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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Pianist Tim Whalen brings his powerful tribute to Bud Powell to the Jazz Estate

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Cover design for Tim Whalen’s “Oblivion: The Music of Bud Powell” by Jamie Breiwick for  B-Side Graphics. Courtesy www.timothywhalen.com

Oblivion: The Music of Bud Powell – Tim Whalen (WayHay Music)

The Tim Whalen Trio will perform on Thursday, April 6 at The Jazz Estate in Milwaukee.

“Oblivion,” the title of a Bud Powell tune, might be the single best word to describe the great pianist’s sad legacy. His name is in need of desperate repair, ravaged by the winds of time and his own peculiar fate. Pianist-composer Tim Whalen has gone a considerable distance in accomplishing that with his album Oblivion: The Music of Bud Powell. But we must backtrack a bit to understand the title’s significance.

It remains a matter of bald historical fact that Bud Powell was the mid-and-late 40s bebop era’s most sought-after pianist, yet he remains to this day probably the most underappreciated, given his true stature.

His direct contemporary Thelonious Monk has had his day in the sun, something to be celebrated, thanks significantly  to a composing style apart from, and more easily congenial, than the hard-core bebop that Powell excelled at. And their stories interwtine and lead to perhaps the most fateful day of Powell’s career, which also speaks to present-day concerns about police brutality against unarmed black men.

It’s unfortunate that Robin D.G. Kelly’s largely impeccable and voluminous 2009 biography, Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original, doesn’t note the cruelty and neurological damage done by a police officer on the night of January 21, 1945 to the man that Kelley calls Thelonious Monk’s best friend.  According to Duck Baker, album annotator of Bud Powell Paris Sessions (Pablo 2002), “Bud was foolish enough to interfere with some Philadelphia flatfeet who were getting rough with his best friend, Thelonious Monk.” The bludgeoning Powell suffered for his loyal courage “changed the course of his life, as Bud was led to a series of mental ‘hospitals’ where he was pumped full of pills and given shock treatments.”

Powell’s life generally spiraled downward after that, though he managed a resurgence in 1946, as evidenced by several recordings and, after being readmitted to a mental institution in 1947, by his celebrated Blue Note recordings (especially 1951’s The Amazing Bud Powell Vol. 1.) Also excellent are recordings in Europe in the late ’50s and early ’60s, including a late reunion with Dexter Gordon on the saxophonist’s superb Our Man in Paris. His career ended in “scuffling obscurity,” says jazz historian Alyn Shipton, due to his complicated mental problems and issues with drugs, and ironically to his return to New York in 1964. This was a man who, in his early 20s with the Cootie Williams Orchestra, had accompanied stage acts “so brilliantly that he outplayed the dancers he was supposed to be accompanying,” bassist Ray Brown recalls in Shipton’s book.1

Regarding the deleterious effects of shock treatment, I can attest, as it has been still used in recent years in sophisticated hospitals and clinics. I witnessed shock treatments given to my late ex-wife who suffered cognitive damage after undergoing them at the Mayo Clinic and other facilities.

Monk, for one, remained much attuned to Powell’s travails. “Bud was a genius, but you know, he was so sick, and now he’s fragile,” Monk once recalled. Another time, Monk commented, “Bud is beautiful. But he’s not doing so well in America, he’s sleeping in the gutter.” Those are both quotes from Kelly’s copious Monk biography, which amounts to a new sort of definitive history of the bebop era.

Nor have I done Powell justice over the years, having become enamored of the late recordings he did of Monk’s music for Verve Records (and his Portrait of Thelonious on Columbia), to the neglect of Powell’s earlier work. Those Monk recordings somehow managed to be marvelous but were recorded long after he had lost his prime bebop musical facility and suffered from many medical peaks and valleys. 2.

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Pianist Tim Whalen at the recording sessions for “Oblivion: The Music of Bud Powell.” Courtesy timothywhalen.com

All of this underscores the importance and value of Whalen’s recording, which he will be playing from when he performs Thursday, April 6 at The Jazz Estate in Milwaukee with bassist Jeff Hamman and drummer Dave Bayles.

Comprising all Powell compositions except one by Whalen, Oblivion opens appropriately enough with “Hallucinations.” It conveys how much Bud possessed a spirit as high as his tragic bop kindred Charlie Parker. Whalen’s solo pushes hard, as if pressing to make a point about the tune’s odd juxtaposition of exuberance and sense of suffering. His heavy percussive attack recalls another bop-era pianist Eddie Costa, although he negotiates the knotty changes with aplomb.

What follows is one of Powell’s dazzling masterpieces, an impressionistic miniature comparable to Duke Ellington’s “Daybreak Express.” After a fine chordal intro, Powell’s “Parisian Thoroughfare” glitters with an ensemble line evoking a bustling street scene, with the band sounding like a crazy chorus-line of dancing cabs in a Folies Bergere fever dream.

Whalen finds fresh inlets of light by carving out spaces and adding garlands, a sort of blending of street smarts with Francophile ornamentation. Tenor saxophonist Elijah Jamal Balbed is a modern post-Coltrane player with a rich yet grainy texture to his tone that alludes to classic tenor players and adds an offhanded gravitas to his playing. Guitarist Paul Pieper proves a swift co-conspirator in Powell’s most challenging harmonic gauntlets. Drummer Sharif Taher here has a powerful chugging style reminiscent of Tony Williams.

“Kind Bud” is a deeper, darker aspect of Powell’s bebop and for its blues lament, almost intimates a political statement about the tragic fate of such a gifted artist, especially regarding his awareness of his place in society as a black man in a white man’s world.

“Un Poco Loco” is another ironic commentary on his own afflictions and perhaps the album’s hardest swinging tune, especially on Balbed’s surging sax solo. Whalen, by contrast, allows the music to breathe a bit, while never betraying the tune’s structural integrity.

The CD’s ensuing “Blue Pearl” is a rather glimmering beauty with a slight Latin tempo. The comparatively little-known tune has a lapidarian quality, reflecting a craftsman of precise discipline that begets beauty. Here and elsewhere, bassist Eliott Seppa’s harmonizing with the piano-guitar-saxophone frontline recalls the Heath Brothers at their peak.

One would expect the title tune “Oblivion” to sound as abject as say, Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life,” but the band understands it as a “bouncing with Bud” blues that signifies a devil-may-care attitude. That suggests Powell’s peculiar brilliance as searingly self-possessed in the knowledge of how his black genius was betrayed. Yet he’d never let on, never let you see him pitying himself.

Bud photoBud Powell during the years he recorded with Blue Note Records. Courtesy estaticos 02.elmundo.es

Sometimes Powell’s themes and solos can be almost overwhelming, but you get a heaping helping of bop at its most modernistic and visionary and yet with a long shadow cast over it, as the CD cover’s noirish watercolor landscape superbly conveys. So perhaps even now, this music isn’t for everyone, but there’s no doubt it’s a bracing and historic statement of an art form evolving to extraordinary artistic heights.

Whalen offers his own ode to Bud, in “I’ll Keep Loving You,” a brooding ballad that feels like a stealthy suitor stealing into the beloved’s heart even if the lover’s been long gone, off in another world.

Still, Whalen and company assure that Bud Powell has returned, in hallowed honor.

Whalen is a distinctly ambitious musician who has led both a popular R&B/funk jazz ensemble and a nonet, largely of Madison-based musicians, for a number of years. Among numerous accomplishments since moving to Washington DC in 2010, he orchestrated the string arrangement for the Oscar-winning song “El Otro Lado del Rio” by Jorge Drexler from the film The Motorcycle Diaries.

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1 Alyn Shipton recounts Powell’s triumphs and tragedy in his A New History of Jazz on pages 491-495.

2. Despite Powell’s apparent loss of top-end technical facility in later years, the musical relationship between him and Monk remained crucial and vital. Some argue that Powell was Monk’s best interpreter. Seminal bebop drummer Kenny Clarke reputedly said, “Monk wrote for Bud. All his music was written for Bud, because he figured but was the only one who could play it.” https://www.amazon.com/Portrait-Thelonious-Bud-Powell/dp/B000002AHT

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

Bobby Hutcherson brought spiritual questing and down-home allure to the vibes

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The late vibes and marimba player Bobby Hutcherson. Courtesy www.nga.ch

On another sultry but beautiful day yesterday, I had to get away from the computer and outside in the afternoon. So I went out to nearby Kern Park and shot some baskets and, because I was the only one with a ball, I attracted a few other guys and we ended up getting into a game of hustle that included one 6 foot 2 dude who could dunk the ball, another built like a linebacker, and an 11-year-old who consistently sunk high school three-pointers from beyond the top of the key! It was great fun and then I did some grocery shopping in my sweaty shirt, and when I came home I did not want to go back to the computer or Facebook.

So I didn’t learn about vibes and marimba player Bobby Hutcherson’s death until I peeked at Facebook at about 10 PM and noticed Howard Mandel’s recommendations for listening to Hutcherson albums. My heart sank because I figured he’d been prompted by Hutcherson dying. I scroll down and found a few more posted tributes and then Nate Chinen’s New York Times obit. The great musician had died Monday at age 75, at his home in California, after years of struggling with emphysema.

Although I studied piano, Hutcherson was the guy who, more than anyone, had me fantasizing about playing the vibes, from time to time.

Last night I immediately thought back to one of the very first phone interviews I ever did when I began covering jazz for The Milwaukee Journal in the fall of 1979. It was with Bobby Hutcherson, who was to be performing at the Milwaukee Jazz Gallery, and I still have the cassette recording of the interview because he so impressed me when a hung up the phone. I thought to myself, this was one of the most musically dedicated and spiritual persons I have ever spoken to.

Part of that openness to the spiritual or psychic or the subconscious arose in an anecdote he related to me about the great wind multi-instrumentalist, Eric Dolphy, with whom he had spent time playing and recording with in the 1960s for Dolphy’s premature death.

Hutcherson recalled: “Eric used to call me up, maybe 4 o’clock in the morning, tell me his dreams. He’d say,’ Bobby, write this down.’ Things like, ‘one, six, eight, 17.’ You know, numbers and letters. He dreamt these things as if they might mean something, like intervals or scales or chords.

“The next morning he met me at my house and we would try to figure out what it meant, and try to play something from that dream.”

Earlier in the interview, Hutcherson also said: “I want to play some tunes that people can hum, you know, just as long as I can still make a living being true to myself and giving something to people. They can respect you for digging into the music. Like there’s still some hope in this or it lasts, because it’s for real. It helps to destroy some of the plasticity of this world.”

You sensed in the man and his playing the desire to create beauty but also to press ahead with an insistent sense of what was musically possible and that might change things for the better, at least a bit.

I was also fortunate to have just heard, in person at the Jazz Gallery, Hutcherson’s greatest inspiration vibist Milt Jackson, a few weeks before I interviewed Hutcherson. And there was no doubt that the great Jackson showed that he was the master of both the blues as expressed in through this ostensibly non-blues-friendly instrument, and the king of vibes swinging, against and around the rhythm.

Then Hutcherson played Milwaukee in late October, 1979, and looking back at my review (in the anthology of Milwaukee Jazz Gallery press coverage published by the Riverwest Artists Association) I noted an affinity with another great jazz musician that he would collaborate with quite often, pianist McCoy Tyner. The review headline is “Jazz Storm has Serene Center.” I wrote: “The effect is precisely that rare sense of drama that can be found these days in the group of McCoy Tyner, but with no saxophone for easy ascent. Hutcherson struggles and thrashes, reaching, reaching. But he never quite gets to the note, even if you heard it.” That was the sense of purpose and ever-driving momentum and ultimately questing that gave a backbone to Bobby Hutcherson’s stylistic beauty and spiritual balance.

Just a few days before his death, I had been thinking about Hutcherson and had pulled out a few of his CDs to listen to, including one of his later and lesser-known Blue Note albums called Patterns (1968), which is marvelous and a bit challenging with James Spaulding’s bracing alto. But there’s also plenty of color, texture and pattern with Spaulding’s flute and, of course, Hutcherson’s vibes and Joe Chambers’s artful percussion play.

Here is Hutcherson’s stately but swinging title tune Patterns.

There are a number of other excellent Hutcherson albums including his heady Blue Note debut Dialogue with pianist Andrew Hill and the great Madison, Wisconsin bassist Richard Davis, recorded shortly after Hutcherson and Davis had collaborated with Eric Dolphy on his masterwork album Out to Lunch. There is also the meaty Stick Up! with Tyner and saxophonist Joe Henderson, and the ambitious nine-musician album Spiral.

hutch dialogue diskunion.net

Hutcherson’s ambitious debut on Blue Note, “Dialogue.” diskunion.net

By contrast, also recall Hutcherson playing on guitarist Grant Green’s languid soul-jazz classic Idle Moments.

Then there are two albums that feature Hutcherson’s warmly alluring marimba as well: Components from 1965 with “Little B’s Poem” — “the lilting modern waltz written for his son Barry,” as Chinen notes, and Hutcherson’s best-known tune.

Another notable marimba-colored album is Blue Note’s 1966 Happenings, a quartet date with Herbie Hancock that includes Hutcherson’s gorgeous meditation “Bouquet” and a superb reading of Hancock’s modern standard “Maiden Voyage” and the weirdly witty free-jazz piece “The Omen.”

Also consider the album Oblique, another quartet with Hancock, which includes the pianist’s theme from the classic French new wave film Blow Up. The theme’s intoxicatingly catchy chordal vamp can get you dancing but also carry you someplace.

My most specific appreciation, however, will be reconsidering one of Hutcherson’s most personal recordings (on Contemporary/OJC) which I just listened to again. It’s called Solo/Quartet recorded in 1982 with McCoy Tyner, Herbie Lewis and Billy Higgins.

Solo/Quartet

“Solo/Quartet” is one of Hutcherson’s most personal projects. allmusic.com

It opens with three pieces that Hutcherson recorded solo, with multi-track overlays. The first is “Gotcha,” wherein the marimba takes the improvised solo, conveying the intense repetitive patterns of Hutcherson’s kind of the blues feel, but also a sense of spiritual wonder. He’s “gotcha” — caught you in the resounding percussive melodic web layered here by multi-tracking. It’s simple but complex in its charms.

Then comes “For You, Mom and Dad,” a humble but radiant lyrical theme with the sort of resonating and questing peak notes that were part of Hutcherson’s characteristic open-mindedness, his sense of possibility. Again his marimba takes the improv lead and its warm, woody wit is elevated into stunning arpeggios circling to a climactic high note, and then he sustains intensity while revisiting the theme with tubular bells backing it. Hutcherson had managed with nothing but the striking of metal and wood instruments to create a spiritual vibe that is nevertheless, down-to-earth enough to be understood as a song tribute to his parents. As if to say, look, mom and dad. This is what I’ve been able to create partly because you were there, and supported me all the way. Even though his dad wanted him to be a bricklayer.

I love Chinen’s story about Hutcherson driving a cab during hard times in New York with his vibraphone in the taxi trunk.

What the wouldn’t-be bricklayer built was a new way for the vibraphone, in a mode different from what his great contemporary Gary Burton did with his four-hammer virtuosity.

The following solo tune on Solo/Quartet “The Ice Cream Man,” is another example of this musician’s balance between playful earthiness and psychic wonder. He’s clearly mimicking some of the sounds recalled from the bell-ringing, neighborhood-trolling ice cream trucks of his youth, but the sound of the note decay of the vibraphone is perhaps the key to the piece. This sostenuto effect opens the mind up, even as the melodic and rhythmic patterns beneath it engage you. The repeated playing of the theme is not tiresome; rather something you tend to savor, like every lick of an ice cream bar on a hot summer day. It keeps you rolling with the truck’s chiming melody, and in Hutcherson’s aura. The total effect is enchanting and transporting and yet he’s taking us back to familiar experience, like the best memoirists.

Hutcherson does this all by himself because his own personal life and experience is being relived and transmuted into a vivid almost cinematic environment. I know of no vibist who has accomplished so much all by himself on a recording.

The album’s last three tunes re-unite the Stick-Up! rhythm section, the great McCoy Tyner on piano, Hutcherson’s long-time friend, bassist Herbie Lewis, and the wondrously dancing drummer Billy Higgins.

“La Alhambra” is a Hutcherson piece of brief ascending and descending rhythmic phrases with very shapely chord changes implying a classic Latin rhythm, with bass and drums percolating beneath. Tyner’s astonishing, muscular, supercharged energy comes cascading out of the chute, but he fully honors spirit of his friend’s composition with its Latin rhythmic allusions.

Solo/Quartet is also remarkable because, as producer John Koenig explains in his liner notes, “during the album’s planning stages Bobby had an almost tragic mishap with a power lawn mower in which he sustained an injury to the index finger of his right hand which nearly ended his career.”

During this convalescence, Hutcherson had time to reflect on what he really wanted to say in such a personal project, and thus the true quality and depth of Solo/Quartet was born.

The next two tunes are two of the finest old standards in the repertoire book, both soulful vehicles that singers usually make the best of. But Hutcherson feels rightly that his vibes can do songful justice to both “Old Devil Moon” and “My Foolish Heart.” And he’s absolutely right.

Again, it is his combination of swirling pattern-making and eloquent melodic phrasing that lifts the songs as high as an old devil moon and as deep as a heart, foolish though it may be.

The album closes with Hutcherson’s “Messina,” a characteristic melding of subtlety and whirling, surfing rhythmic momentum, the sort of tune he might’ve dreamed up watching the powerful ebb and flow of the Pacific Ocean near the home he built in the coastal town of Montara, California, which is his native state.

Solo/Quartet is such a marvelous record also because Tyner is a very kindred musician and this quartet swings deeply in a very modern ways, shifting and sifting through phrasing implied by the melodic changes. Clearly Hutcherson learned a lot from Milt Jackson about swinging, then found his own way to do it.

In 1986, Hutcherson also has an interesting brief apprearance in a wonderful feature film Round Midnight by Bertrand Tavernier which stars saxophonist Dexter Gordon as a dying jazz great in Paris. Hutcherson plays a sort of expatriate but down-home cooking connoisseur in an amusing role. Yet it fits in with the man’s aesthetic for finding the good, beautiful and soulful — even in the most unlikely or displaced of places.

bobby media.npr.org

Bobby Hutcherson. Courtesy media.npr.org

Now, since the passing of other great California modern jazz giants like saxophonists Art Pepper and Joe Henderson, big-band leader and composer Gerald Wilson, and now Hutcherson, the historic role of the West Coast, in post-bop and modern jazz is beginning to become clearer, set against the somewhat East Coast-centric focus of modern jazz. West Coast cool jazz was a contrast to East Coast energy, but as a summation of the region the label always fell short. All these deceased musicians, and others like Horace Tapscott, Arthur Blythe, and The Bobby Bradford-John Carter Quartet embodied West Coast creative fire, as finely calibrated as theirs could be.

The brilliant SFJAZZ Collective, with Hutcherson-influenced vibist Warren Wolf, exemplifies that West Coast modernism today, as both a repertory band and a vehicle for its members’ original compositions. Hutcherson co-founded the collective. Don’t be surprised if they honor him with a recording of his compositions.

Let us always think in such larger terms when we consider the qualities of such a wide and deep art form as jazz, and the great musicians who brought contrasting and complementary sensibilities to advancing it.

Hutcherson’s long, gleaming vibes tones will always radiate, like a Pacific lighthouse beacon in the darkness, through the music’s history.