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Young Talent Injects Life into Milwaukee’s Jazz Scene

Jan. 30, 2013
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Jazz may not be the music that made Milwaukee famous, but the local scene has been looking vibrant lately. Credit that development to the young generations of musicians who have inherited the scene and made it their own. Enough of the city’s veteran players remain—some musicians, such as Jack Grassel and Kaye Berigan, having inspiringly overcome devastating illnesses—but today’s players seem more resourceful and better organized than many of their predecessors, defying the stereotype of the jazz musician as a laid-back, by-the-seat-of-the-pants jobber.

“A difference today is there’s a very strong crop of young players in town, a musician group that’s more proactive in bringing attention to the music,” explains trumpeter Jamie Breiwick.

We have education to thank for cultivating new talent, as it has for decades in an art form that balances sophistication and soulful grittiness. The relatively new jazz studies program at UW-Milwaukee has made its presence felt, as has the remarkable new Jazz Institute at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music, which now funds annual residencies and concerts by Grammy-winning, Milwaukee-born trumpeter Brian Lynch. The institute also selects top high school players for scholarships in private lessons, jazz combos and concerts. The program’s second consecutive honor from the international Charles Mingus Jazz Competition recently went to 17-year-old alto saxophonist Lenard Simpson for outstanding soloist.

Youth has also given Milwaukee jazz a better presence on the Internet. Milwaukee Jazz Vision is a promotional and advocacy group organized by several young musicians, including Breiwick and drummer/keyboardist Jeno Somali, director of the Milwaukee Youth Symphony Orchestra jazz program. The organization’s sharp-looking website, milwaukeejazzvision.org, covers virtually the whole local jazz waterfront and includes an impressive daily gig calendar. “I think the musician mood is very positive,” Breiwick says. “Every musician I know is working.”

Bassist Jeff Hamann concurs. “You really need to work at it, but it pays off. My peers seem to be keeping busy.” Hamann adds that he’s noticed less work for some veteran players, “but everyone’s path to success is a little different.”

Milwaukee may also be providing a career launch pad or an alternative for musicians who hail from elsewhere, like recently relocated east-coaster Ross Thompson (a “world-class trumpeter,” according to Breiwick). Others return to the city after stints outside the Midwest, such as guitarist Kenny Reichert and drummer Devin Drobka, who notes that “it’s less stressful than living in New York,” citing the “lower cost of living and [greater] opportunity” that the city affords. Drobka will soon take over booking responsibilities for the local cooperative Jazz Gallery Center for the Arts, another new musician initiative.

Generation X and Y players must still find workplaces. Venues receptive to the music seem to be diversifying, even if their programming extends beyond jazz. Milwaukee institutions that fall into this category include the Sharon Lynne Wilson Center for the Arts, Via Downer, Hi Hat Lounge, Blu (the lounge bar at the top of the Pfister Hotel) and Sugar Maple. The latter club in Bay View books alt-rock aplenty, but owner Bruno Johnson is a free jazz devotee who hosts the annual jazz extravaganza, OKKA Fest. Mason Street Grill, with a six-nights-a-week jazz calendar, is perhaps the steadiest current musician employer.

A question remains, though. Can the genre overcome its spotty presence on radio, in the press and at large festivals? Breiwick recalls Summerfest’s deplorable explanation for offering no jazz stage: “We want to be the musical McDonald’s, not the Beans & Barley.” Whether this attitude will persist has yet to be seen, but local players have learned to open their own doors. Breiwick says poor media coverage of the genre led directly to musicians forming the now-biannual Eastside Jazz Fest, which ran Jan. 25. The lineup included Bill Carrothers as headliner (the globetrotting Appleton-based pianist who has played with numerous greats including Freddie Hubbard and Lee Konitz), The Donna Woodall Group, Eric Schoor Quartet, and the UWM Jazz Combo. In sum, Milwaukee’s DIY-powered jazz scene seems as stealthy as it is healthy.


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