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Tuesday, Oct. 26, 2010

Milwaukee Jazz

Profiles in Music

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Live jazz was easier to find in Milwaukee in the 1940s than now—and in easier in the ‘50s, ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s. Perhaps some compensation for the dwindling number of jazz venues came from the solidification of jazz education at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music. Since the ‘70s some of our city’s best musicians have taught there, gaining steady income and a setting where they can pass their skills to new generations.

Derek J. Pinkham was a Conservatory jazz student before leaving town. On his way out, he compiled interviews with over 30 local jazz musicians. Compiled as Milwaukee Jazz Profiles: Lives & Lessons of Musicians from the Cream City (Marquette University Press), Pinkham’s book contains many engaging memories from the past 35 years. Of course, we can all think of someone Pinkham neglected, but that’s almost inevitable in a collection of this kind. An assertive editor should have expunged many unnecessary footnotes and curbed the author’s proclivity for officious words such as “aforementioned,” but none of this distracts too much from the stories told by the musicians interviewed.


Neil Chandek, for one, paints a knowing picture of the several scenes he’s worked in—“the white jazz crowd with the mixed musicians, changes, straight ahead stuff” and “… the sub-culture scene, like the organ and the funk-jazz scene which was on the North Side. You also had the Latin, they all contributed to one another.” But for every Chandek who maintains steady gigs, often in unlikely places, and for every Paul Silbergleit, ensconced at the Conservatory there is a Juli Wood working in Chicago instead of her hometown, or a Brian Lynch who made for New York. Of course, it’s unlikely that a city Milwaukee’s size could ever be a true jazz mecca, even if top rank musicians such as Roland Kirk and Buddy Montgomery have sometimes lived here. What’s sad is that the opportunities to find live audiences seem to shrink year by year.