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All That Milwaukee Jazz

The Music Lives on in Our City

Sep. 4, 2014
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Jazz ain’t the music that made Milwaukee famous. However, like beer, the music’s innate effervescence is part of this city’s cultural DNA. Improv and swing are rising locally, and reflect the creative brewing of musicians – like sax and brass players – who literally blow life into their instruments.

I’ve been extremely impressed by the young-musician generation since returning to Milwaukee, two decades after extensively covering the jazz scene here.

“A difference today is a very strong crop of young players in town,” says trumpeter Jamie Breiwick.

For a serious art form, jazz education is essential for performers and to cultivate audiences, unlike more innately popular folk- or mass media-based arts. Education creates musician’s work, as it has for decades with an art form that commingles sophistication and soulful grittiness.

UWM’s relatively new jazz studies degree program signifies that, as does the ambitious Jazz Institute at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music, which holds concerts, summer camps and annual residencies by Milwaukee-born trumpeter Brian Lynch, a Grammy-winning former Jazz Messenger with Art Blakey. Plus, The West End Conservatory opened on Vliet Street a few years ago with a strong faculty of young professional jazz musicians.

A highlight of the jazz education year will be the second annual Music Education Day at Summerfest on Sept, 17 (with a free lunch) featuring nationally known clinicians. Last year’s event drew 600 school-age music students.

The Conservatory’s accredited jazz degree program, launched in 1971, crucially sparked that era’s local jazz renaissance. The Jazz Institute, underwritten by the Bitterman Foundation, also selects top high school players for scholarships in private lessons, theory classes and concerts. For the third consecutive year, the program’s Batterman Ensemble placed as a finalist in the International Charles Mingus Jazz Competition, and in 2013 won the competition’s “Mingus Spirit” award and took first place at the Eau Claire Jazz Festival. In 2012, the Batterman’s 17-year-old saxophonist Lenard Simpson won the Mingus event’s “outstanding soloist.”

This sounds like a dynamic art form in town, yet an old saw endures: “Jazz is dying.” “Compared to what? For the last story about that, we had a joke: All the jazz musicians were unavailable for comment,” responds pianist Mark Davis, director of the Jazz Institute.

“All the musicians I know are constantly working,” concurs Breiwick, also a professor at the UWM program.

 “You really need to work at it, but it pays off,” adds Jeff Hamann, the city’s “first-call” bassist, a Conservatory instructor and house bassist in Michael Feldman’s nationally syndicated radio program “Whad D’ya Know?” “My peers seem to keep busy.” However, Hamann has noticed less work for some veteran players. “Everyone’s path to success is a little different.”

Davis adds, “Some music programs are dwindling, especially in the inner city.” But WCM and other higher-ed programs provide scholarships—and the Conservatory faculty ensemble, We Six, does residencies and performances—at these schools.

“Milwaukee seems on a real upswing, with numerous incredible Conservatory-trained high school and college players coming up: Lenard Simpson, trumpeter Alec Aldred, guitarist Tommy Antonic, saxophonist Robert Larry (from UWM) and percussionist Jake Richter—now on full scholarship to Indiana University,” he continues.

“Their success comes from education, the jazz community and musicians acting as mentors, if only through their playing. Guys like Jamie Breiwick. Last night, Jordan Rattner, a great high school guitarist and trumpeter Cody Longreen sat in with us. You can’t just teach jazz in classroom. You gotta be out in the real world,” Davis says.

“You hear criticisms that academia creates musical clones, who all sound the same. I think it’s a reaction to more jazz education and less playing opportunities.”

Jazz still fights against American anti-intellectualism, and it lacks the funding base classical music enjoys. Yet jazz persists.

“You have to learn how to hear those harmonies to really understand it,” Davis concludes. “Most jazz musicians recognize the need to give something back, to educate people to create an audience for tomorrow. Most people I taught 20 years ago are adults and hopefully it’s part of their culture.”


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