At 80, Jerry Grillo sings a song his way, taking musical risks, and usually winning


Singer Jerry Grillo performs at his “Decades Tour” celebrating his 80th Birthday at Bar Centro on Feb. 10, with drummer Randy Maio, at right. Photos courtesy Jerry Grillo.

A notable recent performance by Milwaukee jazz singer Jerry Grillo got me thinking about his art form, partly due to technical difficulties with my blog delaying me from writing an intended review. Then today, while exercising, I listened to one of the most acclaimed male jazz singers today, Gregory Porter.

So, I hope I’m doing Grillo a service by partly comparing him to the highest standards of his craft. Grillo may be nearing the end of his performing career as he chose to do a sort of career and life retrospective on his  “Decades Tour,” celebrating his 80th birthday at Bar Centro in Milwaukee’s Riverwest neighborhood. The joint was filled beyond capacity, suggesting a cultivated popularity, which leads to an implicit question. Doesn’t the art of male jazz singing remain too rare, both nationally and locally? General audiences seem more attracted to female singers, who might be more easily marketed as well, whether singing jazz, or classical, or even pop, now that male singers fronting male rock bands have now given way to superstar female pop singers, the biggest which need not be named.

Thus, it seems all more valuable to appreciate men willing to open themselves up to the emotional and artistic vulnerabilities of singing, more typically the province of women. To this point, this man’s songs at Bar Centro included several made famous by women, including Judy Garland, Barbra Streisand, Dinah Washington, and Morgana King.

So, I celebrate Grillo’s accomplishment by possibly holding him to high standards. His voice may not possess the pure resonant quality of a Gregory Porter, or of a Kurt Elling, or the textural richness or quite the capacious dynamic range of his “favorite singer,” Tony Bennett.

Yet Grillo has plenty to offer as a narrative and dramatic master of his material, a musical raconteur, and as an improvisational risk-taker in the tradition of real jazz, by contrast to a safer singer guided by jazz musicians. He demonstrated this by performing songs that he conceded weren’t typical jazz material; he mastered jazz singing only in his career’s latter portion, since the 1990s. But these songs were sung his way. His roots actually lie in musical theater as he demonstrated here. His choice of material is consistently witty and engaging. He also took liberty to introduce each song with its context in his own life, thus personalizing it as a storyteller.

The first, “Teach Me Tonight” served as a way to learn about him and, with its sly pivot toward boudoir instruction, as a rich metaphor for the man himself as a true artistic Romantic, and as a teacher, which he was for many years. This began his biographical commentary: we learned he was born in Hibbing, Minnesota, not coincidentally the birthplace of Bob Dylan. He’s hardly the poetic songwriter that Dylan is (who is, really?), but Grillo, akin to Dylan, accomplishes so much both with a less-than-perfect voice and the creative chutzpah to virtually reinvent his songs almost every time he sings them.

So no, Grillo’s singing may not be as purely pleasing as, say, Porter’s. But that celebrated Blue Note recording artist tends to lean heavily on the warm, glowing tones of his resonant baritone, in many medium-to-slow songs.

By contrast, Grillo not infrequently finds himself in precarious pivots of intonation – because he’s taking musical risks, trying to modulate his singing to the twists and turns of the story-song, without being calculated. Thus, he seems more authentic, honest, vulnerable, and quite appealing as a musical human. He can also render a tender ballad, like the hush of “A Quiet Thing,” made famous by Morgana King. This managed to fairly tame the rather boisterous chatterers at the bar, a sort of spell-casting.

Now, with his audience’s full attention, he rewarded with them shortly with his most acclaimed song, “My Hometown, Milwaukee,” which he wrote. As he explained, it celebrates his adopted hometown by avoiding clichés like cheese and beer, instead exulting in our extraordinary “museum with wings,” our somewhat unique public transit bus The Hop, and our pro sports teams: “The Bucks are the tops! And the Brewers will win the World Series…next year.” His pause, and pitch drop, were perfect comedian’s timing, deflating his own claim, and drawing laughter from a crowd that surely would relish the always-game Brewers finally winning it all.

“My Hometown” is a declamatory romp, which leads to a big-chested, strutting climax, akin to Sinatra singing “Chicago.” The song earned him a proclamation from Mayor Cavalier Johnson of “My Hometown, Milwaukee” Day, last May. It also won the 2023 WAMI award for “Most Unique Song.”

Jerry Grillo and Milwaukee Mayor Cavalier Johnson hold the Mayoral Proclamation of “My Hometown, Milwaukee” Day last May, honoring Grillo’s song, which also won a 2023 WAMI Award.

In the second set, Grillo wisely noted that jazz is essentially a “black art form,” by performing Fats Waller’s “Ain’t Misbehavin’.” It’s hardly black protest or identity-assertion, but illustrates of how American black music grew by merging foot-tapping entertainment with insouciant, smart creativity.

He somewhat book-ended his program by honoring, early in the first set, his favorite singer Tony Bennett, with “I Wanna be Around” and, as the penultimate song, Bennett’s trademark “San Francisco.” Preceding that was one of the most poignant moments. Another pianist friend, Rose Fosco, had composed a tune she called “Lonely” which, he explained, was written for her late father, a delicately-crafted expression of her sense of loss. Grillo set it to lyrics, and it served also for him as an acknowledgment of mortality as did, in more affirmative terms, the program closer, “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”

Sensitive accompaniment shadowed the singer throughout: pianist John Hefter, drummer Randy Maio and especially saxophonist Jeanne Marie Farinelli, who added a limpid flute solo to that final tune.

Saxophonist-flutist Jeanne Marie Farinelli performs with Grillo at Bar Centro.

This evening breathed in long waves of anecdote and songful ardor, it chuckled, digressed and grew increasingly palpable of a creative man’s love affair with a city. That added up to what felt like a precious gift from the vocalist to his audience. Grillo will continue his “Decades Tour” for an indefinite time. Then, perhaps he’ll saunter off into the sunset.

However his final performance chapter plays out, let us give thanks and always cherish Milwaukee’s preeminent hometown male jazz singer.


Heirloom passes the modern jazz tradition down and forward

(L-R) Saxophonist Jeanne Marie Farinelli, drummer Hannah Jonson and guitarist-composer Ben Dameron are the core members of Heirloom.

Heirloom will perform at 8 p.m. Friday, Sept. 15 at Bar Centro, 804 E. Center Street, Milwaukee. For information:

One of the brightest and most auspicious recent manifestations of the Milwaukee jazz scene is a band called Heirloom. Their name seems well considered, as one senses how two distinctive talents, a man and a woman, have begat at jazz group with a firm sense of modern jazz tradition—the valuable object, in effect—and the skill and imaginative vision for how to cultivate their sense of it in beautiful and stimulating form.

The group is the byproduct of the confluence of guitarist-composer Ben Dameron and drummer Hannah Johnson, both rather unique musicians who add up to something greater than their parts. Dameron has developed into an electric jazz guitarist of distinct authority after becoming an accomplished classical guitarist. But the jazz bug bit him at some point and the first time I saw him perform was playing jazz solo on his classical guitar, at a house concert he shared with singer-pianist Anthony Deutsch a few years ago.

I first saw the couple sit in for one Thelonious Monk tune at Bar Centro in Milwaukee a few months ago. This one tune signaled the couple’s ease with the jazz tradition. Dameron was fleet and harmonically astute, as excellent as I anticipated on electric guitar. Johnson was an immediate revelation on this tune. I’d heard of her leading her own jazz group and good things about her. But she stunned me with her effortless mastery of modern jazz swing, in the propulsive style that makes the music a stimulating, sparkling conversation. Frankly, Johnson outplayed the drummer in the band she briefly sat in with and, I dare say, after seeing her now twice with Heirloom, she’s as good a jazz drummer as any in the region. I think of one who’s comparable with straight-ahead, yet more versatile, but damn, she swings like a windblown willow tree.

Feeling the Music

She flips out rimshots, tom-tom thumps, triplets, and paradiddles with the accenting flair of a master linguist. The language is jazz but you feel it sooner than you comprehend it, which is the way it should play. 1

Out front is tenor saxophonist Jeanne Marie Farinelli, another superb player. I heard a pensive, lyrical quality in her tone which reminds me of Wayne Shorter, as does her resourceful use of her horn’s full range, with occasional bottom notes for powerful punctuation.

The band opened the set with Miles Davis’s “Nardis” which resembles a Shorter piece in its epigrammatic spaciousness, so I momentarily mistook it for a Shorter tune even though I’ve played it many times on piano and it was actually made famous by pianist Bill Evans. That seamless stylistic commingling, intentional or not, seems one nominal quality of Heirloom’s style.

Similarly, their rendition of Thelonious Monk’s “Let’s Cool One” blended sensibilities: graced with lyricism like a garland of smoke curving around a line that typically rises like a cubist sculpture.

Although Johnson handled band introductions and naming the tunes, Dameron seems to be the conceptual leader. He typically polished the thematic statements to a gleaming sheen by harmonizing his guitar tightly with Farinelli’s sax. That, and his frequent use of a “chorus” pedal, recalled the “bright sized life” of Pat Metheny’s popular quartet.

Impressive originals

Plus, he filled out the two sets with his ambitious, impressive originals. The first one, “Messages from the Deep” was a drink of water you might drown in if your mind can’t swim. When I asked him if it was 64 bars through-composed, he just laughed and said “Yes, it’s pretty long. That came out of me one day when I was really feeling something deep way down inside.”

He explained that he’s a fan of sci-fi, like Dune (another Dameron tune, “Spice Trance,” specifically honors a scene in that book), and enjoys writing with a feel for metaphysical atmosphere, though his tunes are far more substantial than, say, typical New Age music, which often trivializes science fiction and metaphysical sensibilities.

Watching Dameron is revealing and sometimes amusing. He spent most of the gig with his right foot on the “chorus” pedal (though not overdoing the device), but the posture seems ingrained—classical guitarists always use a right-foot stand, which the pedal resembles. Then, while soloing in fast grooves, his left foot swung back and forth like a slightly overwound clock pendulum.

The current bassist is John Christensen, the band’s elder statesman, who lends vibrance, musicality and gravitas to any band. Plus, he’s the living pulse, a crucial quality.

By contrast was a guest pianist. Heirloom has worked as a quartet, which they did when I heard them play a few weeks earlier, at the Brady Street Festival. And outdoors, they cranked the volume and sounded like a great fusion band. At Bar Centro, dynamics and the repertoire were more tempered.


Heirloom as a quintet at Bar Centro recently, with pianist Lucas LeBeau (far left) and bassist John Christensen background). 

But Dameron had described the pianist sitting in as “a 17-year-old wunderkind.” Check that box. Slender, dark-haired Lucas LeBeau might resemble a young Jackson Browne, but even more boyish. Yet he has the extraordinary facility of someone deeply trained, if not innately gifted.

LeBeau seemed to ride the sustain pedal a bit much, perhaps striving to approximate the leader’s spiritual atmospherics. But he sounds like a keeper and Dameron hopes he remains one.

The guitarist is an imaginative thinker. But make no mistake, this is a serious but buoyant band. Both leaders, especially Johnson, brim with joy as the group percolates, and you hear their smiles in the music.

This band is a vine-fresh, living heirloom of jazz, something I’d buy as readily as anything in an antique shop, because you always feel their bass pulse and musical arteries, not just redolence of past glory.

Yet, like the most timeless jazz, Heirloom’s improvs reveal the mining and molding of artistic thought in real time.


This article was first published in Shepherd Express, here:
1. Hannah Johnson earned a degree in jazz studies at Indiana University’s prestigious jazz studies program.