In a new biography, hip-hop artist Klassik emerges transcendently talented, but still rooted, a native son of Milwaukee

Book review: The Milwaukeean: A Tale of Tragedy and Triumph by Joey Grihalva

Joey Grihalva will present SONSET — a book reading by the author and solo improv by Klassik — for The Milwaukeean, at a new venue, forMartha, 825 E. Center Street, from 7 to 9 p.m. Saturday. The event will follow the Center Street Daze street festival. Cover is $10, or $25 with book.

Is a thirty-ish hip-hopper with only regional renown worthy of a biography? In his new book about Klassik (Kellen Abston), author Joey Grihalva forges, in effect, a freshly painted, still-mutating portrait of a creative man, of Milwaukee and of contemporary times, with all the urgency and potential for tragedy and agency that all implies. In that sense, Klassik emerges as a comparatively humble embodiment of a Black Milwaukeean, even as he manifests genius that might characterize the city. The painfully enlightened and haunted saga – he watched his father die of bullet wounds at age 11 – bends toward the arc of triumph, if justice remains elusive.

The victory comes, in one sense, because the personal is still political. Klassik is one of many who’ve grown as the art of hip hop has grown – fitfully, defiantly, and dynamically – to where Kendrick Lamar won a Pulitzer Prize in 2017. If there’s a connection, Klassik has much more in common with Lamar’s 2015 jazzy masterwork To Pimp a Butterfly than with Lamar’s ensuing album Damn.

It might also be the cultural difference between Compton, California and Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Maybe, ultra-hipness vs. a kind of ultra-hopeness? As in “keep hope alive.” As this book reveals, Klassik’s deep troubled history with, and vision of his hometown, sets him apart. It’s partly why he’s watched many Milwaukee area rap artists become bigger names than him.

Standing over his hometown’s skyline, Kellen “Klassik” Abston says he thinks of Milwaukee as a character more than a place. Photo courtesy Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel 

That does not mean they’re better. That’s why, among increasingly aware Midwesterners, Klassik is as essentially Milwaukee as contemporary hip-hop gets. Grihalva captures a nearly lost Midwestern bonhomie, a pan-racial faith in humanity, hidden beneath the grime of post-industrialism and the crime of racism.

Klassik, who studied jazz saxophone with Milwaukee master Berkeley Fudge, was an early musical prodigy. To the degree he manifests his own filtered amalgam of jazz, classic R&B, and hip-hop, I hear and feel how much he makes good on the thoughtful presumption of his name, Klassik. His previous album, American Klassiks, demonstrated how he can reinvent classics of American vernacular musics, and make them present, alive for today and pointing a beacon forward, musically and spiritually. The artist in him won’t do it any other way.

“This is the problem with Kellen’s stuff – it’s too smart,” says his friend Jordan Lee, a DJ, and a former station director at 88/Nine Radio Milwaukee, who’s also a member of the jazz-hip-hop trio KASE, with whom Klassik as recorded and collaborated. 1 “It was never going to work at the beat battle,” referring to a competitive hip-hop event Lee produced from 2005 to 2015, known as the Miltown Beatdown, which brought together produces rappers, and hip-hop heads from all over the city.

Rather than always “on the beat,” that can be as delimiting as it is compulsively attractive, Klassik’s music unfolds with an almost Midwestern shapeliness, as if informed by the Kettle Moraine as much as by the staccato pulses of the urban environment. As a primal Klassik source, I’ve always heard the soul-praying-to-the-moon existential angst of Marvin Gaye, whom he shouts out on “Black-Spangled Banner,” on American Klassiks, recorded live late one night in Bay View’s Cactus Club.

Klassik’s expressive power dates back to, among other things, Marvin Gaye and the hauntings of his childhood. Courtesy IAMKLASSIK.com.

He’s also decidedly more improvisational than most hip-hop or pop. “Maybe it’s the jazz purist in me,” he muses to Grihalva. “When you think about live music and playing an instrument, even the most rehearsed and refined part has its own idiosyncrasies or little inflections that make it human. I’m making something, I’m adding layers and depth.” 2

Klassik performs at Pianofest, at the Jazz Gallery Center for the Arts, a few years ago. Singer Adekola Adedapo recalls, at age 10, Kellen played “Over the Rainbow,” on saxophone at a Heath Brothers jazz workshop at the Wisconsin Conservatory, one of the first discoveries of his talent. Photo courtesy JGCA

The book, a prime example of “new journalism,” is also the author’s own story, about his relationship to his subject and their shared hometown, “an eternal tie that binds.” Abston and Grihalva are virtual contemporaries and Grihalva teaches at Milwaukee’s High School of the Arts, which is Abston’s alma mater.

Part of Abston’s burden is that he feels he could have done more than simply freeze up, to possibly save his father from dying, and that, 20 years past, Robin Abston’s murder remains unsolved. That’s plenty to drive a young man to drink and drugs – a large part of his struggle, aside from his often-exquisite peculiarity as a young, gifted, and black man, within our race-obsessed culture. And yet he won’t leave Milwaukee, as partly a spiritual detective still on a homicide case grown cold for most others. His relationship with police is deep ambivalence, hardly hatred. But he’s also doing close investigation of his own identity, which messes with him, with ghosts of what he’s been, shouldn’t be, won’t be, and can be.

Klassik’s bling always includes the dog tags of his father, veteran Robin Abston, who was murdered 20 years ago, in a crime that remains unsolved. Courtesy Milwaukee Magazine

Ultimately the redemption and triumph of the story is the hard-earned wisdom that arises from it, in the experiences and voices of both author and subject, as well as a choir of street-sage homies. The way that choral mosaic enlightens the story, like a vast stain glass window, is Grihalva’s achievement, his crafting of a sense of authenticity by finding common cause with your roots. One of Klassik’s defining ventures into communal creativity was his key role, in the summer of 2016, in Milwaukee’s Strange Fruit Festival, named for the searing anti-lynching song “Strange Fruit” popularized by Billie Holiday. The festival was spurred in response to two police killings of unarmed black men on back-to-back days: Alton Sterling in Louisiana, and Philando Castile, killed in his car in St. Paul Minnesota.

“That was one of the first times where I felt pulled artistically, in terms of feeling a responsibility with my platform,” Kellen explained. “It heightened this desire to wield it, almost like a weapon, for good.” Kellen’s profile was rising, as he was performing in New York City during the first two nights of Strange Fruit. Kellen flew back to Milwaukee for the final night of the festival.

Then, that weekend’s Saturday afternoon, Milwaukee police shot and killed Sylville Smith in the Sherman Park neighborhood. The incident sparked riots that culminated in the burning of a gas station, a bank, and a beauty supply store, images seen on international news the next morning.

As for the festival, Kellen said, “Everybody was on their A-game…It was such an amazing event. You could tell everybody was there for the betterment of the community in whatever small or large way they could. And was just crazy timing that we had this festival amid the madness that ensued.” The event played again the next two years, and Abston wrote a manifesto for a potential relaunch of the festival, though it never got off the ground.

Much chaos and transformation has come down since then, the era of Trump and George Floyd, and Klassik has achieved a kind of personal-is-political triumph of textured passion on his last album QUIET, with assists from Milwaukee artists who’ve gone to greater renown, SistaStrings, the multi-talented singers-string-players, and folk-rock artist Marielle Alschwang, among others.

“I’ve been thinking a lot about protest in the form of joy, specifically Black joy,” Abston says. “With the new stuff I’m working on, there is this element of defiance in being happy and free. That’s like the most powerful thing you can do as a minority in this country.”

The power, he understands, also derives from accepting himself as a Milwaukeean, “The Milwaukeean.” He’s lucky to have a biographer as attuned as this one, who can tell his story so tenderly and beautifully. Abston reflects on the notion of faith: “If I hit a good note or I’m writing a good melody or these chords have a certain color or have the ability to stir up emotion from thin air, that’s magic. That’s God. It’s all those things. It’s being connected to something greater than ourselves.”

Almost two years ago to this day, he meets with Grihalva at Kilbourn Reservoir Park, which overlooks downtown where North Avenue curves into Riverwest. It’s one of his favorite places in the city. “I would go up to that hill over there when I was super-fucking depressed. I would just sit and cry, let it out and wipe them tears off. Then this warmth would come over me, especially at night. Something about the lights. It’s weird because it’s not a spectacular skyline. But it’s mine, you know?” He continues, “In all my videos, I’ve always thought of Milwaukee as a character, not a location.”

That idea of making a city a living, breathing character – a father figure? – seems to speak volumes about Klassik’s genius, as an archetypal son of a quintessential American city, in all its grit and glory, it’s patriarchal sorrow and shame, its defiant brotherhood and sisterhood.

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  1. Klassik’s most recent appearance on a recording is his largely wordless vocalizing on KASE + Klassik: Live at the Opera House, on B-Side Recordings.
  2. Grihalva’s previous book was Milwaukee Jazz, a photo history from Arcadia publishing’s Images of America series.

“Solve for X” finds Jamie Breiwick and Jay Mollerskov as a musical Holmes and Watson?

Review: Jamie Breiwick & Jay Mollerskov – Solve for X (B Side)

Jamie Breiwick emerged by leaps and bounds as the most important jazz musician on the Milwaukee scene in 2021. The trumpeter-composer-conceptualizer works in both straight-ahead and cutting-edge realms.

His hip-hop/jazz trio KASE opened for Terence Blanchard’s E-Collective at the Marcus PAC, and he released a stunning bevy of albums, mostly on his own B Side label, but also, The Jewel (Live at The Dead Poet), a trio date on Ropeadope, with internationally-known drummer Matt Wilson, recorded live in New York.

Among the self-released albums, his latest, Solve for X, may be his strongest experimental album yet. The album cover by local printmaker Jay Arpin, depicting a massive iceberg, suggests the project’s quietly vast ambition and its “granular synthesis.” The album comprises “electronic works based completely on Jamie’s trumpet playing as the sole sound source.” The enigmatic title, borrowed from the Arpin print’s, suggests a creative inquiry as profound as the dimensions and revealing textures of the largely-submerged iceberg – the two musicians as a sort of musical Holmes and Watson, investigating a mysterious symbol perhaps signifying evidence of climate catastrophe.

Breiwick’s longtime friend, guitarist-synthesist Jay Mollerskov, took recordings of the trumpeter’s themes and solos, and mutated them into “granular landscapes” for the elegantly winged horn, a myriad of textures and tones. Breiwick displays exceptionally sustained lyricism.

On “Strata,” the ascending atmospheric spaciousness seems to virtually lift you out of your chair, beyond yourself, as if gazing down on the earth (in another strata), even suggesting a pensive moral pondering of humanity below. Here and elsewhere, the minimalist tonal aesthetic offers maximal textural effect.

“Traces of Things,” with its episodic fragments, suggests Thelonious Monk’s “Evidence.” Finally, “Reflect” delicately grounds the sonic outer limits like a mile-high kite-string, with rather gorgeous horn playing, including Breiwick’s son, Nolan, dueting with his father on trumpet.

Yet another Breiwick-brainchild album, KASE + Klassik Live at the Opera House, was just released this week, featuring Klassik, the brilliant Milwaukee-based hip-hop singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist.

For more information, visit:

B Side Recordings

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This review was originally published in slightly shorter form, in The Shepherd Express: https://shepherdexpress.com/music/album-reviews/solve-for-x-by-jamie-breiwick-b-side/

Two Milwaukee-bred trumpeting beacons illuminate the city’s music scene this month

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Klassik (Kellen Abston), Courtesy Milwaukee Magazine.

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

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

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

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

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