Jazz clubs upped old Milwaukee's hipster quotient
Remember when there were jazz clubs in Milwaukee? Not just one or two places to hear America's classical music, but a whole scene of venues providing a stage not only for local musicians but for the giants of the music, those cats who would later become jazz legends?
No, most of us don't, unless you're of a certain age. But digging around on the Web and in old newspapers, you can find references that open a door into this lost world of Milwaukee's booming jazz scene.
You can find reviews of the immortal Duke Ellington's week-long stint at the Riverside Theater in July 1939 or his performance at the Washington Park Bandshell many years later. You can also read about Norman Granz's Jazz at the Philharmonic tours stopping at The Pabst in '49, bringing the likes of Coleman Hawkins, Ray Brown, Ella Fitzgerald, Fats Navarro, Hank Jones, Sonny Criss, Buddy Rich and, yes, Charlie Parker. Other package tours came through, too, like the one a year earlier with Navarro, Miles Davis, Gene Ammons, Jackie Paris, Max Roach and Lady Day, Billie Holiday.
There was dancing at the Roof Ballroom on the northeast corner of Wisconsin Avenue and 6th Street, in the building that housed the Wisconsin Theater (demolished in the 1980s). You could see the big bands there and Lionel Hampton, too.
There was also George's Million Dollar Ballroom and the Eagles Ballroom for big-name big bands.
But what about the clubs? The dark, smoke-filled rooms with the cramped stages and the killer vibe? Believe it or not, downtown Milwaukee had its share of these, too.
In the '40s there was music at the Circle Room in the Wisconsin Avenue building that now is home to Marquette's Cobeen Hall. In 1944, a Nat King Cole Trio performance was recorded there that was issued on CD in 1999.
We caught up with life-long jazz fan George Robles -- who not only saw Coltrane in Milwaukee, but met the man and saw him perform numerous times in a number of cities -- to ask about some of the jazz haunts of the '50s and '60s.
First to come to mind was The Brass Rail, that controversial place on 3rd and Wells that was owned by colorful Izzy Pogrob. The Rail began as a jazz club in the 1950s but became a strip club in 1959, about eight months before Pogrob disappeared and turned up dead a day later in a Mequon field, apparently a victim of a robbery.
"They had big names like (Count) Basie and people of that ilk," Robles remembers. "They would also feature local musicians like Bunky Green (who now teaches at a Florida university). He hung on and used to play behind the strippers, too."
Muggsy Spanier played there in '57, and Earl Bostic was there the following year.
When the neighboring Princess Theater converted into an "adult" theater in January 1960, a week or so after Pogrob's death, a secret door was installed connecting the Rail with the Princess lobby, affording covert entry to Milwaukeeans who wanted to catch a "daring, frank, sensational film for those who think they've seen everything!" The Princess, its ads boasted now featured pictures "best understood by adults." Both the Princess and The Brass Rail buildings were razed in the 1980s and were replaced with a surface parking lot.
Up 3rd Street was Curro's, which was where Herbie Hancock got one of his early breaks.
"Someone in Chicago that believed in me, a club owner by the name of John Cort ... owned a club called the Birdhouse," Hancock told JazzUSA magazine. "He was a friend of Donald Byrd's, and Donald had a group. He and Pepper Adams had a quintet. This was in wintertime that they came through Chicago on their way to Milwaukee. They, I guess, flew into Chicago and were driving to Milwaukee. But there was a blizzard that night and their piano player had gotten stranded somewhere. So they needed a pianist just for the weekend. It was a 10-day engagement, starting on the weekend and ending at the next weekend at a club called Curro's in Milwaukee. So, I was suggested ... I played those three days in Milwaukee, and they liked me so much that they said they wanted to keep me on with the group and that they would fire the other piano player (laughs) which was what he did as a matter of fact."
Robles was a regular at Curro's.
"I was there many many times," he says. "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."
There was also The Scenic Lounge, which, according to Robles was short-lived. But it survived long enough to host Coltrane when he was a Miles Davis sideman. Unsurprisingly, Robles was there.
"That was the only time I saw him here in Milwaukee. It would have been between about 1958 and 1960, probably closer to '60."
Robles remembers that also in the band were bassist Paul Chambers, drummer Jimmy Cobb and pianist Wynton Kelly.
"It was quite crowded and, surprisingly, there were a lot of black people there," Robles recalls. "A lot of times I went to shows in Milwaukee with Art Blakey and Roland Kirk and people like that, and they would get hacked off because there would be few black people there."
One Scenic Lounge regular was pianist Claude Dorsey -- "Milwaukee's Favorite Entertainer," according to a 1950s Scenic Lounge ad -- who continues to perform in Milwaukee to this day.
The 3 Dolls was also on 3rd Street, but a bit further up and featured mostly local musicians, but also brought in some names, like Spanier, who played two stints there in '54.
Scaler's House of Jazz was on 3rd Street, too, making that thoroughfare the hub of jazz in Milwaukee during the 1950s. Drummer Jo Jones brought his group, which included Wardell Gray and Duke Jordan, there in the mid-'50s. Just up the road was Basin Street, where you could catch out-there cats like Roland Kirk and a host of local talent.
On Wells Street there was Frank Balistrieri's The Ad Lib, which like The Brass Rail was birthed as a jazz club but died a strip joint. Across the river on Front Street you could often catch Scat Johnson at The Tunnel Inn.
You could hit Stage Door Johnny's to see national acts or out of downtown, there was Club 26 on 26th and North; the Harris Lounge on Walnut Street, which also hosted Roland Kirk; The Bar -- now home to Shank Hall -- brought in the likes of Art Blakey and Les McCann; The New Lounge on Hopkins had fellows like Benny Carter; The Lion's Den on Center Street in Riverwest; Kodric's on 5th and National in Walker's Point, where local guys like Frank DeMiles would play; Club Everleigh on 55th and Center. The list goes on and on.
Later, places like The Jazz Gallery in Riverwest would emerge. Folks around town still talk about the time Bill Cosby sat in on drums with organist Jimmy Smith there. Into the '80s you could catch local guitarist George Pritchett around town at places like The Estate on Murray Avenue.
Claude Dorsey, Berkeley Fudge and Manty Ellis are all still playing, but Milwaukee just isn't the jazz hub it once was. Let's hope that changes.
Of course, there were other places in town for jazz of every variety. Add your memories using the talkback feature below.
What a great article - it makes me wish I had been born fifty years earlier! Can someone tell me a place to go now-a-days for some great jazz?
Gloria Anderson said: What about the Bull Ring, the Bamboo Room, the Flame, and the one on Farwell, where Penny Goodman was a regular. The Main event Brothers Lounge Satin Dolls.
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