‘Milwaukee Jazz’ author Joey Grihalva discusses the past and present of Milwaukee jazz

‘Milwaukee Jazz’ author Joey Grihalva discusses the past and present of Milwaukee jazz

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Although Milwaukee has never been famous for jazz, the city has a surprisingly rich jazz heritage, albeit one that hasn’t been well-documented. That changed this month with the publication of Milwaukee journalist Joey Grihalva’s new book “Milwaukee Jazz,” a photographic chronicle of nearly 100 years of jazz in Milwaukee, featuring interviews with many of the city’s most prominent players, including the late Al Jarreau.

Grihalva will speak at Historic Milwaukee Inc. (235 E. Michigan Ave.) on Aug. 7 at 6 p.m. and the City.Net Jazz Cafe (306 E. Wisconsin Ave.) on Aug. 9 at 5 p.m. He’ll also be vending outside the Jazz Gallery during Center Street Daze on Saturday, Aug. 10. Ahead of those appearances, he chatted with Radio Milwaukee about the book, which began as a pair of articles he wrote for this site a few years back, and discussed the highs and lows of the Milwaukee jazz scene over the years, as well as how the story of Milwaukee jazz parallels the story of race in the city.

The “Jazz Old Timers” rehearse at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music. From left: Victor Campbell, Jimmy Colvin, Jabbo Smith (trumpet), Al Washington, Loretta Whyte.

What inspired you to write the book? 

The book began as an assignment from Tarik here at 88Nine when The Jazz Estate was reopening in 2016. He asked me to write a little something about Milwaukee jazz, but as is my prerogative, I dug my teeth in a little bit deeper than I maybe should have. I’ve always been interested in jazz, and during that time I was really immersed in the local music scene — contemporary. To take a look back at the history was a new challenge and it was really exciting to me. So I wrote a two part series for 88Nine’s website, which won an award at the Milwaukee Press Club awards and then got the attention of Arcadia Publishing. I had thought about, and people had mentioned to me, “Hey, maybe you turn this into an Arcadia book.” I was like, “I don’t know.” A history book seemed too straightforward. I’m more interested in sociology and cultural criticism and wanted to write something a little more complex. But, when they reached out and it became a real opportunity, I discussed it with members of the local jazz community and they were like, “Yeah, you should definitely do that, because that’s an artifact that will live on and preserve this history of ours and we would be really grateful for you that to do that.”

It seems like the history of the city’s jazz scene wasn’t well documented before. Is that safe to say? 

I would say so. With the exception of Bobby Tanzilo writing a few in depth pieces for OnMilwaukee and Jamie Breiwick’s archive on the Milwaukee Jazz Vision website. Outside of that, there hadn’t been a whole lot. I’m sure in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s archives they have history of the day to day ongoings of the Milwaukee jazz scene, but I didn’t have access to those archives. I feel like someone at the Journal could probably have done a book like this just based on those and using those pictures. But I had various sources that I drew from. The Wisconsin Black Historical Society was huge because they had the biggest collection of photos from the pre-1960s era. There was one photographer, her name is Aaronetta Anderson. She was a baseball and jazz aficionado and she was around the scene in the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s. Maybe not ’30s so much, but ’40s and ’50s for sure. When she passed a lot of her photos ended up at the Wisconsin Black Historical Society, so I had access to some of those. Then I was just gathering them from various individuals. The Wisconsin Conservatory of Music contributed a lot of photos. They play a huge role in the ’70s and ’80s “renaissance,” as I’m calling it in the book. 

The Bernie Young Creole Band

What was the biggest era for jazz in Milwaukee? 

The time when jazz was the most popular genre of music in America, and that’s ’20s, ’30s, ’40s. In the ’50s, rock and roll comes in and R&B comes in, so jazz is dethroned. Then it lives on the margins for a little while. As I just alluded to, in the ’70s there’s this resurgence in Milwaukee. A lot of the old guys who had been around — I mean, they weren’t that old in the ’70s, they were middle aged at that point — they were kids growing up in the heyday of jazz in the ’40s and ’50s. Manty Ellis and Berkeley Fudge, they became involved with this accredited jazz program at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music. It was the first of its kind in the country. It’s no longer an accredited degree program in jazz, but they still have a jazz department at the Conservatory. It was the founding of that program in 1971 at the Conservatory, the opening of the Jazz Gallery in 1978 on Center Street in Riverwest and then Buddy Montgomery moving to town. He was part of the Montgomery Brothers, and Wes Montgomery was a great guitar player. They’re an Indianapolis family, and Buddy fell in love with a Milwaukee gal whose father was connected. Businessman, I’ll say, owned a couple of clubs in town. Buddy immediately became a regular at a couple of different places in town. He had a very famous residency at the Marc Plaza Hotel, which is now Hilton City Center. It became a thing when big names were coming into play shows at the theaters, they would always stop by Buddy’s weekday set at the hotel. That became an incentive to go to Milwaukee. Buddy would play at the Jazz Gallery early in the day and he would give master classes to the Conservatory students. 

There was this really vibrant scene that was responding to disco being lame at the time. There was a lot of jazz-rock fusion also, which I alluded to very quickly in the book. I didn’t really get that story, it was more the straight ahead jazz stuff. There was a jazz rock fusion scene in Milwaukee in the ’70s and ’80s at the same time as this renaissance in straight ahead, bebop jazz that was going on. That was, from what I hear from the people who are still alive and who lived it, the most vibrant time. I didn’t get to talk to a lot of people who were alive in the ’30s and ’40s. From what Manty has told me and from what Al Jarreau has told me, when they were kids Walnut Street in Bronzeville was popping. There were a dozen clubs, you could go from club to club and hear music all night. If you were a young kid and you had an instrument you could go up to a player and be like, “Hey, can you teach me this and that,” they were just these informal mentorships. This is when jazz was the preeminent form of music. 

How does the city’s jazz scene now compare to how it was in the ’70s and ’80s? 

At that time you had disco coming in and you had rock and roll in full effect. Now, we have hip hop as the preeminent musical genre, and electronic music and all these other genres of music. Jazz has been pushed further and further to the periphery. But, as we’re seeing in 2019, genre is becoming fluid. A lot of different non-jazz related artists are incorporating jazz into their music. It’s getting a little more popular, and ebbs and flows as always. The scene is pretty healthy compared to other similarly sized cities. I hope that projects like this will give, or add, a sense of pride and show that there is a history to build upon. Let’s keep this legacy going. There are jazz shows regularly in Milwaukee and in 2015 or 2016 when I wrote the piece for 88Nine — originally it was a two part series, the history and then the contemporary resurgence — there really was a resurgence at that time. I don’t know if it’s sustained that level of notoriety, but there are still players killing it. Some people have left town, Jay Anderson being one of them. He splits his time between New Orleans and Milwaukee. He was a catalyst, no doubt, and he was a bridge between the jazz old guard and the contemporary music scene, incorporating jazz elements and just getting people out to jazz, and young people out to jazz shows who might not otherwise go. 

Everett Clark on piano, Bobby Burdett (first chair on the left), and others perform

It’s funny that so much can change in three years. You can go from having this mini boom to the period we’re in now where it seems like the jazz scene isn’t as visible as it was even just a few years ago. 

It’s the nature of scenes, music scenes in cities. As a reporter, it’s interesting to watch the ebbs and flows. 

What was it like interviewing Al Jarreau? 

Al Jarreau was fun. As soon as he answered the phone he started singing his college song from Ripon. He was a character. The most interesting thing about talking to him was that he didn’t remember the scene when he was an adult being that active, but he likened it to the L.A. jazz scene when he moved to L.A. in the ’80s. He didn’t feel like it was that vibrant at the time and he had some struggles getting shows regularly. In hindsight, now that he’s read some books and talked to some people who said, “Oh, we had a great jazz scene at that time.” Your recollection is so dependent on how well you’re doing and what circles you’re running in. 

When you watch the Ken Burns documentary about jazz, a lot of it is actually the story of race in America. What role does race play in Milwaukee’s jazz history? 

Like the role race played in the development of jazz in the country as a whole, it mirrored that in Milwaukee. Milwaukee being such a segregated city, jazz reflected that, but it also was an integrating force. In the ’40s and ’50s when black and white players did not play together on their formal gigs, they did play together at after hours clubs. Even as early as the ’30s, there was a white trumpet player from Ohio named Wild Bill Davidson. He’s got a spread in the book. He spent about 10 years in Milwaukee and he became a big name, then he moved to New York after Milwaukee. He would always make it a point to go to the jam sessions in Bronzeville. 

As we get closer to the civil rights era, there are jazz musicians, white jazz musicians, who are making it a point to incorporate black rhythm sections. You had George Pritchett, he’s an interesting character, kind of a loud mouth, hard partying guitar player from the South Side who mostly played in South Side clubs. His brothers had a club on the East Side which is now Landmark Lanes. He always made it a point to employ black rhythm sections. When Summerfest first came along, Siggy Millonzi, who was a white Italian piano player during that era of the ’60s and ’70s, he brought Manty Ellis and Berkeley Fudge on one of his first Summerfest gigs to make a point that, “Hey, I support civil rights, I support the integration and the jazz scene is behind it.” Before that, when Duke Ellington was playing at the Riverside Theater or at the Million Dollar Ballroom, what is now the Eagle’s ballroom, in the ’30s and ’40s, during the Big Band era, there were no black patrons allowed at those venues. I don’t know the exact history of the Eagles Ballroom, but for a long time it was an all white place. Duke Ellington would play there and he wouldn’t be able to stay at the hotels downtown, he would have to stay in Bronzeville at a room and board or just someone’s house. So, the racial dynamics of America at large were definitely played out in the jazz scene. Just because you were a star of jazz didn’t mean you were above segregation. 

You mentioned Summerfest in those early years. How much jazz did Summerfest host? 

Quite a lot. This was kind of right before that renaissance, leading up to it. The Miller Light Oasis as we know it today used to be the Miller Jazz Oasis. That stage was 100% dedicated to jazz and there’s a spread of it in the book. There’s a picture of the great Hattush Alexander onstage with a group and there’s some PBS cameras shooting that set. It was for a good decade. Cannonball Adderley played, I think, the first Summerfest. I had a picture of Lionel Hampton that I couldn’t include in the book because of the limitations of photos and whatnot, but there’s a great picture of Lionel Hampton playing at Summerfest there. There was quite a lot of jazz in that time. 

What’s striking about the local jazz scene right now is how depleted it is. Over the years the city has lost jazz festivals and jazz radio stations. Is there one thing you think Milwaukee’s jazz scene needs to help it rebuild?

Yes, and I think it would be a star. It would be someone who was making waves outside of the city. I think that’s true of any genre of music, and the scene as a whole. When you have those guiding lights, those shining examples, it lifts all boats, or at least pushes the boats to aspire to that sort of greatness instead of feeling like, we’ll never reach this level of notoriety and success because no one else has. A jazz star, someone like Kamasi Washington or Esperanza Spalding, those are two of the biggest contemporary names in jazz. They’ve inspired people from their towns, Kamasi being from L.A. I think we need somebody who is big, and we have that from the renaissance era. Brian Lynch, he came from the conservatory programs and he was playing at the Jazz Gallery in the ’70s and ’80s. He moved out to New York as a Grammy winner. People still look to Brian as an example of someone who made it big. So to have someone like Brian Lynch from today’s crop of jazz musicians would be a big deal. A lot of young jazz players are delving into other genres and contributing to hip hop projects. I know when Rory Ferreira, formerly Milo, was living in town, he was collaborating with jazz musicians from Milwaukee on his projects and his live shows. So there’s contributions like that and there are people like that. Just to see more of that, I would say. 

When you talk to a lot of musicians today, they feel like there’s a very low ceiling on them because they’re from Milwaukee. Did they used to feel that 40 years ago? Was there a sense that, there’s only so much we can do in this market? Or was there a belief that some of these guys could make it? 

I think the ceiling might have even been a little lower back then because New York, Chicago and New Orleans were so much more important then, pre-internet. Today, there are young guys who feel like they can make it staying in Milwaukee, even though they have aspirations to make it on a national or international level. People were aware that you had to get out to New York or San Francisco if you wanted to make it. That thread was similar.

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