In Buzz

John Koerner and Dave Ray at the Avant Garde, 1964.

In Buzz

Harold Strohmeier during the Avant Garde era.

In Buzz

The Velvet Whip onstage at the Avant Garde.

In Buzz

The Avant Garde building today.

Avant Garde inducted many into local counterculture

The Avant Garde Coffeehouse, which occupied the upper level of the lovely French Moorish building at 2111 N. Prospect Ave. -- now home to Mystery One books and other businesses -- shone bright for six years in the 1960s, providing a refuge for musicians, poets and artists.

Although it was by no means the only coffeehouse in town, it was the one that really jump-started the counterculture movement in Milwaukee and had that certain aura that has made it memorable.

Opened by a former airport restaurant manager, Harold Strohmeier, in October 1962, the Avant Garde was a haven for beatniks and lovers of rootsy blues and the burgeoning folk music scene.

"The crowd that I had the tendency to hang around with was more into the arts and Milwaukee didn't really have much at that time," says Strohmeier today. "There used to be a grouping of coffee houses initially, like the The Espresso #1, Zodiac and the Purple Eye and they just kind of evaporated. We didn't have any place to go."

The Avant Garde -- which had been converted from a clothing factory by Strohmeier and his wife and friends -- fast became the place to catch the latest acts in the folk music scene as well as a bluesmen, who were Strohmeier's favorites.

"I had a big blues and flamenco habit and (the Avant Garde) allowed me to feed my addiction up close," Strohmeier laughs. "We had Big Joe Williams, Fred McDowell, Skip James, Bukka White, Magic Sam, the Rev. Wilkins; these were some of the really important people in blues."

Perhaps more famous for the people who didn't get to play there -- Leo Kottke and Jose Feliciano were both reportedly passed on by Strohmeier -- the Avant Garde did nevertheless get some big (at the time) names in the scene, from socialist singer songwriter Tom Meisenheimer to erstwhile Byrds member Clem Floyd and 12-string guitarist Dave Ray. John Koerner and the New Lost City Ramblers also played there. However, contrary to rumors that occasionally fly around town, a young Bob Dylan did not play there.

Within two years, young poet Bob Reitman was hosting Wednesday night poetry readings at the Avant Garde, which featured local poets like Bob Watt, later zen exterminator and now general artist about town.

There were readings to jazz music for the beatniks, film screenings and experimental theater, too.

"There were a lot of people like me, still in our mid-teens, who started showing up (and) who were recovering Catholics," remembers Mark Goff. "We were looking for a refuge and the refuge turned out to be the Avant Garde."

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kch1946 | March 25, 2019 at 11:54 a.m. (report)

Sure brought back some memories. For me, the only thing missing is any mention of my favorite local band that played there. The Unit which was a blues band with Jim Liban on harp & Jeff Dagenhart on guitar

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Bobby Tanzilo | Oct. 14, 2008 at 7:56 a.m. (report)

Oh yes, the Cuje collection also has both Baroques LPs -- and tons of other treasures -- too!

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Bobby Tanzilo | Oct. 14, 2008 at 7:55 a.m. (report)

Be sure to read the article I wrote after this one on the Velvet Whip. Recently, a former band member gave me a double-CD full of music recorded at a Whip show at the Avant Garde. The quality is pretty good; definitely good enough to show what the band sounded like. So that everyone can access it, I donated it to the Cuje Milwaukee Music Collection at Marquette University's Memorial Library, so go down there and give it a listen.

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kinnickinnic | Oct. 14, 2008 at 2:41 a.m. (report)

The Velvet Whip never recorded with a record label. Rumor has it that some where out there are some poor quality recordings done on a reel to reel. Contact Dan Ball. I would love to hear them myself , as I misspent my youth at 'the guard'. The Baroques recorded a fine album at the great Chess Studio on Michigan Street in Chicago. This album still pops up at rummage sales around the Midwest. I'm keeping my copy.

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charne | Aug. 8, 2007 at 12:44 a.m. (report)

Thank goodness for the Avant Garde. It helped me survive high school in the mid-1960's. Harold Strohmeier, Dick Weening, Jim Barker (R.I.P. my friend), and Gordy Simon are each owed a deep debt of gratitude for the cultural contributions of the Avant Garde. Without their artistic vision and courage, Milwaukee would be have been a far less interesting place.

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