Jazz has led the way in integration as a social and cultural model at least since 1938

George Shearing, Nina Simone, Duke Ellington and Buddy Rich, at the Madison Square Garden Jazz Festival in New York, in 1959. Photo: Herb Snitzer /MICHAEL OCHS ARCHIVE/GETTY

Sure, pianist George Shearing (pictured, above left) was literally blind, to color and everything else (and once made an album with all three Black Montgomery brothers –Wes, Buddy and Monk). Nevertheless, this photo – which prompted this brief essay – signifies, for me, the pan-racial solidarity of jazz as a social model, including brash, super-egotistical Buddy Rich — in 1959. 1

I’m no Rich expert but, a cursory examination of his noteworthy 1967 album Speak No Evil, reveals how integrated his sensibilities and practices were by then. The title tune is by the great African-American saxophonist composer Wayne Shorter. The album also includes compositions by black artists Earth, Wind and Fire; Natalie Cole; The Pointer Sisters; and The Isley Brothers. His band at the time featured these black musicians: arranger Richard Evans, piano soloist Kenny Barron, bassist Bob Cranshaw, tuba player Howard Johnson, and vocalist Retta Hughes. Speak no evil, indeed.

There were certainly plenty more of integrated jazz bands by 1967, but let’s especially note examples of pioneering pre-’60s white bandleaders whom one might assume could travel and work easier in racially charged regions of America without the “white man’s burden” which is actually “the black man’s burden,” (as author/editor Greg Tate has eloquently documented 2.) of conforming to societal restrictions on integration, and thus helped advance the burgeoning civil rights movement.

The integration saga begins with Benny Goodman who hired star soloists from the Ellington and Basie Orchestras for 1938 at his epic Carnegie Hall concert, and his contemporary quartet with pianist Teddy Wilson and vibist Lionel Hampton. Earlier in the ’30s, he’d hired Billie Holiday, Coleman Hawkins, and arranger Fletcher Henderson. In the ’40, Goodman hired guitarist Charlie Christian, trumpeter Cootie Williams, and saxophonist Wardell Gray.

Among notable 1950s Latin and Afro-Cuban jazz musicians and bands and musicians were Chano Pozo, Machito, Chico O’Farrell, Tito Puente, Mongo Santamaria, Cal Tjader, Prez Prado, Astor Piazolla, Xavier Cugat, singer Harry Belafonte and, yes, that the eclectic Brit George Shearing.

Then in the ’50s, among the most noatable integration developments came from Milwaukee-native and big band leader Woody Herman. He hired a variety of African American musicians in the 1950s, including vibraphonist Milt Jackson, trumpeters Ernie Royal, Reunald Jones, Nat Adderley, and Howard McGee, and bassists Keter Betts and Major Holley bass. Charlie Parker was guest soloist with the band in early ’50’s.

Herman also hired (white) trumpeter-singer Billie Rogers, one of the first female instrumentalists in a male-dominated band who wasn’t a singe or pianist. *

Speaking of women, in the 1940s, we can’t forget the integrated all-woman big band The International Sweethearts of Rhythm.

The saxophone section of the 1940s tri-racial orchestra The International Sweethearts of Rhythm Courtesy Rosalind Cron 

Besides Shearing, Herman and Buddy Rich, integrated bands with white leaders included The Dave Brubeck Quartet, Lennie Tristano, Art Pepper, The Gerry Mulligan Quartet, Stan Getz, the black and white co-leadership and integrated personnel of the standard-setting Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra and The J.J. Johnson-Kai Winding Quartet.

Among integrated black leaders of the late 1950s: Miles Davis (famously on Birth of the Cool, and Kind of Blue), Charles Mingus, Ornette Coleman, 3 John Coltrane, George Russell, Sarah Vaughan and Bud Powell, who recorded with Buddy Rich back in 1951.

Also, pioneering Black pianist-composer Mary Lou Williams worked with white trombonist Jack Teagarden, and had arranger Milt Orent assist in arrangements for her ambitious 1940s Zodiac Suite.

I know I am forgetting other “integral” leaders from both races.

l’ll just touch lightly on matters of early modern jazz “influence.” Bebop rose as a virtuosic, self-consciously Black-innovated style (like most all major jazz idioms) to deter whites from “stealing” and profiting by mimicking and marketing their style — as happened profligately with swing. Still, bop had a few notable Bud Powell-influenced white pianists, such as Dodo Mamarosa, Joe Albany, and Al Haig. Among 1950s white pianists influenced by Thelonious Monk (and perhaps Herbie Nichols) was the tragically-short-lived Richard Twardzik. 4.  

Perhaps an efficient way to enhance and conclude this brief historical integration story is to note the 1950s phenomenon of “cool jazz,” and here I’m plucking straight from Wikipedia, to dispel the notion this popular genre was the exclusive realm of white West Coast musicians: “Some observers looked down upon West Coast jazz because many of its musicians were white, and because some listeners, critics, and historians perceived that the music was too cerebral, effete, or effeminate, or that it lacked swing.[12][13][14] However, African American musicians played in the style, including Curtis CounceJohn LewisChico HamiltonHarry “Sweets” EdisonBuddy ColletteRed CallenderHarold LandEugene Wright and Hampton Hawes.”

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* Thanks to Curt Hanrahan, music director of The Milwaukee Jazz Orchestra, for information on Woody Herman.

  1. Thanks to my good friend, Stephen Braunginn, formerly jazz program host of WORT-FM radio in Madison, and of the Jazz Enthusiasts Facebook group, for posting this photo (at top).
  2. Everything but the Burden: What White People Are Taking From Black Culture, edited by by Greg Tate, Broadway Books 2003. This book addresses what is now known in P.C. terms as cultural appropriation. But it seems to me that white jazz artists who cover and pay royalties to black composers, and who fairly hire black musicians are, as Spike Lee would put it, “doing the right thing.”
  3. Though most famous for his piano-less “free jazz” Ornette Coleman used white pianists on his important earliest recordings, the Live at the Hillcrest date with Paul Bley (a true quiet giant) and Walter Norris on Coleman’s Contemporary label recordings, recently re-released as a 2-CD box set.
  4. Twardzik’s composition “Yellow Tango,” is a Latin-flavored small masterpiece of offbeat jazz, well represented on The Chet Baker Quartet featuring Dick Twardzik Live in Koln.

Ornette Coleman’s first two albums resurface and reveal the “genesis of genius.”

Album review: Ornette Coleman, The Genesis of Genius: The Contemporary Albums (Contemporary)

Prepare to be haunted by a voice. Now, step inside the realm of Ornette Coleman. Few instrumental voices betray their player’s innards as deeply. The person inside that sound, strange to some, became fast friends with me when I first heard it. It’s a voice I’ve always felt close to, every time I hear it again. It tickles a brotherly bone in me, though we’ve never met personally.

That’s one of the rare qualities his saxophone playing evinces. And his mind and soul are on synchronistic display on his first two albums, finally re-issued as a box set on the Contemporary label. You readily hear and feel it all: a huge heart, a natural wit and strong empathy with his fellow players, his rhythm section as true fellows.

Trumpeter Don Cherry, at this juncture, almost as distinctive a voice, unlike any trumpeter you’ve heard. His trumpet tone splatters and smears at times. He sounds like a man talking and singing at once. Part of the singularity of both players was their unusual axes. Ornette’s white plastic alto sax and Don Cherry’s pocket trumpet (see photo below).

Ornette Coleman (left) and Don Cherry. Courtesy Pinterest.

Ornette’s sound is conversational and declamatory, but was also controversial at the time, the ultra-avant-garde. Some conventional players thought he didn’t know how to. Yet, he swings marvelously, as do his bandmembers which belies why this sounded so alien to so many people back in the late 50s (or was it mainly certain critics?). Plus, bluesiness also permeates this music. helping immerse it in a grand jazz tradition even as he’s like nobody you’ve ever heard.

Ornette’s “Genesis of a Genius” re-issue box set is available in CD (upper left) or vinyl LP.

The music is artistically direct, but never simplistic. Coleman said “Let’s play the melody not the background,” suggesting his one big step beyond conventional chord changes (after the first album here, he jettisoned piano in his groups, though much later added electric guitar). However, pianist Walter Norris on the first album comps with suitable harmonic ambiguity and solos with boppish elan.

Drummer Shelly Manne, who plays on the first album, once said Ornette’s saxophone “is the sound of someone laughing and crying.” Ornette’s voice is also one of the most amiable I’ve heard on a horn in a long while and here the voice and style are fully formed on his first two albums.

The tune “Compassion” is reflective as much as an outpouring of feeling with a sense of wry irony within the sound of suffering. So he creates his own substantial “background” straight from his melodic soul.

This reissue is especially a find, a revelation, because these two were over-shadowed by his ensuing series of superb albums for Atlantic Records, now collected in a 6-CD box titled Beauty is a Rare Thing: The Complete Atlantic Recordings. That collection reveals Ornette’s full flowering as a composer, with a number of now-classic tunes, including “Ramblin’,” “Lonely Woman,” “Una Muy Bonita,” “Peace,” and the epic 37-minute “Free Jazz,” with a “double quartet” that included Eric Dolphy and Freddie Hubbard.

If you love that stuff, or still tread through it with uncertainty or curiosity, you ought to hear where it comes from. That’s Genesis of Genius, this Contemporary set. The compositions are well-crafted but not as maturely as the Atlantics. And one technical complaint: Don Cherry’s trumpet is sometimes too low in the mix so it’s then difficult to hear his full phrasing on his solos. But his quite audible extended solo on “Angel Voice” is a buoyantly lesson in amiable, accomplished boppish storytelling.

“Lorraine,” on the second Contemporary album Tomorrow is the Question!, is a languid, yearning yet witty ballad that ought to be a classic. Akin to the soon-famous Atlantic ballad “Lonely Woman,” it’s titled for the late pianist Lorraine Geller, “because she was a wonderful piano player,” Ornette explains in the liber notes. Don Cherry notes correctly that drummer Shelly Manne’s all-brushes solo is “as musical as drum solo can be.”

Try this out:

As for “When Will the Blues Leave?” Answer: When the song is over. This catchy creation sounds like players blowing the blues away, with the resilience of their spirit and the wit of their musicality.

“Turnaround” has a sort of bluesy insouciance that makes you smile inside and out — you want to tuck it into your hip pocket as a tune, like a goodly handful in this compact box set, to scat-sing to yourself. Cherry’s solo is more audible here and delightful in its sly goofiness, yet very smart.

Vintage, seminal modern jazz, this set deserves a wide audience. This horn voice among jazzers, is right up there with Miles, Lester Young, Stan Getz, John Coltrane…

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This review was originally published in shorter form in The Shepherd Express, here: https://shepherdexpress.com/music/album-reviews/the-genesis-of-genius-the-contemporary-albums-by-ornette-col/


 

Whether Jazz, Hip-Hop or Electronic, trumpeter Jamie Breiwick rides the waves

Jazz artist Jamie Breiwick’s voice and vision have steadily grown, like rippling concentric circles, since he first caught the attention of fellow musicians, critics, and the public. The wind of his trumpet blowing plays a factor, but the wavelike depths arose from his extraordinary knowledge and honoring of the modern jazz tradition, while finding places in contemporary pop vernaculars for his voice, and realizing the wellsprings of his own creative identity.

That analogy seems apt as his seminal inspiration was Miles Davis, who shaped the tides of jazz time for decades, with an uncanny, lyrical and impressionistic sensibility, even as funky as he could get. “I had a Miles t-shirt in high school that I wore constantly,” Breiwick recalls. “The breadth of music he made is really staggering, whether bebop, free, rock, fusion, electronic, experimental, pop, hip-hop. He really blazed a lot of trails and left us with a lifetime of inspiration.”

Right now, Breiwick ranks among the four or five most important jazz musicians in Wisconsin and, among them, the youngest one on a still-rising arc of creative possibility. His prolific recorded output includes with De La Buena, and the influential 25-year band Clamnation. The pandemic threw many artists askew, but Breiwick pressed full-speed ahead, with voluminous recording and releasing on his own B-Side Recordings label.

The group KASE: Jamie Breiwick, trumpet and electronics; John Christensen, bass; knowsthetime, turntables and electronics. 

Breiwick’s graphic design talents sped this output. He creates all his own album covers (and those of others) with an imaginative but clean, post-1960s Blue Note Records compositional style. He just published a book of his jazz cover designs concurrently with an emblematic album, KASE + Klassik Live at the Opera House. His jazz-hip-hop-electronics trio, with bassist John Christensen and turntablist Jordan Lee, joined Klassik, perhaps the region’s most musically gifted improv hip-hop singer-song maker, who also plays keyboards and saxophone. KASE logically expands Breiwick’s creative ripples into exploring “sonic landscapes” – Miles ahead, atmospheric, wonder-inducing.

The cassette cover of “KASE + Klassik Live at the Opera House,” designed by Jamie Breiwick. Courtesy B-Side Graphics

Breiwick’s recorded and group projects have probed ground-breaking jazzers, including Davis, Thelonious Monk, Ornette Coleman, and world-music traveler Don Cherry. He’s also played and recorded transcribed Davis solos for two Hal Leonard play-along books, among six various he’s recorded.  He values innovative contemporaries like Jason Moran, Ambrose Akinmusire and Nicholas Payton, “an incredible trumpet player and musical conceptualist,” and “a thought leader and outspoken BAM (Black American Music) advocate.” He also teaches music at Prairie School, near Racine. How good is Breiwick teaching music? In 2013, he was nominated for the first-ever Grammy Music Educator Award, selected as one of 200 semi-finalists among over 30,000 nominees.

The cover of The Jewel: Live at the Dead Poet.

Shortly before the pandemic, Breiwick recorded The Jewel: Live at the Dead Poet, a New York trio recording on the leading independent label Ropeadope, with internationally acclaimed drummer-bandleader Matt Wilson, thus extending his national modern-jazz bona fides.

Breiwick plays a live date (here and in photo at top) with renowned drummer Matt Wilson and bassist John Tate.

Breiwick leaves popular success largely to his evolution and artistic authenticity.

“I think it is all in the delivery – people can tell if you are sincere or not. I try to create music and art that I would like myself and try not to be too corny or contrived, while at the same time recognizing my influences. What did Coltrane say? ‘You can play a shoestring if you are sincere,’ I think that is perfect.”

But he knows jazz musicians always need help in America’s capitalist society. Today they can increasingly help each other with online resources. In 2010, Breiwick co-founded Milwaukee Jazz Vision, an online organization that promotes jazz and its community in the Milwaukee area.

His visual-designer talents suggest deeper creative destinations. “It is a similar path of discovery. Visual art and music relate in so many ways – texture, structure, organization, color, tone. Five or six of my favorite designers are also musicians. There’s some sort of elemental connection between the two disciplines…Miles Davis was an incredible painter. Jean-Michel Basquiat deeply loved music and often used musical imagery or references such as Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie in his works.”

Perhaps his most daring recent recording is Solve for X, duets with a longtime collaborator. Guitarist-synthesist Jay Mollerskov took samples of Breiwick’s own trumpet solos, to create sonic counterpoints and textural backdrops for Breiwick to play against. It works like a musical mosaic – outward refracting, rather than narcissistic. That’s because Breiwick knows of whence he came, as a trumpeter and creator.

“I’m inspired by a lot of things, all sorts of music, visual art, architecture, history, stories, traveling,” he says. “I am just trying to better find out who I am, and ultimately just trying to keep moving forward.”

“Like (trumpeter) Clark Terry said, ‘Emulate, assimilate, innovate.’”

So, Breiwick’s self-discovery proceeds. As to forward progress, only time, his seemingly ever-expanding wave, will tell.

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This article was originally published in slightly shorter form in the May 2022 print magazine edition of The Shepherd Express, available free at many locations around Milwaukee County.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here’s the results of an International Critics Music Poll, with Kevernacular’s contribution

Chicago Trumpeter Amir ElSaffar and his Rivers of Sound Orchestra, pictured above, produced my choice for jazz album of the year. Photo by Tom Beetz. 

Yes, but what were the best of the year, and what does all that add up to?

Here’s one man’s opinion.*

I participated in the 14th Annual International Critics Poll of El Intruso, the Spanish publication dedicated to jazz, experimental and creative music. I have included the results of the NPR critics poll here in recent years. But for a change of perspective, it’s interesting to see what critics from all around the world come up with, as the best of the year (see entire international poll link at bottom).

Special mention: The documentary film Summer of Soul, directed by The Roots drummer Questlove, captures the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, which reportedly drew 300,000, but got little fanfare, elsewhere. This provided the best new film soundtrack. Nina Simone, B.B. King, the 5th Dimension, the Staple Singers, and more. Here’s info on it  https://pitchfork.com/news/summer-of-soul-soundtrack-release-announced/ 

The international poll does not ask for top 10 album lists, I will list my choices of best albums of the year for the NPR poll:

Best Jazz Albums for 2021 NPR Critics Poll

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1. Amir ElSaffar Rivers of Sound OrchestraThe Other Side (Out Note) This was the surprise of the year. I didn’t expect ElSaffar do a big band and a very unconventional pan-cultural creature. But this is actually their second recording and a rare symbiosis emerges, beautifully conceived and executed. Yet one must set aside preconceptions of what a jazz orchestra should sound like. He’s a Chicagoan but has deeply investigated his Iranian roots and allowed the bitonal modalities to flourish like an exotic garden.

2. Charles Lloyd and the MarvelsTone Poem (Blue Note) Tenor sax guru Lloyd and his stylistically elastic quintet, with simpatico guitar innovator Bill Frisell, lays his ineffable touch on Ornette Coleman, Thelonious Monk, Leonard Cohen and Gabor Zsabo, a concoction enfolded with a few worthy originals.

3.. Anthony Braxton2 Comp (Zim) 2017 (firehouse) _- One of the true geniuses and intrepid and prolific visionaries of the music called jazz or Black music (or what Braxton calls “Language Music” or “Holistic Modeling Musics”) surfaces again with a stimulating 12 hours of original music packed into a single Blue-Ray disc. Rediscover Braxton’s uncannily self-generated world of music, or take the plunge — into this transformative experience of creative possibility.

4. Johannes WallmannElegy for Undiscovered Species (Shifting Paradigm) — Another masterful statement from the Madison-based pianist-composer, who shows how deftly he extends his compositional and conceptual palette to a chamber string orchestra. He spotlights two brilliant soloists for his jazz quintet with strings — Dayna Stevens, a limpidly inventive saxophonist whose plangent tone and superb phrasing almost mystically invoke Stan Getz. He also plays luminous EWI (electronic wind instrument). And trumpeter Ingrid Jensen has developed a deeply personal lyrical voice on her horn. Wallmann’s taut yet supple string writing remains always integral to the force of his expressive purpose, even in the surging romanticism of “Longing.” This elegy stirs the imagination (what species?) while deeply commenting on our global environmental malaise.

5. Lionel LouekeClose your Eyes (Sounderscore) Wow, what a brilliant guitarist he’s become, extending the modern, harmonically weighty tradition from Wes Montgomery. He has dazzling rhythmic acumen and plays with tension like a master basketball dribbler. This was his first full-album statement “in the tradition” as the compulsive original Braxton once did, and almost all his takes are meaty and revelatory. He got a bit too clever by crunching the closer, Trane’s “Naima,” which lost the tune’s arching, iridescent lyricism.

6. Marcin Wasilewski Trio — en Attendant — (ECM) With this sad news this year of Chick Corea’s passing, and of Keith Jarrett’s apparently disabling stroke, Marcin Wasilewski joins the conversation as a darkhorse for “greatest living (and active) jazz pianist, or perhaps “best jazz piano trio.” Here’s my review of this recording:

Is this the best? Marcin Wasilewski’s cutting-edge piano trio forges ahead

7. Frank Kimbrough –  Ancestors (Sunnyside) Another great recent loss among jazz pianists, Kimbrough enhanced the Maria Schneider’s Orchestra expansively harmonic sound paintings, and really stepped out in recent years with his profoundly delicious Monk’s Dreams box set, and a few marvelous recordings including this one, gracefully asserting his place as successor to his artistic ancestors.

GREAT NEW VIBES SECTION:

8. Simon Moullier TrioCountdown ((Fresh Sound New Talent) A virtuoso vibraphonist new to me dazzled in this deftly imaginative romp through a brilliant selection of modern standards (from Monk and Mingus to Kern and Porter, etc.). His monster chops stay pretty on course to compositional expression and illumination rather than detouring into mere showiness.

9. Joel Ross – Who Are You? (Blue Note) A vibrant (pun intended) quintet session led by vibraphonist Joel Ross, and certainly the best album of largely original music by a vibist I’ve heard in a number of years. It’s modern, straight-ahead jazz which shows how elastic the modern mainstream of the music form can get.

(See also honorable mention album “Marimba Maverick” by Mike Neumeyer,)

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10.. Noah Haidu – Slowly: Song for Keith Jarrett (Sunnyside) An eloquent and moving tribute to Jarrett, One of the most esteemed and influential pianists of his generation, and in light of the stroke which may have permanently ended Jarrett’s performing and recording career. Pianist Haidu has the chops, sensitivity and gravitas to pull this tribute off.

Honorable Mention: Miguel Zenon — Law Years: The Music of Ornette Coleman (Bandcamp), Stephanie Niles – I Pledge Allegiance to the Flag – The White Flag (Sunnyside)?  Roberto Magris & Eric Hochberg – Shuffling Ivories (JMood), Jamie Breiwick The Jewel (Live at the Dead Poet) (Ropeadope), Silent Room (Enzo Carniel and Filipo Vignato) – Aria (Menace), Craig Taborn – Shadow Plays (ECM), Mike Neumeyer – Marimba Maverick (Voirimba), Marc Cary — Life Lessons (Sessionheads United) Craig Taborn – Shadow Plays (ECM)

Best Historical Albums

John ColtraneA Love Supreme: Live in Seattle (Impulse)

Bill Evans — Behind the Dikes (Elemental)

Roy BrooksUnderstanding (Reel to Real)

 

Best Latin Jazz Album

Miguel Zenon and Luis PerdomoEl arte Del Bolero

Best Jazz Vocal Album  

Mary LaRoseOut Here (Little i Music)

 

Best Debut Album

Kazemde GeorgeI Insist (Greenleaf)

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Kevernacular’s ballot for El Intruso – 14th Annual International Critics Poll ballot for 2021 (see link to the poll below)

musician of the year – Miguel Zenon, Amir ElSaffar

newcomer musician – Kazemde George (saxophone)

group of the year –  Charles Lloyd & The Marvels, Emile Parisien Sextet

newcomer group – Silent Room (Enzo Carniel/Filippo Vignato duo)

album of the year — Amir ElSaffar Rivers of Sound OrchestraThe Other Side (Out Note); Charles Lloyd and the MarvelsTone Poem, Emile ParisienLouise (ACT); Lionel LouekeClose Your Eyes (Sounderscore)

composer – Amir ElSaffar, Anthony Braxton, Johannes Wallmann

drums – Brian Blade, Joe Chambers, Nasheet Waits

acoustic bass – Buster Williams, Christian McBride, Reuben Rogers

electric bass – Steve Swallow

guitar – Lionel Loueke, Mary Halvorsen, Miles Ozaki

piano – Chick Corea, Vijay Iyer, Marcin Wasilewski

keyboard/synthesizer/organ – Lonnie Smith

tenor saxophone – Charles Lloyd, Chris Potter, Joe Lovano

alto saxophone – Miguel Zenon, Jim Snidero, Kenny Garrett

baritone saxophone – Gary Smulyan

soprano saxophone – Emile Parisien, Isaiah Collier

trumpet/Cornet – Wadada Leo Smith, Brian Lynch, Dave Douglas

clarinet/bass clarinet – Anat Cohen, Jeff Lederer

trombone – Gianluca Petrella, Filippo Vignato

flute – Nicole Mitchell

violin/Viola

cello – Hank Roberts

vibraphone – Simon Moullier, Joel Ross, Mike Neumeyer

electronics — Marc Cary

other instruments

female vocals – Cecile McLorin Salvant, Stephanie Niles, Mary LaRose

male vocals – Kurt Elling

label of the year — Sunnyside

Here’s a link to the El Intruso International Critics Poll:

Encuesta 2021 – Periodistas Internacionales

 

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  • Alas, I didn’t hear but one cut of Song for Billie Holiday by Wada Leo Smith, Vijay Iyer and Jack DeJohnnette, which I regret, and most likely a high top-tenner.

Kevin Lynch, The Shepherd Express, Culture Currents (Vernaculars Speak), nodepression.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trumpeter Brian Lynch (left) auditions music with another student in the Wisconsin Conservatory listening room in the early 1980s. Lynch’s auspicious career has since included two Grammy Awards. Courtesy Joey Grihalva and WCM. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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