Story: Bobby Tanzilo. Published October 11, 2017 at 9:03am. Illustration and design: Jason McDowell
Though he’s long been an international music superstar with 14 Grammys and an Oscar above his fireplace, Chicago native Herbie Hancock’s career was just beginning to take off in the autumn of 1960.
Hancock – who plays at The Pabst Theater on Oct. 20 – credits his second professional gig, which took place in Milwaukee, with really launching his career.
"I had just graduated from college that year," he told me recently. "I say that loosely because they weren’t able to give me the degree then, because I had flunked one of the prerequisites, which I took later on, a couple years later, and then they sent me the degree in the mail. But anyway, I finished my four years of college and I was working in the post office."
Hancock had started on the piano at age 7, studying classical music and making such impressive, rapid progress that many thought he was a prodigy. Indeed, by the age of 11, Hancock played the first movement of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 26 in D Major, K. 537 (Coronation) with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at a youth concert.
His jazz education was less formal, though he did study with Chris Anderson and Billy Wallace – the latter a Milwaukee pianist who got his start playing in his high school band in the 1940s and relocated to Chicago in the ‘50s.
During his stint in the post office, Hancock would moonlight in Windy City jazz clubs.
"I often had to take the train to and from the gigs," he wrote in his autobiography, "Possibilities." "So I’d be slumped over in exhaustion on the ‘L’ as it shuddered down to the south side in the early-morning hours."
But the woodshedding and the gigging paid dividends in the form of a call from Coleman Hawkins, who was by then one of the two veteran giants of the jazz tenor saxophone, along with Lester Young. Hawkins’ 1939 recording of "Body & Soul" remains, even today, one of the landmark moments in recorded jazz.
"I would have been excited just to be in the same room with a player like Coleman Hawkins," wrote Hancock, "much less actually get to play with him."
But when Hawkins’ regular pianist Jodie Christian couldn’t make the gig, the saxophonist’s drummer Louis Taylor – who had played with Hancock at some gigs around town – suggested Herbie, and the 20-year-old prodigy found himself on stage with Hawkins for two straight weeks at Chicago’s Cloisters.
"I felt honored to share the stage with him and excited at the thought of what I might learn, but I was also nervous, hoping I could hold up my end of the bargain," Hancock recalled in his book. "He encouraged me and tried to make me feel comfortable onstage, and I think he was pleased with how I played."
Nabbing that gig led Hancock to quit the post office in October 1960. And he didn’t regret it.
"To hear him play and improvise over chord changes," Hancock reminisced when we spoke. "He was so advanced for a person of his age at that time. ... Oh, hell yeah (he was a master). And he played ‘Body and Soul’ every set, every night. He played chorus after chorus and he just played it inside out, it was fantastic. I learned so much."
The only hitch was that Hawkins wasn’t looking for a pianist. He was touring and picking up musicians as sidemen in each town.
"He gave me a chance. That was a very important gig for me. But it was very common for musicians to come through and pick up a band. He was traveling without a band. So whatever city he’d go to, he’d play with different people. This was gonna be a thing where you were gonna play and then he was gonna go to the next town and play with the next guy, then he was gonna go to the next ..."
However, the Hawkins gig gave Hancock experience, it gave him exposure and, as a bonus, ditching the day job also gave Hancock the freedom to focus on music full-time and he poured his energy into gigs and jam sessions. And he did, though, it turned out, he didn’t have to wait long for the phone to ring again.
This time it was club owner John Cort calling.
Cort owned a place called the Birdhouse, a small joint upstairs in a loft on Dearborn and Division. Since Nov. 22, trumpeter Donald Byrd and baritone saxophonist Pepper Adams had decamped in Chicago, playing a couple stints at The Counterpoint in the Piccadilly Hotel on 51st and Blackstone in Hyde Park.
Hancock recounted the story in "Possibilities:"
"In December of 1960, a couple of months after the Coleman Hawkins gig, I got a call from John Cort, the owner of the Birdhouse, a small club in a second-floor walkup on Dearborn Street, on the North Side. ‘Donald Byrd and Pepper Adams are playing in Milwaukee this weekend,’ he told me. ‘You want to play with them?’
"‘Are you kidding?’ I said. ‘Yeah, I want to play with them!’ I couldn’t believe it – I’d just been invited to gig with one of the best jazz trumpeters around. Donald Byrd was a veteran of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, and he’d earned a master’s degree at the Manhattan School of Music. He’d performed with many of the jazz greats over the years, including John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk, and in 1958 he’d started a quintet with the baritone saxophonist Pepper Adams. That was the group I was being invited to play with.
"‘Well,’ John said, ‘put on your maroon jacket and get on down here!’ I’d played several times before at his club, so he knew my maroon jacket – the only jacket I had for playing gigs. I hurried down to the Birdhouse as quickly as I could get there."
Byrd and Adams were both Detroit natives and knew each other in their hometown, but they really clicked after they’d both moved to New York and met up again. They collaborated in February 1958 at the famous Cafe Bohemia in Greenwich Village and the band was born. While it was occasionally set aside when Byrd or Adams got a call to work with others, the quintet would endure until 1961.
And it had a pianist in Duke Pearson, an Atlanta native whose writing, arranging and performing skills would later lead Blue Note Records to tap him as an A&R director. But, for some reason, Pearson was unable to make the group’s upcoming Milwaukee gig.
"A blizzard was blowing through the Midwest and the pianist had gotten stranded. So they just needed me to fill in for the weekend gig at Curro’s in Milwaukee, and then on Monday they’d have their regular guy back," wrote Hancock in "Possibilities."
But veteran Milwaukee jazzman Manty Ellis – who, like Hancock, had studied under Billy Wallace and was at the upcoming Brew City performances – told Milwaukee Jazz Vision that Pearson wanted to take part in a series of civil rights marches with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and opted to head to those instead of going to Milwaukee for the gig.
Meanwhile, in his book "Pepper Adams’ Joy Road: An Annotated Discography," Gary Carner suggested that "Pearson had already expressed an interest in leaving the band, regardless of prevailing weather conditions."
Jazzdiscography.com – which mistakenly reports the year as having been 1961 – averred that Pearson had become ill.
To this day, Hancock isn’t really sure what the truth is.
"I don’t know what the truth was about Duke Pearson," he said. "I only know what Donald told me, but what Donald told me was different from any of these things. So the truth could’ve been one or the other thing. Or maybe something we haven’t heard yet. (laughs)"
But whatever was up the Pearson, the result was the same for Hancock, who told more of the story in his book:
"I met Donald and Pepper and the other guys at the Birdhouse, and we all went downstairs to pile into the car for the drive. But by now the blizzard was howling, and we didn’t get very far before realizing there was no way we could make it to Milwaukee in time for the gig.
"I was disappointed, but then Donald said, ‘Well, are there any jam sessions happening in Chicago tonight? Maybe we could at least hear you play.’ I knew of one, a loose gathering led by the trumpet and sax player Ira Sullivan, so I gave Donald directions, and we made our way there. As we walked into the club all I could think was, ‘Herbie, don’t screw this up!’ This was my big chance, an audition of sorts for Donald Byrd. He was sharply dressed, highly education and a really charming guy, and I wanted so badly to impress him that my hands were shaking when I went up onstage to take my turn with the other musicians.
"And I guess they never really stopped shaking, because I sounded terrible. I was so nervous that I couldn’t play anything right. After struggling through one tune, I knew I was done. I slumped off the stage and back to the table where the guys were sitting, my head hanging down in embarrassment.
"I turned to Donald and said, ‘Well, I want to thank you for this opportunity. I’m sure after that you’re not going to want me now, but I appreciate the fact that you gave me a chance.’ Donald just started laughing and clapped me on the back. ‘Come on, Herbie!’ he said. ‘We’re taking you to Milwaukee tomorrow. I figured you’d be nervous – don’t worry about it!’ Relief flooded through me. I hadn’t blown it after all, and I’d have a chance to show Donald what I really could do."
So, on Dec. 23 when the Donald Byrd-Pepper Adams Quintet arrived at Curro’s, 821 N. 3rd St., for a week-long stint, Herbie Hancock was there. The stand including a New Year’s Eve gig, the same night that the legendary Hildegarde – a hometown favorite – was entertaining crowds at Gallagher’s Steak House next door.
In addition to Hancock, Byrd and Adams, the quintet included bassist Laymon Jackson and drummer Lex Humphries (misnamed as Rex in ads that also billed Jackson as Clay Johnson).
Curro’s opened around 1954, apparently by Joseph Curro, who had run a service station on Brady Street until a flash fire in November 1952 tragically killed a 15-year-old boy whose escape was stymied by the crutches he was using while nursing a broken leg.
Previously home to John Maghakian’s tavern, the space at 821 N. 3rd St., in the heart of an area that was pulsing with entertainment in the 1950s with places like Gallagher’s and The Brass Rail, among others, was the perfect fit for Curro’s Cocktail Lounge.
Later called Curro’s Show Lounge, the club was managed and perhaps co-owned by Joe’s brother Carmelo (aka Melo) Curro. Details on the club’s ownership aren’t easy to unwind. But while city directories name it unfailingly as belonging to Joe, newspapers of the day referred to it always as Melo’s.
Melo was well know in the local entertainment business, having previously run a tap near 7th and Wells and for years having operated a juke box and pinball game business, that in 1950 had 140 machines in area bars and restaurants. He also ran the Metro Record Shop during the early 1950s.
"I was there many many times," jazz fan George Robles told me about Curro’s a number of years ago. "Nice lounge-type place. They didn’t have food or anything just featured name jazz, they did Count Basie, Pepper Adams and Donald Byrd, Illinois Jacquet. They’d bring in big names and sometimes there’d only be a handful of people there."
Hancock’s memories of Milwaukee and where the band stayed are nearly nonexistent, because, he says, he was determined not to mess up this opportunity.
"I don’t remember (where we stayed), it was probably a hotel," he told me. "I was laser focused on playing that gig, and I spent a lot of time in the club. I would go there earlier to practice, get my chops up, and everything was focused on that.
"I remember that a woman either owned it or she was main person that took care of the business (perhaps Curro’s future wife Dorothy). And I remember where the door was, where the stage was, which way we faced. I still remember that.
"I guess there was rehearsal for that first day. We did rehearse some tunes that were part of their repertoire; some that Duke wrote, some that Donald wrote. And I brought something of mine that I wrote that he’d liked (perhaps "Requiem"). And I kind of caught on to things pretty quickly."
Hancock did recall vividly one thing about the string of gigs at Curro’s – a story he told in his autobiography:
"We drove to Milwaukee the next day, and that evening I played a lot better than at the jam session. But I did have trouble with one song, a jazz standard from the ‘30s called ‘Cherokee.’ I knew the chord structure, but Donald’s quintet played it really fast, and although I usually did pretty well with ballads and medium-tempo songs, I always struggled with soloing on faster songs.
"After the gig I decided to bring it up with Donald. ‘I know I didn’t do so well on "Cherokee,’" I told him. ‘I always have a hard time with fast tempos. Do you have any tips that might help me out?’
"‘Barry Harris gave me a tip a long time ago,’ Donald said, referring to a piano player from his hometown of Detroit. ‘He told me, "the reason you can’t play fast is ‘cause you never heard yourself play fast.’’ And then he explained to me how Barry suggested overcoming that problem.
"Barry’s tip was to start with a particular form – either a 12-bar blues or a rhythm form (based on the chord structure of Gershwin’s ‘I Got Rhythm’), which are the only two true traditional forms in jazz – and then work out choruses. If it’s a blues form, you write out the 12-bar structure and then an improvised solo on that structure for several choruses. Then, once you’ve written out the whole structure, you just practice what you’ve written on the page, playing it over and over again, and then doing it faster.
"The next day I did exactly what Donald had told me. I didn’t worry about playing the piece exactly as it was written; the important thing was just getting used to playing and hearing myself do it quickly. That night at the second gig in Milwaukee, when Donald called ‘Cherokee,’ I played it fast! This was the first time I’d been able to solo really well on a fast song, and it was amazing to feel my fingers flying over the keys like that.
"After the gig Donald and I talked again. He knew I had a lot to learn, but he’d obviously taken notice of the fact that I’d paid attention to his advice and worked so hard, because he said, ‘Herbie, I’ve been talking it over with the band, and we like the way you play. We want you to join the band.’
"‘But you already have a piano player,’ I said, confused.
"‘We’ll fire him,’ Donald told me. ‘We want you. But you’ll have to move to New York. What do you think?’"
Hancock sounds like he might still be a little surprised about this unexpected turn of events, even 57 years later.
"I was only hired to play a weekend," he told me. "And they wanted me to be a permanent member of the band, but I’d have to move to New York."
So, when the band headed back to Chicago to kick off another stretch at the Counterpoint, which would run through Jan. 9, 1961, Hancock did what every good boy does.
He asked his mom.
"Because my dad always said, ‘ask your mom,’" Hancock laughed. "She said, ‘well, son ... your dad and I, we said when you and your brother and sister were kids, that whatever you wanted to be, we would always be in your corner, and if this is a decision you make, we’re going to honor that."
But, Hancock said, "my mother wasn’t happy about it. My father, he was probably good with it."
As for 20-year-old Herbie?
"I was thrilled. Are you kidding? I was thrilled. I got to go to New York with a working band? How often does that happen?"
After the Counterpoint stand, the Quintet paid back John Cort for making the connection between Hancock and the quintet by playing a run of dates at the Birdhouse from Jan. 10 to 22 and the very next day, Hancock got on a bus headed for the Big Apple.
Within a few months, Hancock performed on Byrd’s "Royal Flush" sessions for Blue Note, the highly respected jazz label that would, the following year, release "Takin’ Off," Hancock’s debut as a leader.
Pearson, of course, brushed off his firing and continued to have a fine career. In 1961, he toured with singer Nancy Wilson. In 1963, upon the death of saxophonist Ike Quebec, Pearson assumed the A&R role that Quebec held at Blue Note.
It appears there was no animosity.
Manty Ellis told Milwaukee Jazz Vision that Pearson ultimately turned up at Curro’s during the residency. Hancock confirmed that to be true, but said that it was expected and there were no fireworks, no tables overturned or tempers flaring.
"Oh yeah. Because I was always only supposed to play the weekend. He (Pearson) was going to come in on the following Monday.
"First of all, he was a great pianist and a brilliant writer," Hancock recalled. "And he became a producer for Blue Note (which recorded Byrd and Hancock and others), so the connection was always there. Donald didn’t burn his bridges."
Pearson was a key component in Byrd’s acclaimed 1963 Blue Note LP, "A New Perspective."
Curro’s, it seems, was on the wane by the time Hancock got his big break there. Immediately afterward Ramsey Lewis brought his trio up from Chicago for a week and the Milwaukee Journal noted that, "proprietor Melo Curro, who has booked few jazz attractions in the last three months, said he was resuming his jazz policy and would have name attractions at his club at least half the time."
But the quiet was mostly quiet in the early months on 1961 and a newspaper advertisement by a two-night stand by the Count Basie orchestra is the last one I could find.
In June, the afternoon paper reported that Curro and a bunch of his machines had gone missing:
"Melo Curro, in addition to maintaining a coin machine route, operates Curro’s Show Tavern. The tavern has been closed most of the last two months. It was only open for appearances of name jazz bands that had been booked previously."
In fact, that appears to have been the end of Curro’s forever. In January 1964, the space became the Jolly Jack, "the home of gourmet pizza," serving "the Sensational ... the Original Deep Dish Pizza" and the "famous Yard of Beer on Draught," until operator Lowell Enterprises went bankrupt in March and its equipment and fixtures were auctioned off two months later.
In September '64, Angelo DiGiorgio opened Le Bistro-a-Go-Go there.
"The club features girls in a large brass cage off the dance floor leading the dancing and doing some singing," the Milwaukee Journal wrote of, "Milwaukee’s newest discotheque," explaining that, "a discotheque is a club in which customers dance to continuous recorded music."
A few years later, the paper would write that, "in the cabaret business today’s hot spot is tomorrow’s parking lot" and that proved true for Curro’s and the caged dancers at Le Bistro-a-Go-Go – which moved over to 831 N. 3rd in late 1965 – because by 1967 the building had been razed and paved for a parking lot. There is now a low parking structure there that serves the Hyatt Regency Hotel.
The loss of Curro’s was not unique. In September 1962, under a headline that read, "Jazz Fans Sing Blues," the Journal rang the death knell for live jazz.
"The last four or five years, Milwaukee jazz fans never had it so good. It appears, however, at this point, that this season they’ll never have it so bad. As of last week, no big name jazz groups had been booked into Milwaukee for the coming season."
Reeling off a list of clubs that had come and gone over the years, including The Continental, the Stage Door, Tutz’s, the Three Dolls, Scaler’s, the Brass Rail, Curro’s and others, the Journal said, "one bright spot if the Tunnel Inn (now The Safe House), where Woody Herman occasionally stops with his big band, and where Dick Ruedebusch and his Underprivileged Five blow their special kind of jazz."
Melo Curro focused on carpentry, which is something he was good at, says his daughter Rosaria Hernandez, and for a time he had a business called Custom Built Equipment. Curro died at age 60 in April 1973.
When Pepper Adams returned to Milwaukee to perform at The Jazz Gallery in 1982 with a pickup band of local cats like pianist David Hazeltine and ex-pat drummer Mark Johnson, a review of the show made no mention of the Curro’s gig.
Tantalizingly, in his book, "Pepper Adams’ Joy Road," Gary Carner noted that there is a recording of the Dec. 13 performance at Curro’s. Dorothy passed away in April 1981.
In an interview with Carner, bassist Laymon Jackson said, "In 1984, Byrd was telling me that he’s going to put out an album, because when we was in Milwaukee, me and him and Herbie and Pepper (were) playing for some dancers there, and Byrd had a reel-to-reel (tape recorder) there and he was recording it."
The club was immortalized in "Curro’s," a tune written by Donald Byrd during the week in Milwaukee, and recorded by the quintet on March 2, 1961, less than two months after returning to New York from the Midwest. It was released later that year on a Warwick Records’ LP called, "Out of This World."
I asked Hancock if he’ll play "Curro’s" when he plays just a couple blocks from where the club stood.
"I doubt it. It’s not in our repertoire right now," he replied.
"Well, you can whip it up by then, you’ve got a month and you’re Herbie Hancock," I countered.
"Like I got nothing else to do, right," the pianist laughed. "I’m leaving a week from today to go on tour."
But all the talk of Curro’s and Milwaukee reminded Hancock that he has a smallwaukee story to share.
"There’s a woman that is a friend of my wife and I," he began. "She lives down the street. We’ve known her for years now. Her name is Shan. And she’s from Milwaukee. Check this out, really funny. She saw a title on a record called ‘Curro’s,’ and I was on that record.
"She says,’ you know there was a club in Milwaukee that my aunt owned, and it was called Curro’s. And I go, ‘what?’ And then I tell her the story of, that was the first gig that I played with Donald Byrd and that’s what started my professional career."
Hancock performs at The Pabst Theater on Friday, Oct. 20. The next day would have been the 105th birthday of Carmelo Curro.