“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.

 

Jazz Now will celebrate the Milwaukee jazz experience in time, sound and spirit

Jazz Now event poster II

Poster designed by Elizabeth Vogt

Milwaukee ain’t The Big Apple, nor is it The City of Big Shoulders. On its best days, the city shines, like the magnificent Santiago Calatrava addition to the Milwaukee Art Museum. On its worst days, it weeps a river of tears.

This is a struggling rust-belt city with more than its share of social and racial problems. That doesn’t mean it’s not a city of vibrant and meaningful culture, a city that can heal and grow by virtue of its diverse community, perseverance, and vision.
The Jazz Gallery Center for the Arts, once the home of the storied Milwaukee Jazz Gallery, counts on that progress and is willing to celebrate it right now, with something called Jazz Now. It’s a special event that acknowledges the city’s special genius of jazz and the toil to survive and connect, singing the song of Milwaukee’s surprisingly vaunted musical past, its present and, most importantly, its future.

So I am especially proud of an invitation to be part of this celebration, which will happen on Saturday, Aug. 12, at 8 p.m. (doors open at 7).

I will give a reading from my forthcoming book Voices in the River: The Jazz Message to Democracy, specifically parts of it which highlight the history of jazz here, especially in the halcyon days of the Milwaukee Jazz Gallery,  in the 1970s-80s. I will be joined by trumpeter-bandleader-educator and jazz archivist Jamie Breiwick. He will briefly also explore the city’s musical pasts and present, especially as archived and documented in the valuable website Milwaukee Jazz Vision.

Special awards will be given in the name of perhaps the city’s greatest living jazz legend, guitarist Manty Ellis. The Manty Ellis award will honor persons for “exceptional support of jazz in Milwaukee” Ellis has exemplified decades of stellar musicianship and historic commitment to jazz education. He has also organized more recently The Jazz Foundation of Milwaukee. The organization is affiliated with the national Jazz Foundation of America, which will sponsor the event and cover it for their national newsletter.

Awards recipients will be announced at the event.

manty at JG

Manty Ellis (seated at center) will perform with his quartet at Jazz Now at The Jazz Gallery Center for the Arts on Sunday, August 12. Photo by Elizabeth Vogt.

Ellis and Breiwick will also perform at the event with a quartet and special guest performers.

Another award will be given in the name of Chuck LaPaglia, the founder and owner of the original Milwaukee Jazz Gallery, for persons providing “outstanding promotion of jazz in Milwaukee.”
Without his vision and dogged dedication, Milwaukee would’ve had a far poorer jazz scene and history.
But LaPaglia was there when we needed him, and now we are here in celebration.

chuck at JG

Milwaukee Jazz Gallery founder-owner Chuck LaPaglia back in the day.

One more than one occasion, the center’s current manager Mark Lawson has said to me, “What this place really needs is an angel or two.”

The event will honor one angel who has finally delivered something and several other meaningful supporters of Milwaukee jazz, awards chosen by Manty Ellis.

Nevertheless, the venue could use another benefactor, to sustain general operations, including maintenance, booking and promotion. But that’s one reason to get the word out on this event, where we’ll measure and acknowledge the center’s great value to our city and to the music and the arts.

Come on down and let the good times roll.

 

Jazz Now event poster II

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

bud-album-cover

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.

Whelan

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

 

 

 

 

Dreamland in Blu: Thelonious Monk Music Reimagined at Cloud Altitude

 

dream cloud

Dreamland’s cloud in Blu, 23-plus stories up.

This brief photo essay interprets the experience of hearing Dreamland, an imaginative and courageous ensemble which has worked hard in recent years to make much of the challenging Thelonious Monk repertoire alive for new listeners, and gratified old Monk fans.

Thelonious-Monk-UPI-Photo-Courtesy-of-the-heirs-of-W.-Eugene-Smith-and-the-Center-for-Creative-Photography-at-the-University-of-Arizona

The band Dreamland is named for an obscure Monk tune rediscovered by trumpeter/bandleader Jamie Breiwick. Monk often seemed to live in his own private dreamland. Photo by Eugene W. Smith, courtesy UPI. 

The band, conceived and led by trumpeter Jamie Breiwick, performed Friday night at Blu, the nightclub located on the 23rd floor of the Pfister Hotel,  with stunning views of the downtown Milwaukee lakefront.
I began taking a few photographs with no agenda. Gradually it seemed that the band’s ambition in reaching high to master and re-imagine Monk’s technically vexing yet uncannily charming and intriguing music — in such an atmospheric noir setting — was worth a visual treatment, or a dream sequence.

Such stimulating variables may be partly why they’re one of my favorite music groups. So, though a longtime arts and jazz writer, and because this concerns the architecture of Monk and of Milwaukee, I am in letting the dreamland images speak for themselves (for the most part), mindful of a famous Monk quote: “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.”

dreamland dusk

Dreamland warms up the Blu night club audience shortly before dusk (L-R, pianist Mark Davis, bassist Clay Schaub, trumpeter Jamie Breiwick, drummer Devin Drobka).

dream 3

From Blu’s windows, you see the counterpoint of classic and modern Milwaukee architecture, looking south toward the Hoan Bridge. 

dream 4

At least one couple seems transported by Dreamland.

dream 5

The still-rising Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance tower is illuminated by many stories of its construction lights on the right tower portion. At, right, the blue flame atop the iconic Milwaukee Gaslight Building forecasts the weather.

dream 6

Blu is the rhythm of drums deep in the night.

dream 7

Dreamland begins heating up as darkness as falls on Milwaukee. 

dream 8

From Blu we see the end of the I-94 expressway in the foreground, curving into the southbound Hoan Bridge harbor overpass. Many years ago, when the I-94 ramp remained an unfinished precipice high over the ground level, it was used as “the expressway to nowhere” in the precariously climactic closing car chase scene in the film “The Blues Brothers.”

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Trumpeter Breiwick uses his hand over his bell to bend a mournful note on a Monk ballad.

dream 10 (2)

Even the carpeting in Blu has a dancing, dreamlike quality.

dream 11

Jamie Breiwick performing, and radiating, “Light Blue.”

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Just maybe, this is how Thelonious Monk – a genius of dancing, songful abstraction – might have viewed Milwaukee’s south shoreline along the Hoan Bridge.

P.S. Well, I’m fudging a bit on my promise to let the photos do all the heavy lifting, such as it is. But I’ll add a few more comments about Dreamland, whom I profiled previously here:

Trumpeter Jamie Breiwick “dreams” of Thelonious Monk’s music

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Now the band sounds like they are making Monk’s music their own. It’s in the increasing ease of articulation of the vital and sometimes profound ideas contained in often-hazardous chord changes and rhythmic trip wires.
Trumpeter Jamie Breiwick continues to pursue his Miles Davis-cum-Don Cherry influences, often pushing plummy accents into a slippery swing and, like a master baker, he consistently kneads the thematic material into whole, rounded melodic ideas. As the bandleader, he’s also imaginative and intrepid in delving into the mysterioso depths of the Monk book. Breiwick has an assurance and dedication to the material that I think would’ve made Monk proud, even though he was known as an often-exacting bandleader.

And for my ears, Devin Drobka is an ideal drummer for this music. As a Berklee-trained musician and vibist, he understands the implications of the harmonic changes better than most drummers, which helps keep the music bubbling and percolating with the right aroma and savor. And on some tunes, like “Light Blue,” his drum solo built directly from the harmonic and melodic charms of the melody itself.

Here’s the band stretching out on “Light Blue” from a previous live date:

 

On a longer previous solo, drummer Drobka dazzled in quirky wavelengths. I declare that Thelonious Monk himself would’ve danced around his piano (a not-infrequent Monk behavior) in response to Drobka’s solo — bristling, sashaying, hiccuping, all amid a push-pull tempo tension. Then he’ll fling out a few fractured march rhythms. But few fractured marchers can also dance, like Drobka’s Monk march can.

Pianist Mark Davis is a somewhat more supple and fluent phraser than Monk himself typically was. And yet Davis’ playing leaps and lopes at times, which brings to mind to the magisterially buoyant hard-bop pianist Sonny Clark doing a Monk take. And Davis rarely misses a chance to insert an acerbic Monk accent — often a buzzingly discordant second interval.

Bassist Clay Schaub is relatively new to the band, as a replacement for John Price. But he’s an extremely capable and musical player in negotiating the often-tricky changes.

I see Dreamland staking out their own high ground in the crowded strata of Monk interpretation. Their intelligence, fearlessness, youth and fire will keep this dreamland afloat, growing and prospering in ways yet to be imagined.

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All photos by Kevin Lynch, except as noted.

 

Why should we care about Miles Davis? New biopic, live tribute, local thoughts

Portrait of US jazz trumpet player Miles Davis taken 06 July 1991 in Paris. Portrait du trompettiste de jazz Miles Davis pris lors d'un concert le 06 juillet 1991 à la Halle de la Villette à Paris. (Photo credit should read PATRICK HERTZOG/AFP/GettyImages)

Portrait of US jazz trumpet player Miles Davis taken 06 July 1991 in Paris.
Portrait du trompettiste de jazz Miles Davis pris lors d’un concert le 06 juillet 1991 à la Halle de la Villette à Paris. (Photo credit PATRICK HERTZOG/AFP/GettyImages)

Why care?

Miles Davis dwells at, and helped create, the root thrust of many music vernaculars of the 20th century — from vintage bop with Bird, to purring like a breeze-cooled cat in Birth of the Cool, to kicking in the blues ‘n’ back beat of workin’, walkin’ hard-bop with Trane, to modal jazz trance with Kind of Blue, to cutting-edge modern slash with his second great quintet, to polyrhythmic Afro-fusion with Bitches Brew, to deep street funk and proto-hip-hop ‘tude with On the Corner. And he always gave us the essence of personal style, as an expression of American individuality and romance. Whew.

Well, that’s by way of introduction to this radio story. Thanks to 88.9 Radio Milwaukee’s Glenn Kleiman and trumpeter Jamie Breiwick for including me in this fine feature. http://radiomilwaukee.org/discover-music/still-care-miles-davis/

The feature, with interviews of Breiwick and me is hooked on Don Cheadle’s highly-anticipated biographical film about Miles Davis Miles Ahead, and “A Tribute to Miles Davis,” (a supper club edition) a live concert event at Company Brewing, 735 E. Center St, Milwaukee, at 9:30 p.m. on April 15. The event is organized by and features saxophonist Jay Anderson along with trumpeter Russ Johnson, pianist Mark Davis, bassist Ethan Bender, and drummer Mitch Shiner. This is an excellent ensemble event, featuring music by and associated with Miles, not to be missed: https://www.facebook.com/events/1671208159798613/

Also, here is a link to my review of the 1983 Miles Davis concert in Milwaukee, for The Milwaukee Journal:https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=1499&dat=19830218&id=XWgaAAAAIBAJ&sjid=4ykEAAAAIBAJ&pg=4166,4949562&hl=en