationally known pianist David Hazeltine (standing, left), and two of his Wisconsin Conservatory students Mark Davis and John Foshager.

For me, and many others, Cuzner oversaw a quietly great era for The Music, as the city’s nocturnal jazz spirit. At 6 a.m., he’d sign off the air with the sun-rising music of Don Shirley. If you weren’t in blissful slumber, all felt right with the world.

If you don’t believe me, or put “trust” in Cuzner because he had trust in you, to have the best of good nights, as in this stylish evening bon mot:

Perhaps Milwaukee’s most renowned contemporary jazz musician, multiple Grammy-winner Brian Lynch (above), frequented Cuzner’s Jazz Cellar back in the day.

Cuzner also drew a hip and sporty crowd, like former MU basketball great, Bo Ellis,(below).

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1 Mark Davis is now a distinguished Milwaukee jazz pianist and director of the Milwaukee Jazz Institute.

All photographs by and courtesy of Charles Queen. 

“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.”

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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.

 

Special jazz show and book-signing for the newly revised Milwaukee Jazz Gallery Anthology

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By Kevin Lynch (Kevernacular)

Milwaukee’s jazz history and jazz present converge on Friday night, Dec. 2, at the Jazz Gallery Center for the Arts, 926 E.Center St. Milwaukee. The featured band, Manty Ellis and the Milwaukee Jazz Foundation, includes two musicians – esteemed guitarist Ellis and bassist Billy Johnson – who were among the many local, regional and national musicians who made the original Milwaukee Jazz Gallery one of the nation’s great jazz venues from 1978 to 1984.

The current center for the arts, in Milwaukee’s Riverwest neighborhood, occupies a modified version of the same space occupied by the original Jazz Gallery.

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The Mike Pauers Quartet with trumpeter Kaye Berigan performed recently at The Jazz Gallery Center for the Arts, which is the site of the original Milwaukee Jazz Gallery. Photo by Elizabeth Vogt.

Ellis is a Milwaukee legend and mentor to many great players. He co-founded the jazz program at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music that gained national recognition during the era of the original jazz Gallery where it’s most luminous students developed into striking young stars, including Grammy-winning trumpeter Brian Lynch; pianists David Hazeltine and Lynn Arriale; bassists Johnson, Gerald Cannon, and Jeff Chambers; and drummers Carl Allen, and Johnson’s brother Mark Johnson. Manty Ellis, to this day, is an earthy and dynamic player,  an original stylist influenced by Wes Montgomery and John Coltrane.

A Milwaukee native, bassist Johnson is now based in New Jersey, and has played with numerous nationally-known artists. The band, performing from 7 to 10 p.m., also includes the superb drummer Victor Campbell and Eric Schoor, faculty saxophonist for the Jazz Institute at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music, and a member of the Conservatory’s faculty jazz ensemble, We Six.

This is also a great opportunity to gain historical insight on the jazz gallery’s great legacy from primary-source journalistic sources. That’s because the event will celebrate the publication of the second edition of the Milwaukee Jazz Gallery Anthology, which includes most of the actual journalistic coverage of the club during its hey-day.

Among the national jazz and blues performers whose Milwaukee performances are reviewed in the book are Dizzy Gillespie, Freddie Hubbard, Dexter Gordon, Stan Getz, Freddie Hubbard, Art Pepper, Betty Carter, Woody Shaw, McCoy Tyner, Koko Tayor, Sunnyland Slim, Max Roach, Jimmy Smith, Jack DeJohnette, Milt Jackson, Dave Holland, Charlie Haden, Don Cherry and Art Blakey and The Jazz Messengers with the Marsalis brothers, among others.

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Jazz vibes giant Milt Jackson performing at the original Milwaukee Jazz Gallery. Photo by Tom Kaveny

Organized chronologically, the 244-page, 8.5 x 11-inch anthology also includes musician interviews, news and features, as well as many of the venue’s monthly event calendars, which tell its story in a different way. The book was assembled by Milwaukee Jazz Gallery original owner Chuck LaPaglia. Now based in Oakland, LaPaglia can’t make the event.

However, this writer will be on hand to sign copies of the anthology. I wrote an introduction to the new edition, and much of the journalistic coverage reproduced in the book is my own, primarily from when I was writing for The Milwaukee Journal. The anthology also includes Jazz Gallery coverage by noted jazz critic and author Bill Milkowski (Jaco: The Extraordinary and Tragic Life of Jaco Pastorius), and current Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel book editor and feature writer Jim Higgins, among others.

chuck-at-jgChuck LaPaglia, the founder and owner of the original Milwaukee Jazz Gallery, in his club during its run as a major jazz venue from 1978 to 1984, documented in a newly revised anthology of the club’s extensive press coverage. Courtesy Milwaukee Jazz Vision

Those years were extraordinary, exciting and unforgettable times, and Friday’s live music and this revised and improved anthology help to bring it all back into sharp focus. Back then you could hear and feel – in the intimate, pulsing confines of the Gallery – the fire in the belly of these great players, the passions borne of modern jazz and the struggles for civil rights and social justice, as well as the pure joy of such creative music-making. Some of those historic names are gone, or remain somewhat underheard, what I call “voices in the river” in my forthcoming book Voices in the River: The Jazz Message to Democracy.

That book is about jazz, creative writing and the democratic process, and includes several memoir sections of my recollections of life and covering the Milwaukee jazz scene during the years of the Milwaukee Jazz Gallery.

The Milwaukee Jazz Foundation, formed by Manty Ellis, is an organization sponsored by by The Jazz Foundation of America, to aid and support jazz musicians in the Milwaukee area.

Proceeds for sales of The Milwaukee Jazz Gallery 1978-1984, will go to the Riverwest Artists Association, the nonprofit organization which runs the current Jazz Gallery Center for the Arts and which published the anthology.