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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Milwaukee’s Riverwest is Restless and Alive

Linneman's

“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/

Jim Glynn, Restless Seeker, Part 2

 

Ed. note, This “Jim Glynn Part 2,” was accidentally posted a few days ago, even though obviously unfinished. I discovered that belately, after being out of town. Thanks for the generous “likes,” but here is the finished post. 

It was gratifying, but no great surprise, that many people responded to my last Culture Currents posting, with a vast array of comments and stories and appreciation of the late Jim Glynn. I now realize I can’t leave this subject at that. I need to add more to this man’s story and legacy, in my small way. Thus, this follow-up blog post.

What dawned on me today was about what Jim signified and how he functioned in our lives, meaning those who knew and were truly touched by him. In retrospect, it seems that for me, and I suspect a number of our other people, that this extraordinary Irishman may have been his own sort of “guru.” I believe he came to his wisdom the hard way, as perhaps most wisdom arrives, through the extraordinary trials, suffering and indignities that his paraplegia visited upon him over the course of most of his adult life.

I never really thought of him that way when he was alive, and I realize the “guru” notion may prompt a few eye rolls, but I doubt much among those who knew the man. Thinking back, I always felt somewhat blessed by his presence, and inspired, and perhaps, if I was lucky, even enlightened a bit by the restless seeker in him, in all its manifestations, towards what I recently called “enlightened serenity.”

This got me to thinking about a book I own and cherish, written by perhaps the most brilliant teacher I have ever had: Professor Ihab Hassan, an acclaimed literary critic, whom I had the privilege to study with in a graduate English lit seminar at UW-Milwaukee in the mid-1980s. And the notion of Jim’s seeking, or his quest in life — quiet as it may have seemed — led me back to Hassan’s superb book Selves at Risk: Patterns of Quest in Contemporary American Letters.

I also thought part of Hassan’s rather poetic rigor (no oxymoron with him) and perspective came from being an Egyptian, emigrated to America at age 20, then specializing in American literature (His 1961 book Radical Innocence: The Contemporary American Novel, made his name in the literary world). Jim responded to the culture and wisdoms of the East, and Egypt is perhaps the most mystical (as in Eastern, more than Arabic) of Middle Eastern cultures.

In his introduction, Hassan characterizes “the seeker” he is trying to illuminate in his book, and, the more I recall Jim and his spirit, the more I feel that he was something of the kind of seeker Hassan contemplates and investigates in his book. I will quote from it:

“The seeker, as I hope to show, has many faces. But he is not characterless or faceless. He is certainly self-reliant, tolerant of risk. He is mobile. He seeks a meaning, even if danger must attend his pursuit; he intuits that individuals need and consume meanings far more than products. And he suspects that the sacred…camouflages itself in that pursuit…he disdains vicarious jeopardy, pseudo-risks, packaged by prurient media or proffered by amusement parks. He knows unreal America. He knows, therefore that in venturous quests he may recover reality, constitute significance, maintain his vigor, all in those privileged moments of being when life vouchsafes its most secret rewards (my italics). Is this not the whole sense of Emersonian experience?” 1

This photo illustrates how Jim Glynn could transform risk into reward with quick, deft wit and charm. I believe he had double-parked in Chicago’s Loop with some friends and, sure enough, the cops pulled up. Jim swiftly disarmed them (not literally) and, before we knew it, he’d “borrowed” their squad car for this crazy scene! Jim’s in the car at right, in his psychedelic shirt, wearing a Chicago cop’s hat, with our bemused friend Mitch (Mitar) Covic, to Jim’s left. The woman below was Jim’s current girlfriend (name escapes me) and the two to the far left were Jim’s friends who I didn’t really know. Photo by Kevin Lynch

Hassan’s characterization of an American archetype (especially that which I italicize), seems to fit Jim Glynn perfectly. As my first post indicated, he was amazingly mobile, despite his paraplegia and, man, did he seek meaning more than products (musical recordings aside), even despite danger.

His questing was largely manifest culturally, beyond good friends and acquaintances (“brothers and “sisters”) through his long-time radio show’s expansively “out there” musical variety: Not simply esoteric, but capable of gracefully bringing back in the general listener by integrating popular, or at least vernacular music, of many sorts. Few disk jockeys I’ve heard did this as well. Not even the great Milwaukee DJ Ron Cuzner, to compare another jazz-oriented programmer, who really “limited” himself to jazz. WMSE today still does have some arguably comparable like “Tom Wanderer” or Paul Cebar, and to a degree “Dr. Sushi,” for those with strong jazz tastes. WUWM’s Bob Reitman remains great, but with largely a ’60s-’70s throwback show.

Clearly Jim’s questing, and ability, to swim across mile-wide and unpredictable Elkhart Lake with arms, signifies that quest. This swim was beyond my ability, by contrast to a few more-capable swimmer/amigos, like Harvey Taylor, Tom Truel, Heiko Eggers, and perhaps Tim Reichart, at a genuine level of physical danger and risk. Truel admits he needed professional scuba fins to “pull this off” with Jim, and just barely.

Truel’s generous and detailed e-mail response to me, a remembrance/tribute of it’s own, underscores what I’m driving at here.

Time, as Tom notes, was a profoundly relative term in Jim’s seemingly timeless quest” Tom writes:.

“I call it ‘Jimmy Glynn Time’. You might get together with Jim for a swim day and to truly enjoy it, one needed to clear the calendar for the day. ‘We will leave at 10AM from my house.’, would become 11 or 11:30. Time was never wasted. Many preparations. Plenty of yuks (eg. see photo above) and endless chat of music, great women and sacred herb. Not a boring delay to say the least, as long as one made no plans for the day and if you knew what you were getting into — no plans were made. With Jim –‘The Journey Was The Adventure’.”
(I’ll add that Jim wasn’t above transgression. I know that he drove his car many times under the influence of herb. Illegal yes, but, as with most comparative aspects of herb consumption, I consider that far less dangerous than drunken driving. Also, in his early radio years at WUWM, Jim would invite friends to the studio during his late night show, and everyone would partake of the “sacred herb,” whether toking or “indirectly,” amid the celestial cloud-offering to the bodiless goddess Mary Jane, suffusing the studio on high.)
Then, Tom Truel recalls: “(Jim, the DJ, is getting ready to play Dylan’s “Time Out Of Mind” in its entirety, one of his favorites, to set the mood and leave a clue in regard to shadow elements as well.)”

So I’m trying to work my way out of the “shadow elements” before they recede too far into the mists of time, or transcendence?

Another even more dramatic example of Jim’s seeking, regardless of danger, may have led directly to the accident that disabled him. I’m going to speculate here a bit, as Jim never told me the full details of the accident in any self-dramatizing or aggrandizing way. But consider the very fact that he was driving a Jeep (still infamously unsafe vehicles in the 1960s) through the Alps on a trip from Germany to France. Perhaps it was a personal trip but more likely military duty which, as a soldier, he would probably have volunteered for — given the risk and isolated, extended nature of it.

There was GI Jim Glynn, in the process attaining the sort of ultimate natural high he would strive to later simulate, or somewhat achieve, through exploratory creative music, simpatico friendship and marijuana. And then, in a sudden fated instant, he was tumbling, but also flying, through the air, in the mountains. This recalls a great Herman Melville notion of “a Catskill eagle in some souls” 3

Or, less exaltedly, Townes Van Zandt’s simpler image of “to live’s to fly, both low and high,” in his masterful song, “To Live’s to Fly.”

The last two-part chapter of Jim Glynn’s life-mission, finally was to leave Milwaukee — the city where many people loved him to varying degrees and to which he’d given so much — and embark on a late-life quest, by himself. He said he felt this city had grown stale for him. To the shock of many friends, he moved to Portland, Oregon, while a paraplegic in his early 60s.

It all soon fell apart. A “friend” who helped Jim move in, then ripped off a couple of boxes of “personal papers,” Jim said, which really had little value except to Jim himself.

He did some radio shows for the local Portland community station and the NPR outlet. Then one day he fell, probably on a rainy Portland street, and broke his leg, and found himself laid up with a large cast for quite a while.

Then he was diagnosed with bladder cancer, possibly the result of his constant need for a catheter, and being out there without a girlfriend/caretaker his hygiene likely suffered. .To say the least, Jim never really found his mojo in Portland.

Another person who addressed his quest was writer Doug Hissom, in his excellent 2004 Shepherd Express feature on Jim when he returned home. Hissom opens simply and directly, “Jim Glynn has come home to die.” He’d found the Portland jazz scene amazingly similar to Milwaukee,  “I found that jazz has a precarious toehold these days. To my horror. The extensive music scene (in Portland) Is aimed at people under 25.”

Yet, amid loneliness in the Northwest, his painful seeking earned wisdom and serenity. “I suddenly found myself a man without a country. I just realized one day, that yeah, it’s time to come back for my people. Where my roots are. It’s just time to come back to Milwaukee.

“They say you can’t come home again and some of that is right. But my rhythm’s gotten back. I’ve got back into a natural rhythm

“It’s the Zen feeling and Zen quality in Milwaukee where you can move at what I thought was a slow pace before, but now it’s about right.” Hissom writes that Jim was going to try to get back on the radio and spend some time in the clubs. “It’s like a whole world opened up to me when I came back,” Jim continued.

Then he told Hissom the same thing he said to me. “I really don’t know how much time I have. They say I’m really sick, but I don’t act sick. They told me today it’s a short time, maybe. But I’ve no idea.”

Hissom’s article ran in the Shepherd Express September 30-October 6, 2004 edition. Now, please note the photograph of Jim (at the top) from his memorial brochure. The photo was taken October 2, and there he is, with his rhythm back, paradiddling his conga drum, at a jam in a club.

On October 18, Jim took his restless quest for enlightened serenity out, to the greatest unknown of all.

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  1. Ihab Hassan, Selves at Risk: Patterns of Quest in Contemporary American Letters, University of Wisconsin Press, 1990, 13
  2. ““There is a wisdom that is woe; but there is a woe that is madness. And there is a Catskill eagle in some souls that can alike dive down into the blackest gorges, and soar out of them again and become invisible in the sunny spaces. And even if he forever flies within the gorge, that gorge is in the mountains; so that even in his lowest swoop the mountain eagle is still higher than the other birds upon the plain, even though they soar.” — Herman Melville, Chapter 96, “The Try-Works,” Moby-Dick.

 

 

I remember “Dirty” Jack Covert, a man who could sell you any record and you’d almost always be thankful

 

Jack Covert, in 2017,  when he retired from his successful career in the book business, after a memorable start as a small Milwaukee record store owner. Courtesy onmilwaukee.com.

Dirty Jack hit the dirt hard, for the last time. It may be the last time, but I don’t know a music fan who dug deeper into music as a record buyer, and into album warehouses and personal collections, as an eager buyer-seller. Dan Burr’s Crumb-esque cartoon strip (below) illustrates that Jack Covert well, (taken from the linked obit by Dave Luhrssen of The Shepherd Express:)

Jack Covert obit

I’m a bit late in acknowledging Jack, but last week I was distracted by writing about the death of Nanci Griffith, another great person who fit into the popular music world in her own slightly square-peg-in-a-round-hole way.

Dirty Jack’s Record Rack, on Farwell and Irving, was my favorite record store in my youth, even though I ended up becoming an album buyer at Radio Doctor’s Soul Shop and Peaches Records. 1

But in the early ‘70s, Jack’s Rack was closer to my Downer Avenue family home during college at UWM, even during my early years working at Radio Doctors. And Jack’s always had plenty of jazz in stock as well as rock, as Jack’s tastes leaned jazz-wise, as did mine. Plus, his hole-in-the-wall shop was THE PLACE for hole-in-the-corner “cut-out” LPs, a dream for a collection builder’s on a budget. 2.

And Jack knew how to buy and sell. I remember Jack several times almost physically escorting me to the cash register with an album I was unsure about. He also wasn’t shy about letting his crankiness show right in the store and, with that Snidely Whiplash mustache, you shoulda been a bit suspicious of this guy (see the snapshot photo in Dave’s obit piece). Yet I almost always was thankful he sold me.

Dan Burr’s affectionate cartoon history of Dirty Jack’s Record Rack. The store staff members in the last panel, below Jack, are (L-R) Ed Heinzelman,* album buyer Terry Wachsmuth, Mark Schneider and Chris Ballone. Courtesy Dan Burr and Shepherd Express.

Take a look at the smile in the photo at top, taken when he retired. Back in the day, Jack would jump on you, then flash that I’m-your-pal-with-three aces smile, whenever he and you needed it.

And how many record stores in the 1970s had custom marketing matches, with the owner’s beaming mug on them, proclaiming it “Cut-Out Capital of the World!” ?

 

Courtesy ebay.com

His second-in-command at the Rack was a slightly-built long-hair named Terry, who had a bit of Jack’s crankiness, in a more skittish way. But Terry really knew his stuff, as did Mark Schneider, the friendliest Jack’s employee, in my memory. Mark wore his erudition gracefully. Today the San Francisco-based Schneider —  married to my former Milwaukee Journal colleague, rock critic Divina Infusino – comes to mind when I see Steve Earle’s guitarist Chris Masterson, who’s grown into a killer axe wielder since I last heard him live. Masterson, like Mark, has an affable personality and the same sort of long, ultra-blonde hair, and glasses. 1

I digress partly because I know Jack was a smart businessman who really valued and knew how to use his best employees. I think Mark would agree.

I also admit my comparisons of record store personnel to pop music artists may seem a bit over-the-top. But it’s something that I think Rob Fleming might nod his head to. He’s the slightly grandiose fictional owner of the record store in Nick Hornby’s wonderful novel High Fidelity, a comparison to Dirty Jack’s which Dave Luhrssen also makes aptly. I don’t think Jack or any of his guys floated through the sort of confused romanticism as does Rob (played by John Cusack in the hit film version). They knew how to channel their romantic impulses into music passions.

I had moved to Madison by the time Jack was hired at Schwartz Booksellers so I didn’t see him succeed as founder and president of 800-CEO-READ, a company that steered through the challenge from big box bookstores like Borders and Barnes & Noble and the rise of amazon.com “with ingenuity and a commitment to superior customer service for authors, customers, and the publishing houses themselves,” as the company’s press release on Covert’s death explains.

Jack Covert is also the co-author of 100 Best Business Books of All Time: What They Say, Why They Matter, and How They Can Help You (Link). The 100 Best has been translated into over 10 languages and the hardcover sold over 40,000 copies.

I’m still an “any-day-now-it-shall-be-released” author, but maybe Jack and I connected a bit because he also turned out to be something of a journalist. He wrote more than 600 monthly Jack Covert Selects business book recommendations that run in newspapers and business journals across the country, and has been featured on CNN and NPR, in Inc. magazine, Fortune, the Harvard Business ReviewWashington PostNew York PostBusinessWeek, and more.

That’s dealing in the big time. Not everyone in “big” business is a crooked wheeler-dealer. At this point, I’ll make no more personality comparisons to famous people.

Yes, Jack Covert had the smarts and personality, and always knew how to sell his stuff. I’m sure that mustachioed smile and those crafty ways are serving him well with Saint Pete at The Pearly Gates.

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  • Thanks to Dirty Jack’s staffer Ed Heinzelman for background information.

1 Unlike Mark Schneider, Masterson may actually be albino, like his fellow guitar gunslinger Johnny Winter. But Masterson was tearing up “Hey Joe,” with Steve Earle at an even nastier pitch than on a 2017 video available on YouTube. I saw Earle and Masterson do that great murder ballad as an encore recently at Big Top Chautauqua in Bayfield, Wisconsin.

2. Cut-outs are out-of-print records, typically with a hole punched in the corner of an LP, or a mark obscuring the normal USBN scan bar. I suspect Jack Covert would later know very well how to find and market out-of-print books in a similar fashion.

 

How has capitalism worked out for you? Socialism is not a dirty word. Even less so is democratic socialism.

If a political novice like Donald Trump can become president, why not give a political novice, like New York Senate primary winner Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez –  with the energy, sharp intellect and vision of youth – a chance to apply her ideas about democratic socialism? We are, after all, a democratic society. Medium

Perhaps the most naked and time-worn example of American “anti-intellectualism” is the demonizing of the word “socialism.” Even some educated and seemingly thoughtful people instinctively react as if even the scent of socialism robs them of their precious liberties.

But the freedom capitalism promises – and now delivers so pathetically to “we the people” – is to empower or enrich persons or corporations in isolation, leaving distribution of wealth up to the enriched.

Yet in the United States, a person is almost invariably part of some community, if they admit it or not. Even a hard-working farmer, living perhaps a mile away from a neighbor, is sorely dependent on an economic system that runs fairly to compensate and support his labors. This means that a socio-economic system that balances the needs of individuals, as opposed to greedy wants, with the needs of the community makes sense. Why? Because trickle-down theories of capitalism rarely actually deliver to the people, whereas a social-minded system strives to assure the individual gets back something from the communal system.

I think a more socialist-oriented America can help redirect appropriate percentages of taxes on the rich, help close the terrible income equality gap, and stimulate the economy with greater consumer-spending power. Democratic socialism can co-exist with our capitalist system, in a dialectical tension, a check and balance, if citizens and our leaders do their jobs.

Bret Stevens, a conservative New York Times opinion columnist, reacted recently with condescending, patriarchal tone to the win of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a 28-year-old newcomer to politics who beat out an old Democratic Party insider, Joseph Crowley, in New York’s senatorial primary, and who has captured the imagination of a lot of America. She’s a self-described “social democrat.”

Stevens then trots out examples of how a few socialist governments in Mexico and South Africa have been corrupted. In Europe, democracies have consistently strengthened or formed since World War II, based on socialist principles. But their current struggles with reactionary politics are due to mainly to massive refugee flight from wars elsewhere. The problem isn’t the democratic socialism of, for example, Germany where, despite her challenges, chancellor Angela Merkel is now, in effect, the leader of the free world, now that President Trump his virtually abdicated such a role, with his anti-allies and pro-dictatorial perversities.

His disgraceful post-Summit press conference performance beside Vladimir Putin in Helsinki on Monday is only the latest (and perhaps the worst) example.

It’s true that any political system can be corrupted. That is why democracy can never be a spectator sport, and part of the people’s role is remain vigilant about keeping our politicians honest. And Mr. Stevens, what about the gross corruptions that capitalism has wrought, time after time after time? We live in one of the worst ever –  the reason why American people across much of the political spectrum want meaningful change, not the same old same old. 1

More in America’s societal key, Stevens sings the grindingly tired “left-center-right” song that has not an ounce of intellectual creativity in it:

“If Trump is the new Nixon, the right way to oppose him isn’t to summon the ghost of George McGovern. Try some version of Bill Clinton (minus the grossness) for a change: working-class affect, middle-class politics, upper-class aspirations.” 

First of all, Trump is proving far worse than Nixon, who at least had intelligence for political and policy nuance, and a sense of shame. And Nixon actually accomplished some policies that provided ordinary people social and economic benefit, unlike anything Trump has done. And summoning “the ghost of George McGovern” is lamely poking at a straw man.

As for what we should agree on, we do need finally “working-class affect, middle-class politics,” and even “upper-class aspirations.” Those are all things that a well-run government that functions for general societal benefit can provide, with good faith and creative collaboration. You might notice how Stevens’ historical cherry-picking ignores the historic elephant in the room, the most relevant history in modern America. Of course, that’s Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, which produced the most successful and extended period of across-the-board prosperity in American history.

As John Nichols points out in his history of American socialism, Roosevelt “drew inspiration from the platforms of the Socialist party that (Eugene) Debs handed off to Norman Thomas. But Roosevelt, a lifelong reader of (Thomas) Paine quoted the pamphleteer’s fireside chats (‘So spoke Americans in the year 1776. So speak Americans today!’) borrowed at least as much from the distant revolutionary’s canon.” 2

We know that when social-minded policy is put on the table, conservatives often start bleating about profligate hand-outs to the needy. However, thinking of American farmers, Thomas Paine wrote in his pamphlet “Agrarian Justice”:

“But it is justice, and not charity, that is the principle of the plan. In all great cases it is necessary to have a principle more universally active than charity; and with respect to justice, it ought not to be left the choice of detached individuals whether they will do justice or not… It ought to be the act of the whole growing spontaneously out of the principles of the revolution, and the reputation of it ought to be national and not individual.” 3

I want to draw an arc from Thomas Paine to the New Deal more pointedly, to one of the most explicitly acclaimed examples of socialist success in American history – in Milwaukee – which Nichols details in his book. But it was a column on this very topic this week by Shepherd Express writer Joel McNally which actually inspired this blog.

The longtime journalist has also taught a class on urban history of Milwaukee at UW-Milwaukee. His column notes the swelling energy and activism begat by Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign, and concisely delineates how the three consecutive Socialist mayors of Milwaukee, from 1910 to the 1960s, succeeded.

McNally explains that “there is a reason why young activists don’t consider socialism to be a scary word. They’re well-educated.” McNally then demarcates a history he taught his students, about what he calls “Milwaukee’s Socialist example.” The city’s three socialist mayors over that time were Emile Seidel (1910-1912); Daniel Hoan (1916-1940); and Frank Zeidler (1948-1960). The first, Seidel, helped clean up Mayor David Rose’s corrupt government, and Zeidler lives on as far more than a historical entity to those old enough to have witnessed his successful mayoral terms.

“But it was Hoan – the crusading socialist city attorney left standing after the 1912 purge of socialists who was elected mayor in 1916 and held the office for the next 24 years – who defined lasting contributions of Democratic Socialists to democracy itself,” McNally writes.

Socialist Milwaukee Mayor Daniel Hoan on the cover of TIME magazine in 1936. Courtesy TIME

Daniel Hoan was so successful with a socialist Milwaukee government that he was “recognized nationally for its sound financial management while expanding public employment for those out of work.” The New York Times praised Hoan in December 1931, two years after the stock market crash of 1929, for paying its bills, delivering unemployment relief to hundreds of thousands, “and at the end of the year will have about $ 4 million in the bank.”

And TIME magazine, run by conservative Republican publisher Henry Luce, put Hoan on its cover in April 1936, reporting: “Under him, Milwaukee has become perhaps the best-governed city in the US.”

McNally then describes how, despite The Democratic Party’s successful undermining of The Socialist Party, Democrat Franklin Roosevelt  “used public employment, unemployment benefits and other social safety net programs to pull the nation out of the Great Depression and become the most popular president in history.”
Lyndon Johnson’s Medicare and Medicaid,  Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act similarly are socialist programs, McNally notes.

“It’s as American as apple pie to elect a bright, new generation of Democratic Socialists. They’re fighting to preserve the American ideal of sharing the economic benefits of democracy with everyone, not just the wealthy.” 4

And we’re likely better off with more women public servants, like Ocasio-Cortez, baking America’s apple pie, because they’re often more skilled and experienced in the societal kitchen than men, and know how to slice and distribute the pies, to Make America Socially Equitable Again. How great would that America be?

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1 Bret Stevens,

“Democratic Socialism is Dem Doom,” https://www.nytimes.com/2018/07/06/opinion/democratic-socialism-alexandria-ocasio-cortez.html, The New York Times, July 6, 2018

2. John Nichols, The “S” Word: A Short History of an American Tradition… Socialism, Verso, 2011, 46

3. Nichols, quoting Thomas Paine in The “S” Word: A Short History of an American Tradition… Socialism, 50

4. Joel McNally, Democratic Socialists Aren’t Demons; They’re Just Energized Democrats, The Shepherd Express, July 12-18, p. 10, 2018