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Neal Chandek Has Fun With Jazz

Mar. 23, 2011
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Neal Chandek talks like a jazz musician—and not just because he occasionally speaks of "cats" when referring to two-legged creatures. The veteran Milwaukee pianist and trumpeter riffs with words and ideas, sending them on extended solo flights before returning to the melody of the conversation at hand. These days Chandek plays piano weekly at Angelo's Lounge (1686 N. Van Buren St.) and with a small combo at Transfer Pizzeria Cafe (101 W. Mitchell St.).

How did you get into jazz?

I lived in a Southwest Side neighborhood where Elvis and the Beatles were the thing. But my parents loved Nat "King" Cole, Ray Charles and Louis Armstrong. I was exposed to good music. I had parents who played the stereo rather than the TV. Then I got adopted into the black community.

How did that happen?

I was in the Hamilton High School marching band and we were playing West Division. You know how people get about team rivalry, but band musicians always got along. One of the West Division players invited me to a rehearsal on the North Side—he had a funky Herbie Hancock kind of band. We ended up going to Whitewater together. A couple of the professors came down to the practice room where we were playing and said, "You can't practice that music [jazz] here." That was 1974!

Nowadays jazz education is widespread, but jazz clubs less so...

There were clubs that played a big role in Milwaukee in the '70s—the Jazz Oasis, the Jazz Gallery, the Main Event. There were scores of places on the East Side and the North Side in those days where you could play any night of the week. Now there's hardly anything. But even in '74 you could see the beginning of the end. I had teachers who raised their families on the money they made playing music. They played horn for a living, played on commercials, in big bands and at sports events. And there was a viable touring circuit for jazz musicians. I used to see Horace Silver and Art Blakey at Teddy's [now Shank Hall]. In the '70s I made $35-$60 a night and my rent was $65 a month. The pay for musicians has not increased, but the rent has.

You lived in Atlanta for a while and played with R&B bands?

Yes, I played with Johnnie Taylor, the Blue Notes and the Temptations. Then back in Milwaukee, I played with La Chazz, a Latin big band, for 17 years.

You've been playing for a couple years now at Transfer...

The owner is a trombone player. He heard me playing at Angelo's and said, "Hey, I've got this pizza place..." I didn't know if it would work out, but we get lots of people in there—especially after 8:30, the people who come in come to listen, to dance and to eat. It's like jazz is supposed to be: It's supposed to be fun.


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