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Monday, Aug. 27, 2012

Return of the Jazz Gallery

Arts center as community resource in Riverwest

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The original Milwaukee Jazz Gallery transmitted a far-reaching beacon, a creative-freedom vibe even the Statue of Liberty might've caught and tapped her toe to. America's art of improvised musical expression thrived in arguably the greatest jazz club in Milwaukee history, with a reputation that radiated throughout the nation's jazz-musician community.

Today, the same address on Center Street houses the Jazz Gallery Center for the Arts, a venue for performances and jam sessions and art exhibits. The new center honors and reinvents the tradition of the original.

After the club's glorious but difficult run, from September 1978 to the fall of 1984, founder and owner Chuck LaPaglia moved on to propose and then book live jazz at Yoshi's in Oakland, today one of the premier jazz clubs in the world.

“But many musicians still talk about how special the Milwaukee Jazz Gallery was,” LaPaglia recalls.

And today?

“A whole generation of Americans has no idea what serious jazz is,” laments Mark Lawson, leader of the Riverwest Artists Association, which owns the facility.

The original Jazz Gallery staged concerts by Dizzy Gillespie, Betty Carter, Freddie Hubbard, Stan Getz, Dexter Gordon, Dave Holland, Wynton and Branford Marsalis, Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers and many more—a living jazz history.

You could catch world-class blues acts like Koko Taylor and Albert Collins, and local theater groups like Theatre X. The Jazz Gallery also nurtured local musicians who now have national stature, including Brian Lynch, David Hazeltine, Lynne Arriale and even the Violent Femmes and Paul Cebar. Renowned pianist-vibist Buddy Montgomery, then residing in Milwaukee, used the space for meetings of the Milwaukee Jazz Alliance, helping to define LaPaglia's vision for it as a community resource.

That legacy drives Lawson. “We are passionate about the mission to combat the commercialism that has swallowed up America's original art form,” he says, noting the music's paltry presence on local radio and in press coverage. African World Festival's jazz is mostly the smooth variety. Even the huge umbrella of Summerfest has long since forsaken jazz, although several local groups made inroads on the Potawatomi stage this summer.

The new Jazz Gallery presents locals and a few touring groups, including the Brooklyn-based trio Chives on Friday, Aug. 31. The Jazz Gallery's managing partner is Milwaukee Jazz Vision (MJV), a musician-run organization that stages concerts and promotes the Milwaukee jazz scene with an impressive, cutting-edge website. An MJV stage will debut Sept. 8 at Center Street Daze Festival with the Milwaukee Jazz Vision Quintet and other groups playing from 4-8 p.m.

In May, the Jazz Gallery Center for the Arts participated in a national network event involving venues in various cities, “The Undead Festival—Night of the DIY,” with top local bands including the Extra Crispy Brass Band, a rollicking and popular neo-New Orleans-style ensemble.

The new gallery presents visual art just as resourcefully. Recent art exhibits have included handmade Navajo rugs and a vibrant, varied group show from the Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design (MIAD), where Lawson has curated exhibits for several decades.

Another Jazz Gallery partner is the Milwaukee Youth Symphony Orchestra (MYSO).

“This collaboration is in its infancy in finding ways to work with kids across disciplines,” says Jeno Somlai, jazz studies director at MYSO. “I do see a renaissance beginning, and hopefully a groundswell of activity will bring recognition to Milwaukee culture.”

The opportunity to pursue one's creativity “changes a person's life, whether it's jazz, poetry, art or dance,” Lawson says. Such intimate, informal venues remain the lifeblood of the improviser's art. MJV and MYSO have given the grassroots facility citywide outreach and worldwide presence, and the gallery hopes for even more partners.

For information on Jazz Gallery events and hours, visit www.jazzgallerymke.com. The MJV site is www.milwaukeejazzvision.org.

Kevin Lynch was nominated for a Pulitzer for his jazz coverage in
The Milwaukee Journal, was an arts and jazz columnist for The Capital Times and has written for DownBeat, The Village Voice and many other publications.

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