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The Jazz Estate Returns with a New Look, Better Drinks and the Same Sounds

Nov. 29, 2016
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When I first pull back the door that has opened onto The Jazz Estate since its founding in 1977, John Dye is resting his elbows on the padded bar rail and discussing the finer points of peach liqueur with the two owners of Foundation, the Riverwest tiki bar regarded as among the best in the country. Dye is on the early side of middle-age, and although he’s thrown in the bar towel after 20 years of mixing drinks while commiserating with woebegone customers, he embodies the characteristics he lists when asked about the ideal bartender: passion for the place and for the patrons. 

Last November, word that Dye was buying The Jazz Estate came as an immense relief to the unlikely trinity of Milwaukee’s jazz aficionados, historic preservationists and cocktail connoisseurs. The future of the Estate had appeared dicey. After an admirable 16-year run, the previous owners wearied of the grind of hosting music nightly and chafed at the considerable maintenance needs of the old building. There are innumerable species of the genus “liquor-serving establishment” and “jazz club” is one of the most endangered. “The Jazz Estate has always been about the music,” Dye says. But the figures suggest that the public is not listening. According to Nielsen’s 2015 Year-End Music Report, jazz accounted for a paltry 1.3% of total music consumption. A decrepit building and indifferent public are not exactly selling points.

As the owner of Bryant’s Cocktail Lounge (est. 1938), Dye has demonstrated a curatorial zeal for preserving Milwaukee watering holes with historic pedigrees. “Bars are experiences for people,” Dye says. “Not just places to drink. That’s shortsighted. Bars are community meeting spaces, places to see art, places to experience history.” The Jazz Estate has fulfilled all three functions since before it took on the name in 1977. At least since the early ’50s, the original owners, Chuck and Ed Pociecha, had a bar in the location with a jukebox to spin Chuck’s collection of jazz 78s. “It was the gathering place for the Milwaukee jazz scene,” reminisces pianist Mark Davis, chair of the Jazz Institute at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music, who cut his teeth at the Estate in the mid ’80s with Milwaukee jazz legends like Hattush Alexander, Berkeley Fudge and Manty Ellis. “Some of the most memorable performances I’ve ever heard took place there, like the Cedar Walton Quartet with Billy Higgins on drums or Joe Henderson with Al Foster on drums and Milwaukee’s own David Hazeltine on piano,” Davis says.

Slinging drinks may not be the raison d’etre of The Jazz Estate, but it is a fine place to slake one’s thirst. Contra Bryant’s, the Estate serves beer and wine. Like Bryant’s, the Estate mixes cocktails that taste like a New Orleans jazz band sounds: The individual voices are perceived yet blend into a polyphonic whole greater than the sum of its parts. The bar is considerably less stocked than Bryant’s (don’t forget your liquor-license taxonomy—we’re comparing a jazz club with a cocktail lounge), but liquor lovers won’t be disappointed. In addition to classic cocktails and a seasonally shifting menu of approximately 10 specialty drinks, my bartender estimated that with the supplies at hand he could mix at least a hundred other drinks. Once prepared, the cocktails are served with care, in the proper glassware with Kold-Draft cubes, a denser, colder ice that melts slowly and thus checks the watering down of one’s libation. 

For the present, the Estate is featuring live music on Thursdays and Saturdays. Once word spreads that hepcats have a home on the East Side, Dye expects to book more nights of live music. When the stage is silent, the background music at The Jazz Estate is slightly more prominent than at other establishments; it is also, for those whose heartbeat swings, considerably better. However, the music selection is by no means limited to jazz. Over the span of an hour, heavies like Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk and Vince Guaraldi (the pianist who wrote the music for “Peanuts” TV adaptations) were interspersed with tunes by bossa nova’s João Gilberto (“He could read a newspaper and sound good,” said Miles Davis) and accordionist Jean Corti. It’s a stretch to label Gilberto and Corti “jazz,” but both musicians, it must be noted, can swing you into bad health.

“We’ve retained the atmosphere,” Dye says of the establishment, “But it is more elegant and put-together than the Estate has ever been. It looks a lot different—and smells a lot different.” Appearances aside, the cocktails should attract new sets of ears to hear what has always been most important at The Jazz Estate.

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