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Milwaukee's Jazz Culture

Apr. 11, 2017
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Illustration by: topform84

Happy 100th birthday, Jazz! With the release of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band’s (ODJB ) “Original Dixieland One-Step/Livery Stable Blues” on March 7, 1917, the world was set on its ear. But jazz has never been an art form to sit still and behave itself, and it has undergone so many transformations in its century of recorded history that most self-professed jazz fans would not recognize the ODJB’s epoch-making record as jazz. This remarkable diversity of styles is reflected by Milwaukee’s own jazz culture.

“Hot jazz” demarcates both a body of music and a manner of playing. In terms of repertoire, it generally restricts itself to tunes written in the first third of the 20th century. In rendering these tunes, hot jazz is an ensemble music that thrives on collective improvisation and emphasis on melody and rip-roaring finales that disprove the supposed correlation between volume and excitement.

That hot jazz should be so endangered is a source of considerable consternation and confusion, for it is also arguably jazz’s most accessible and invigorating style. I heartily encourage a trip to the Bollywood Grill (1038 N. Jackson St.) on the second Monday of every month where, from 6-9 p.m., the Rhythm Aces keep the flame burning. 

“Bop,” in one form or another (viz. bebop, hard bop or post-bop), is the style most people associate with jazz. It is the music that won widespread acceptance and is now taught at institutions the world over, including UW-Milwaukee and the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music (WCM). As opposed to hot jazz’s ensemble orientation, bop is a soloist’s art, emphasizing longer and more ambitious improvisations.

Venues across the city frequently feature bop—for instance, the Jazz Estate on the East Side, Caroline’s in Walker’s Point, Blu on the Pfister’s 23rd floor and Mason Street Grill on the Pfister’s ground floor. Tuesday and Thursday at Transfer Pizzeria feature jazz and drink specials along with abundant pizza offerings. City.Net Café (306 E. Wisconsin Ave.) is billed by owner-drummer Sam Belton as “Milwaukee’s Jazziest Coffeehouse,” which he has undoubtedly earned given the café’s jazz paraphernalia décor and commitment to playing the music both live and recorded.

Riverwest’s Company Brewing hosts a weekly Wednesday night supper club jazz series. South Side supper club the Packing House also frequently features jazz, and Walker’s Point boasts Milwaukee’s newest jazz club in Gibraltar, operated by local musician Evan Christian. The local purveyors of bop are too numerous to list, but We Six, WCM’s resident faculty sextet, is jointly and severally responsible for much of this music in Milwaukee.

Milwaukee is unusually rich in musicians pushing the proverbial envelope. However, it is difficult to give a blanket description of so-called “free jazz,” beyond saying that it challenges received assumptions about musical beauty, often to stunningly beautiful results, if one approaches it with open ears and mind. Milwaukee’s primary hubs of creative musical activity are celebrated Bay View beer bar the Sugar Maple, Riverwest’s Woodland Pattern Book Center and the West End Conservatory. To keep abreast of Milwaukee’s many jazz happenings, please visit mkejazzvision.org and sign up for the newsletter.

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