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Singer Jerry Grillo Looks Back on 25 Years in Jazz

Apr. 25, 2017
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Jerry Grillo’s dream of becoming a jazz singer was long deferred. He played in high school and college musicals, did a few shows after moving to Milwaukee in the late ’60s and sang in pop cover bands through the ’70s. None of it was exactly what he wanted to do. After a while, Grillo abandoned music and focused on teaching at John Marshall High School. However, in the last years before retiring from MPS, Grillo finally reinvented himself in his spare time as a serious jazz vocalist. 

Next week Grillo marks the 25th anniversary of his debut album, This Funny World, with a performance and a remastered reissue of the recording. 

Grillo cites vocalist Jackie Allen for inspiring him to realize the dream after hearing her sing at the Wyndham Hotel. “I was blown away by her—nobody was doing what she was doing here,” he says. “I knew I had to go to her.” And he did, signing up for her voice lessons at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music. She became his mentor and encouraged him to record This Funny World. “She hooked me up with the musicians and the recording studio. She gave me one of her songs.”

Allen’s “I Chase the Sun” is the lone number on This Funny World not drawn from the Great American Songbook. Singing in low-key almost conversational tones, Grillo focused on interpreting the songs of Rodgers and Hart, Cole Porter, Johnny Mercer and other writers from the pre-rock era.

“I had heard these songs by other artists,” he says, speaking about the choice of material. “Jackie taught me how to construct a set in a night club and I followed suit on the album by varying the tempo—not too many ballads. I love ballads but they can bring the energy level down.”

Most of Grillo’s reference points came from female, not male, jazz singers. “Dinah Washington, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan,” he ticks off the names. “Tony Bennett is the male singer who is closest to evoking that lyrical sensibility—interpreting the songs on an emotional and a musical level.”

In the quarter century since This Funny World, Grillo released eight other recordings including collaborations with the Lynne Arriale Trio and the Nick Contorno Orchestra and with such esteemed local instrumentalists as Kirk Tatnall and Barry Velleman. For his 25th anniversary showcase at Transfer Pizzeria, one of his consistent performance venues for the past decade, Grillo will perform with keyboardist Neal Charles, guitarist Bill Martin and drummer Omar. He hopes Transfer’s owner Russell Rossetto will sit in on trombone along with other guest players. Grillo promises “a complimentary champagne toast, and everyone will receive a copy of the album.”

Several people involved in the original release of This Funny World have gone on to success. Allen was signed to Blue Note records and is now on the music faculty at Doane College in Nebraska. The Milwaukee artist responsible for the cover’s funky drawings, Chrisanne Robertson, has been exhibited in galleries and has received commissions for her work.

“Bringing out the lyrical content is what I like to do,” Grillo says. “I’ve always loved the romantic emotion of the Great American Songbook.”

Jerry Grill performs 7:30 p.m., Tuesday, May 2 at Transfer Pizzeria, 101 W. Mitchell St.

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