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The beautiful and magical history of jazz in Milwaukee

Jazz in Milwaukee - Walnut Street Social Club Men's Band
(Courtesy of Mary Young/Paul Geenen)

(In this, the first of a two-part series, we explore the local history of jazz in Milwaukee. Coming in part two: The Present.) 

“Jazz music objectifies America,” says Wynton Marsalis in the opening of Ken Burns’ epic documentary series on jazz for PBS. “It’s an art form that can give us a painless way of understanding ourselves.”

“I could go to Milwaukee tomorrow and it’d be three musicians, I walk into a bar at 2:30 in the morning and say, ‘What you wanna play man?’ The four of us can have a dialogue, we can have a conversation, we can speak to each other in the language of music,” Marsalis continues.

What bar might Marsalis have walked into? And who might have been the musicians?

It turns out Milwaukee has a storied jazz history that dates back almost a century. Although the heyday of jazz in Milwaukee was the 1940s and 1950s, with a renaissance in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the scene is currently experiencing a resurgence.

Great players are moving back to the city, we have a renowned conservatory program, there’s a renewed interest among the younger generation, new venues are emerging, and the iconic Jazz Estate, under new ownership, will soon reopen.

Milwaukee was known as a music center well before jazz came to town. Between 1840 and 1860 there were orchestras in Milwaukee that could rival those on the East Coast. Around the turn of the century, daily opera performances were held in Schlitz Park.

By the 1910s the world was rapidly changing. There was the advent of flight, X-ray machines, Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalysis, Pablo Picasso’s cubist art, the first World War—and jazz music provided the soundtrack.

"Bronzeville" and the heyday of Milwaukee jazz

As jazz spread around the country, Chicago became a major hub and its talent pool began to spill over into Milwaukee. The first venue to offer jazz in Milwaukee was the Metropole in 1922. By the 1930s there was a sizeable scene of jazz players and clubs in town.

Though it wasn’t referred to as “Bronzeville” back in the day, the neighborhood between Brewer’s Hill/Halyard Park and Haymarket was the center of Milwaukee’s jazz district. Walnut Street was the epicenter, colloquially referred to as “the scene.” Local guitarist Manty Ellis, 83, remembers Walnut Street as a kid in the 1940s.

“At about 5:30 or 6 o’clock everybody vacated the playgrounds and went home,” Ellis says. “We would change clothes and by 6:30 or 7 o’clock everyone was on Walnut Street between 6th and 10th. You could go from club to club. We’d hang out all night. It was beautiful.”  

You could go from club to club. We’d hang out all night. It was beautiful. - Manty Ellis

At this point, there were around two dozen venues in Bronzeville that offered jazz several nights a week. Some of those included Max’s Tap, Moon Glow, The Flame, and Thelma’s Back Door. Ellis remembers the clientele was mostly African-American in some rooms, but mixed in many others, which were referred to as “Black and Tan” clubs.


There were also a number of downtown clubs like Curro’s, The Brass Rail, and the Circle Room, many owned and operated by organized crime. The big theaters in town hosted jazz performances as well. In 1939 Duke Ellington had a week-long stint at The Riverside Theater.

While African-Americans were allowed to perform at these venues, they weren’t allowed to patron downtown establishments. African-American performers also weren’t allowed to stay at the hotels downtown. Often they would sleep at someone’s home in Bronzeville.

Grammy-winning singer Al Jarreau, 76, recalls his childhood on the north side of Milwaukee.

“My friends and I would meet up and sing on the way to school,” says Jarreau. “I had a little quartet and we would sing doo-wop on the street, on the playground, and at Lapham Park. We weren’t getting paid, but we sure were singing like somebody was going to pay us.”

Jarreau left Milwaukee as a young man but has fond memories of the city.

“I came across some people in Milwaukee that changed my life. One of them was a guy named ‘Lazlo’ Czimber. He was from Hungary and came to Milwaukee running from the revolution that was going on at the time. This guy was a brilliant piano player. He took me under his wing and we sang at some very important dates together at the Pfister.”

The Pfister Hotel is one of the only places in Milwaukee that has continuously supported jazz music over the years. On October 8, Jarreau will return to town to receive a lifetime achievement award at The Pfister Hotel.

Unlike Jarreau, Manty Ellis never left Milwaukee and even opened his own music store, the Manty Ellis Music Center, on 1912 West Hampton Avenue.

“It was a retail shop but I had a little stage in there where I practiced. I held a few rehearsals in there. Before I knew it every big name musician in the country was up there when they came to town,” Ellis recalls.

“I had some of the best music come out of the store that you can’t even get recordings of. People like Freddie Hubbard, Frank Morgan, Eddie Harris, Sonny Stitt. I’m talking about the heavyweights. You might come up to the store and find George Benson sleeping on my couch.”

Ellis first met Herbie Hancock on a trip to Chicago to study with Milwaukee native Billy Wallace. Hancock was only eight or nine years old.

“He looked like Skippy from the funny papers. Little peanut head dude with horn-rimmed glasses. I asked Billy one day, ‘Who is that kid?’ He said, ‘Oh that’s little Herbie. He’s gonna be a good piano player someday.’”

A decade later Ellis and his wife were at Curro’s for Hancock’s professional debut. 

Other local jazz musicians of the era included Berkeley Fudge, Bunky Green, Willie Pickens, Frank DeMiles, and Lorette Whyte. Some went on to have illustrious careers in major markets, while others stayed home. Ellis remembers Dick Smith as one of the greatest drummers of all-time, who was known around the country but never left Milwaukee.

“Dick had a problem,” says Ellis. “He was ahead of his time. In the ‘40s he was playing the hard bop avant-garde stuff that Art Blakey later made famous.”

There was also Will Green, a blind organist who owned a TV shop. Green invented an instrument that wired bass pedals to an organ so they would sound like strings being plucked on a bass guitar, which he called the “T-Bass.”

Jabbo Smith was another infamous Milwaukee jazz musician. Unfortunately for Smith, he was a contemporary of Louis Armstrong. Even though his singing and playing was considered on par with Armstrong—if not better at times—Smith was labeled an imitation and ended up working at a rental car shop by the airport, though he had a brief comeback in the 1980s.

From the clubs to the classroom

In the 1960s urban renewal and expressway projects ripped through the heart of Bronzeville, breaking up the cluster of clubs and devastating local business.

As Milwaukee County Historical Society Associate Curator Benjamin Barbera writes in his thesis An Improvised World: Jazz and Community in Milwaukee, 1950-1970,

“Because of the spatial dislocation of the jazz clubs of the late 1960s and early 1970s the jazz landscape had become circumscribed, static, and undemocratic in that the spaces were no longer equally available to everyone.”

Jazz has always been an art form built on apprenticeship. Joe Oliver taught Louis Armstrong. Billy Wallace taught Herbie Hancock.

When Walnut Street was bustling any kid with a horn could go from club to club and try to impress the veterans, in hopes that someone might show them the ropes. That became less possible as the clubs were spread out and isolated.

Luckily, in 1971, Manty Ellis and Tony King founded the jazz studies program at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music (WCM).

“Tony King is like the genius of our time,” exclaims Ellis. “He was the most amazing person I’ve ever met in my life. Anything you wanted to talk about or ask him about, he could tell you. Music was his favorite subject. The guy was just blowing my head open with information about music and theory.”

It was King’s idea to start the jazz studies program at the WCM. King wrote the program with contributions from Ellis. It was quickly approved and attracted instructors from New York City and Chicago.

The WCM jazz ensembles swept competition events at the Elmhurst College and Notre Dame jazz festivals. One year the judges at Elmhurst included Dizzy Gillespie, among other well-known professionals. When it was time for the judges to perform, the festival tapped the WCM jazz ensembles’ rhythm section.  

Because of the WCM program, apprenticeships moved from informal friendships to a formal education setting. As a result, the demographics shifted from mostly African-American musicians to a more affluent, mostly white crop of students/players.

Renaissance in the 1970s and 1980s

The WCM jazz studies program contributed to the resurgence of Milwaukee’s jazz scene in the late 1970s and into the 1980s. Another factor was Chicago native Chuck LaPaglia opening the Milwaukee Jazz Gallery on East Center Street in September 1978.

The likes of Chet Baker, Art Blakey, Dizzy Gillespie, Stan Getz, Sonny Stitt, and Wynton Marsalis played the Jazz Gallery. One night at the Jazz Gallery comedian Bill Cosby sat in on drums with organist Jimmy Smith’s band.

LaPaglia also collaborated with Woodland Pattern Book Center on an avant-garde series that brought in The Chicago Art Ensemble and Sun Ra. Following the club’s six-year run, LaPaglia moved to Oakland and booked jazz acts at Yoshi’s, a world-renowned sushi bar and nightclub, which has an additional location in San Francisco.

During this time the Washington Park bandshell hosted the touring Kool Jazz Festival. Christopher Stawski, aka Dr. Sushi, is a local lawyer who has hosted a free form jazz program on 91.7 WMSE for 15 years called “Free Jazz BBQ.” He remembers seeing Ella Fitzgerald and the Dave Brubeck Quartet at Washington Park.

“I also saw Count Basie at a placed called The Melody Top. It was on 76th and Good Hope Road,” says Stawski. “They mostly held plays there. It was an outdoor venue. Basie played in a wheelchair. They’d wheel him out for two or three tunes, then wheel him back, and so on.”

Into the 21st Century

The Jazz Oasis on Holton and Meinecke was an important club from the 1970s to the 1990s. According to Manty Ellis, the Oasis is where the Marsalis brothers would play when they came to Milwaukee. Al Jarreau used to hang out there after performing in town. Caroline Spencer of Caroline’s Jazz Club in Walker’s Point pines for the days when touring musicians would mingle with locals.

“Everyone was accessible back then,” says Spencer. “I think there’s so much pressure in the music industry now that when people tour they have go back to the hotel and sleep because they have to fly out early in the morning. There’s not that interaction anymore.”

After-hours clubs played a major role in the social aspect of jazz music, especially when black musicians weren’t allowed in the downtown clubs. Following their official gigs white and black musicians would meet up in after-hours club, hang out and jam into the early hours of the morning. Art’s and Casablanca were among Milwaukee’s notorious after-hours clubs.  

Minette D. Wilson, aka Satin Doll, was a staple of the Milwaukee jazz scene. She was a dancer who got her start at The Flame and performed with Duke Ellington, among others. In 1977 she and her husband opened their own invite-only nightclub, Satin Doll’s Lounge, between 23rd and 24th Street on West Fond Du Lac Avenue.

The remnants of Satin Doll’s Lounge still stand today; a striking red, black and white facade with triangle patterns that I’ve driven past countless times on the way from my parents house in Sherman Park to downtown. I could only imagine what once took place inside those brick walls.

In a 2008 blog post, Talking Heads frontman David Byrne wrote about an after-hours visit to Satin Doll’s following a performance at The Pabst Theater.

“She wasn’t going to let us in at first, as someone across the street had called her and said, ‘There’s a white man taking a picture outside.’ That was me. She did let us in, however, and we had a round of drinks ... Someone had poisoned her dog, which was not good news,” wrote Byrne.

“The room was filled with Christmas decorations, faded photos of Doll with Duke and some more recent soul singers, stuffed animals and Milwaukee police patches. One door was labeled ‘Sleeping Room,’ which we guessed must be a place where customers who were too drunk to get home could sleep it off.”

In the 1990s a number of players from the heyday were still around. Connie Grauer of Milwaukee-based duo MRS. FUN moved to town in 1993. She fondly recalls conversations with older players during that time.

“My favorite residency was at Cafe Melange, which was inside the Hotel Wisconsin on 3rd and Wisconsin. It turned into a real scene, a destination. It could hold about 190 people. When we first came from Nashville there were maybe a half-dozen people and we built that room up to where it was almost at capacity every single Friday night.”

Cafe Melange was Milwaukee’s closest attempt at a 1930s-style cabaret, with “dim lighting, sponge-patterned walls, and tiny round tables with barely enough room for a candle and pair of martini glasses,” according to the Milwaukee Journal.

A handful of clubs continued to feature jazz in the 2000s, such as The Jazz Estate, Caroline’s, and The Baby Grand. Alverno Presents attracted international jazz acts and the Pabst Theater Group had a formal series. But the Great Recession had a major impact on live music. The Pabst’s series ended in 2009 and venues started to scale back.

“About 2010 it seemed like people were really tightening their belts,” says Grauer.  “Some club owners would tell me it came down to a choice between paying their heating bill, keeping their plow service or having live music.”

The economic downturn, coupled with the proliferation of digital music and more home entertainment options, hurt the Milwaukee jazz scene in the late 2000s. However, the past few years have seen proactive efforts by jazz musicians, inspired instructors, and venue owners to build the scene back up again.

People call it ‘jazz,’ but I’ve always called it ‘black classical music.’ - Manty Ellis

“People call it ‘jazz,’ but I’ve always called it ‘black classical music,’” says Manty Ellis.

“That’s how we looked at it—as being on the same level as elitist European classical music, only it’s a different culture. If you notice today, everything on the radio that’s making money is related to what they call ‘jazz.’”

“It’s almost the standard of the world.”

(Learn about the latest resurgence of Milwaukee’s jazz scene in part two of this series - The Present.)