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Brian Sanders’ Chill Vibe at the Jazz Estate

Aug. 10, 2010
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For the past 33 years, the Jazz Estate has kept Milwaukee’s jazz pulse pumping. Brian Sanders, current co-owner, is one of the men to thank. From big names to local acts, he hosts live music almost every night of the week and keeps it consistent. Whether slinging drinks, manning the door or kicking it with a beer, Sanders is never far from the bar or short on stories. 

How long have you co-owned the Jazz Estate, and how did it all start?

It’s been 10 years. [The Jazz Estate] has been here since 1977. It happened to be closed down in 1999. I moved to Milwaukee in 1995, and I had been here a fair amount of times in those four years before it closed just to check out some of the music. I happened to be walking by one day, completely randomly, and in the window there was a sign that said “For sale or lease.”

And the rest is history?

This is partner-owned with Mike Honkamp. I couldn’t financially make it happen—basically to buy a building and have funds to set up a bar. I made him a sales pitch. He agreed to check it out. The price was right. We decided to roll the dice and see what happened.

Tell me about some of the bigger acts that have come through here.

Well, we’re known as a jazz club. So, I mean, that’s our bread and butter. I’ve had Dr. Lonnie Smith in here. I’ve had Brian Lynch, who is a Grammy winner. And he’s actually from Milwaukee himself. Louis Hayes has played here. Oh man, I have to go through the Rolodex of 10 years. There has been a fair amount, but sometimes I forget.

You bartend here regularly. What do you like best about bartending at a place you also own?

The main reason I would say is I enjoy being here, listening to the music, meeting new people and trying to get people to be repeat customers. Also, there is a certain vibe that I want to have and keep. I’ve seen so many other bars with absentee owners that get away from what they are really about.

I have to ask. How do you feel about the smoking ban?

I think it’s fine. We are definitely known as a smoky bar. I’ve had a lot of complaints over the years. I see it as a positive thing for my business. If it increases business, I’m all for it. I’m a smoker. I’ll go outside. I really don’t care. The only thing that is kind of a bummer about it is that we modeled this place after an old, ’50s-style jazz club, and any time you watch a movie about that kind of stuff, it’s always smoke filled. It’s part of the ambiance almost. I think it does, in some weird way, take away from the atmosphere a little bit. Although, there have been some times, especially on Tuesdays with the Chicken, that it’s been excessive.

When you are dead in the ground, what do you want to be known for? What kind of legacy do you want to leave as Brian Sanders of the Jazz Estate?

I don’t plan on being here forever, but it doesn’t mean I won’t be. For one, I want to be known for helping keep the jazz community alive in Milwaukee. And, also, being known for giving musicians a chance to thrive and hone their craft. Hopefully, some of these guys use my place as a springboard to go on and do bigger and better things. That, and [being] a chill dude.


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