There was a time when Milwaukee had venues that hosted jazz gigs all the time. National jazz gigs. The cream of the crop. When Jimmy Smith came to town, when Kenny Burrell came to town, when Milt Jackson came to town, when Joe Pass and Buddy Montgomery and Charles Mingus came to town.
Not just radio-friendly middle of the road jazz-inflected instrumentalists, who popped into town for a rare jazz concert during a national tour, but the best in jazz, including the best in Milwaukee jazz, too. Like a traditional jazz club.
Sadly, that time hasn’t really been during the 30-odd years I’ve lived here. In fact, the last place to continue that tradition with regularity, The Jazz Gallery on Center Street in Riverwest, closed the year after I got here (though I don’t think those events were in any way related).
Thankfully, Chuck LaPaglia, who owned the club, has collected the history of the Jazz Gallery’s years of existence (1978-84) in "Milwaukee Jazz Gallery 1978-1984," a compendium of facsimiles of articles about the club and reviews of performances there from Milwaukee newspapers of the day.
The site of the former club is now home to The Jazz Gallery Center for the Arts, run by the Riverwest Artists Association.
The book opens with an introduction from Kevin Lynch – who penned a number of the articles included in the book – and dives right in with a review of hard bop trombonist Curtis Fuller at the Gallery in February 1979.
What follows are pieces featuring a litany of names that reads like the index of a book on jazz history: Ray Brown, Sonny Stitt, Jimmy and Percy Heath, Eddie Jefferson, Bobby Hutcherson, Art Blakey, Dexter Gordon, Dizzy Gillespie, McCoy Tyner, Philly Joe Jones, Betty Carter, Art Farmer, Teddy Wilson and on and on and on and on.
These articles combine to create a picture of a really vibrant jazz scene centered around a single club in Milwaukee. It is local history that would be lost to time without these articles collected here. And the collection is more important than ever since the Journal and Sentinel archives have been pulled off Google Newspapers so that they can be sold at some point to users via subscription.
Most exciting for me was to flip open the book to the page dated May 21, 1981, where a gig I’ve heard so much about over the years – one I wish I’d have seen – is reviewed. One of my favorites, swinging organ grinder Jimmy Smith, was playing.
"Smith was just winding down a set of greasy, down-home blues, leavened by a mindless ballad or two, when a familiar figure appeared in the smoky haze behind the bar. He sported a fat stogie, a cup of Jell-O and an unmistakable impish smirk," wrote Lynch.
As Bill Cosby approached the band, drummer Kenny Dixon got up and Cosby sat down and "promptly proved he’s no joke on the skins."
While my esteem for Cosby has surely waned, the event has long been a storied moment in Milwaukee music history and to read about it here is great.
You can get a copy at a book signing event on Friday, Dec. 2 at the Center, 926 E. Center St., featuring legendary Milwaukee guitarist Manty Ellis and bassist Billy Johnson, along with Victor Campbell on drums and saxophonist Eric Schoor.
Lynch will sign copies of the book. LaPaglia, who lives in Oakland, California, will not be present.
You can read Lynch’s blog about the book – proceeds from which will benefit Riverwest Artists Association – here.
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