The Pfister specializes in weddings. They seem to happen here every weekend, sometimes a few concurrently. Here’s a poem about something we’ve all seen at weddings: The Generations Dance. You know, the one where all the married couples get up and gradually leave as the number of years they’ve been married are ticked away by the announcer.
* If you’d like to hear a spoken recording of this poem, please scroll to the bottom to listen or download *
As mentioned in an earlier post I’ve put considerable thought toward how to chronicle Jeff, his playing, and more specifically his playing at the Pfister Hotel. There are several occasions when I’ve left the hotel and driven home in silence because after hearing him at the piano anything on the radio sounded like a frivolous muck.
Different ways to “capture” Jeff battled with one another in my head. Photographs, photographs of his hands, photographs of his facial expressions while playing. Brief videos of the way his hands dance across the keys. Recording the audio of him playing and with no dialogue whatsoever. A poem about his playing, about piano as a whole, about piano history, about jazz and American folk musics being high art. A conceptual piece called The Silent Man, about the piano player in the corner who wields the loudest voice in the room without speaking at all. But in the end I decided to interview Jeff and partner our interview with his playing layered throughout. What better way to document him than to record exactly what he does?
During our conversation Jeff discusses how he started playing piano at the age of 4, his college level education beginning at age 7, who he considers his timeless contemporaries, and the years of inspiration the Grand Hotel of the West has provided him.
Below is former Pfister Resident Artist Katie Musolff’s rendering of Dr. Hollander, in the hotel’s hallway for all to see. To listen simply click play on the good doctor’s piano below, or click download to listen later.
As I mentioned in an earlier blog post I was able to see Wild Institute founder Chris Heeter speak during UW-Milwaukee’s Women Leaders Conference. Chris’ speech struck a chord with me on many levels and I knew I couldn’t pass up an opportunity to document a few of her philosophies for the blog.
Assuming her canine companion would like some grass respite I suggested we walk four blocks to the Lake Michigan lakefront. While walking I did the best I could to record our conversation, not trip on Tuu Weh’s leash (Chris explains her name), and not bonk Chris in the nose with the mic.
In the audio track below Chris begins by explaining her organization, Wild Institute. After that we discuss similarities between canine/human communication, and how it can be an effective analogy for group dynamics in the workplace. To listen to Chris’ fascinating observations and her excitement for the natural world simply click >Play below or download to listen on your mp3 player/intelligent phone/iPod, etc.
This is the one I’ve avoided writing. The elephant in my room. The profile I’ve put off for five months while I watched and listened quietly in the background, leaning against a column with my arms crossed wondering how it happens and how to write about it.
Every time I’ve listened to Dr. Jeffrey Hollander play the piano I’ve had a clear desire to write about him, to chronicle the man and his work. I’m a music fan but I’ve never been a musician. I can converse in a limited manner regarding jazz and even less when it comes to classical composition. But we all know when we’ve been able to observe an art which resonates within us. There has been more than one occasion when I’ve listened to Jeff play and I feel like he’s reached inside of me and turned my ribs into piano keys. Then, there I am in a hotel lobby and suddenly sniffing and clearing my throat amongst a roomful of travelers.
When Jeff’s playing within the setting of the Pfister Hotel it’s almost as though you’re attending a private concert. Sometimes he’s behind the piano for lunchtime, sometimes evening, other nights he plays late. Often, in the late morning sun there are only a few other people who happen to be on their computers or reading while he plays, looking around the room to catch eyes and smile to anyone whose ears have perked. I still haven’t wrapped my brain around the fact that some people come to work and get paid while listening to Jeff play multiple times a week.
So what’s my deal? Why haven’t I just gotten over it and written about the guy already?
My conundrum is this: How do I presume to be able to ask questions of someone regarding an activity, a vocation, a way of life they’ve lived for 70 years?
The irony is that Jeff is a surprisingly engaging musician. Beyond being an approachable musician, he’s a nice guy. Throw out your image of the stormy, brooding genius and replace it with a guy who will tell you about the composer of the piece he’s playing, why they are important, and will ask if there is anything you would like to hear.
In most musical performances there is a barrier between the performer and the audience. Sometimes it’s literal, for instance a stage (Or those weird cages that only exist in tough guy bars in movies like Road House.), but even if there is no obvious stage there is a perceived separation between performer and listener. This makes sense, as playing music is difficult. It requires concentration. For most people an instrument, or painting, or basketball requires most of the individual’s brain power. I know I’m not a very interesting person to sit with when I’m typing. Jeff, however, likes talking when he’s playing. He invites the audience to engage him. His entire face lights up when someone sits at the table closest the piano and begins speaking with him.
There are no shortage of stories about Jeff’s playing. He’s performed all over the world and has played at the Pfister for well over 20 years. Many hotel staff members have their own song, a song he knows they enjoy and he begins playing when they walk through the lobby, or arrive for their shift. Concierge Peter Mortensen’s is “Kiss Me Again” by Victor Herbert. One time a little girl asked if he’d ever heard of a song she liked called “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” which made Jeff grin. She sang, lighting up the entire lobby, while the doctor backed her as the smiling rhythm section.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve watched people, clearly in thought and on their way to an appointment, stop in stride upon realizing the music that they’re hearing. They then look back and forth toward the sliding doors and longingly toward the man behind the piano. Realizing the happenstance musical moment they’ve stumbled into they’re earnestly considering how much time before they absolutely need to leave to arrive on-time.
This has happened to me dozens of times over the past five months, which is probably to blame for the timid sense of awe I’ve acquired toward Jeff. I want to capture him accurately and I don’t want to screw it up.
So, now that I’m getting over my stage fright in approaching this easygoing guy, Part 2 will be about Jeff and his piano. Tonight, as he always does on the first Thursday of every month, Dr. Hollander will be performing in Blu. The series is called Rhapsodies in Blu, and entry to the 23rd floor is free. I encourage you to listen to him dance across the keys before reading Part 2 about the man and his music in the very near future.
Ah, big brother Chicago. Just two hundred years ago we were part of the same Illinois territory.
People come to Milwaukee for many reasons. Business. Dinner. Conventions. Celebrations. Sporting events. Art openings. Museums.
Visitors ask certain key questions which lead me to conclude they’re not from Milwaukee. This line of conversation usually takes place after someone says, “So how do I get a cab around here?” or “This place is great, where else should I visit?” Or they call the water drinking oasis a fountain instead of a bubbler.
I’ve noticed a trend of Chicagoans visiting us just for fun. Upon discovering this I always ask what their impressions are. Being a life-long Milwaukeean I’m curious to hear how our city is perceived.
Below are some of the most common observations of Milwaukee followed by explanations I’ve been able to piece together.
* “It’s so inexpensive here.”
That’s true, part of the reason is the sales tax “Down South” is 9.5%, compared with our 5.6%. But also being a smaller city things are just cheaper in Milwaukee. Smaller population=more resources to go around.
* “That art museum on the lake is incredible!”
You’re right, we are lucky to have had our most recent addition to the Milwaukee Art Museum designed and built by Santiago Calatrava. But years before that the art museum has an interesting story. The core of the museum’s pieces were donated by Frederick Layton, also the namesake of Milwaukee’s Layton Boulevard. Mr. Layton, along with John Plankinton, their fortunes in cattle and pigs. The Layton School of Art was started shortly after his death and when closed in 1974 was listed in the country’s top 5 art schools.
Just to the North of the Calatrava addition is what Milwaukee residents refer to as the War Memorial. After World War II an architect from Finland named Eliel Saarinen was commissioned to build a Veteran’s Memorial. Despite Eliel’s passing in 1950, his son Eero took over to complete the project on Milwaukee’s Lakefront. With construction supervision by Milwaukee architect Maynard W. Meyer and Associates, this floating building was created. The building appears to hover above Mason Street on geometric legs of reinforced concrete.
Completed in 2001 Santiago Calatrava’s addition comprises a few different areas including the Quadracci Pavilion which regularly holds weddings, openings, and other special events. Windover Hall looks out toward the lake as though one is inside a glass wrapped ship hull. Atop Windover Hall is the incredible moving sculpture known as the Burke Brise Soleil whose wings literally open at 10am, close and reopen daily at noon, then close for the evening when museum locks up.
The Milwaukee Art Museum is a four block walk from the Pfister Hotel.
* “Everyone here is so nice to us!”
Oh well gee shucks, ma’am. That’s really kind of you to say. But you should meet my cousin John. He’s a really, really nice guy. Are you hungry? I just made this pie for you…
* “That brewery tour was so much fun.”
What made Milwaukee famous…
It’s true we are a beer city. Prohibition was more than a small stumbling block to the city’s industry but brewing culture is thriving in Milwaukee. So much that we named our baseball team after the people who make beer. Although Pabst, Schlitz, and Blatz are no longer producing themselves, many brewers have taken up the cause. Visitors are able to tour Miller which has existed in the Valley for well over 150 years. If something smaller is your flavor we’ve got many options including (but not limited to) Sprecher, Lakefront, Milwaukee Brewing Company. Tours also take place at the Best Place; the bar, gift shop, and former board room inside the Pabst Brewery complex. With all the talk of beer it’s easy to forget craft distillers just past the Harley Davidson Museum, Great Lakes Distillery, who are on the cutting edge of producing rum, absinthe, vodka, and many other liquors.
* “Dinner was great last night, we’re trying to decide between our options tonight. Which would you recommend?”
Our restaurants are a bit of a great secret around here. According to Zagat we have 3 of the country’s top 30 restaurants in the area. I love getting dinner at Mason Street Grill, and they have a spectacular happy hour.
* “It’s so easy to get around this city, there’s hardly any traffic ~or~ We took the train here, it’s been such an easy trip; an hour here, an hour back. ”
This makes sense, Milwaukee’s metro area has about one fifth the population of Chicago and it’s suburban outskirts. Milwaukee also has a growing bicycle population and network of bike specific trails which cuts down on four-wheeled commuters. In addition our bus system has been revised recently and ridership is up. Milwaukee is also fairly spread out, our population isn’t too densely packed into any one area.
* (and probably the biggest compliment) “We’d both rather live here but then we’d have to commute every day to our offices in Chicago.”
Even if you don’t drive it is surprisingly easy to get between Chicago and Milwaukee. There are several bus options. The Amtrak Hiawatha route from ‘The Windy terminates in downtown Milwaukee a mere 12 blocks from your favorite hotel.
For all these reasons and more our Illini brethren are discovering that a mere 90 miles to the north Milwaukee might just be the best deal in Chicago.
To my dismay I realized that the UW-Milwaukee Women Leaders Conference scheduled to take place at the Pfister Friday, March 30th was sold out. I’d hoped there was a possibility to watch from the perimeter and take in a little of the conference.
Thursday evening I was in the lobby lounge speaking with pianist Dr. Jeffrey Hollander regarding a Pfister blog I’ve been working on about the man. There was a woman seated at the table closest Jeffrey and the three of us talked for a bit. In conversation I asked if she was local or from out of town. She explained that she was involved with Friday’s conference. My new acquaintance then asked what I was getting into at the hotel and I explained the Narrator position and how I had hoped to cover the conference in some capacity. It turned out I was sitting with Jan Allen, UW-Milwaukee’s Director of Business, Engineering & Technology in the school’s Continuing Education Department. Completely by mistake (does serendipity make mistakes?) I ended up being invited to check out Friday’s activities. You never know who you’re going to meet at this hotel…
By 8am Friday morning, like countless times before, the Pfister’s 7th floor ballrooms were transformed to fit the needs of the event. A banquet spread of breakfast foods and coffee cakes, teas, coffee, and soft drinks welcomed conference-goers on their way into the Grand Ballroom.
Kicking off the day’s events was keynote speaker Gloria Steinem. I tread lightly in suggesting I can introduce you to Ms. Steinem as there is little need for introduction. She is a journalist, publisher, and activist (and a wearer of many other hats). Steinem co-founded Ms. magazine and has worked for over half a century toward the changes she’d like to see in the world. I encourage reading this March 16th New York Times article about Ms. Steinem’s long career. Steinem’s speech, “The Longest Revolution,” included her Top 10 list of priorities and conclusions to keep in mind moving forward. Following her speech there were a few minutes for questions and lucky participants were able to ask the questions they’ve always wondered of the longtime lightning rod. Having Gloria Steinem speak injected the day with a feeling which reminded me of the phrase, “We are the ones we have been waiting for” (line from a poem by June Jordan which can [and should!] be read here).
After Gloria’s speech there were several sessions which ran concurrent. It was difficult to choose which one to listen to but what caught my eye was Lora Hyler’s Where Are the Women? Taking a Seat At the Board: How Women Directors Impact Company Success. Ms. Hyler detailed the positive impacts companies have seen when women are in high positions. She charted breakdowns by gender and race of who leads the world’s companies. She explained methods women can use to break into leadership groups which can resemble an old boy’s club. Hyler stressed that the key was to find ways to communicate effectively with superiors and colleagues, regardless if that communication takes place in boardrooms or on the golf course. Ms. Hyler also explained that after one woman is admitted to a board of directors it is generally easier for women to follow in her steps. Before the session was over participants shared experiences and strategies of how to grow in their careers and climb above the proverbial glass ceiling.
Before lunch I was able to see Chris Heeter speak on a few different topics. Ms. Heeter founded The Wild Institute and has decades of experience guiding outdoor groups. Her speech was titled You girls out here all alone? The Wild Side of Leadership. With a bittersweet chuckle she explained that she couldn’t recall how many times a solitary man had asked their group of women that silly question whether out on the trail or paddling. Chris also has a great deal of experience working with sled dogs and explained how communication between dogs and the human guiding the sled could be a useful analogy for the working world. For an immediate understanding of her perception of the leader’s role she began by explaining that with a dogsled the leader guides from an observational post behind the dogs. Chris speaks with a wisdom and exuberance that is difficult to convey in mere typed words. Both she and her canine companion Tuu Weh left an indelible impression on attendees.
Between the lunch and afternoon sessions I was in the elevator and a woman looked over to me. She leaned in while her whole face smiled and she asked, “What do you think of the conference so far?”
Beyond asking my impression it was clear that she wanted to make sure to engage me and encourage the idea that- even though I happen to be a guy- it was okay for me to have an opinion.
“Well…” I weighed the day’s experiences up to that point… “There has been a lot of great information and valuable things I’ve heard, but most of it hasn’t been gender specific. It seems unfortunate that there exists a need to term it a Women’s Conference for this information to be disseminated from one place.”
“Exactly,” she laughed as we exited the elevator, “that’s the point! If only we could help the entire world arrive at that conclusion. We’re getting there…”
That was the first thing out of his mouth when I mentioned I’d been shopping for a house.
“French doors can brighten up any space. If there is no doorway, build a doorway. Anything can be done. Of course, it’s easier if a house is exactly how you want it when you first walk through but that’s not realistic. Floor plans can be changed, walls can be built or removed, it all depends what you’d like to do. But the first most important thing is whether you like the house and whether you like the location. Beyond that, everything can be changed. Don’t be afraid to change things.”
Shortly after I became a fixture at the Pfister I realized there were a lot of return customers. Faces I saw over and over again. Not the travelers who return when they visit the city (although there are many) but Milwaukee residents who come to the hotel as their regular place to hold court, discuss diverse topics with a diverse crowd, and maybe enjoy a tasty lunch.
There are regulars who come in just for a cup of coffee. One such gentleman is Joe. Joe drinks his coffee with plenty of cream and warmed often. He’s never mentioned that but from the frequency at which lounge bartenders fill his cup and the smile he responds with tells me he likes a hot cup.
Joe is probably the snappiest dresser of all the regulars. I gather that he doesn’t leave the house without a suit coat, and probably grew up in a time when businessmen would never consider doing such a thing. The coat is often threaded with pinstripes matching his wool slacks. Cuff links to match or accent the tie. The tie arranged in a crisp Windsor knot. Hair in place and always a clean shave.
After Joe made his suggestion of French doors he went on to tell me that he’d spent most of his working life in architecture and real estate. He explained that he’s been involved in his share of remodels and that patience is very important.
“Remember to have fun! You get to make this house however you want it to be. You’re getting to build your castle. Don’t forget that the process can be as fun and as interesting as the result. Have fun and don’t rush it. If you’re in a position to take your time, take your time and get it done the way you want. I’ve found some of my favorite interior pieces in the strangest places. Rummage sales, secondhand stores, antique stores. When the right piece presents itself you’ll know.”
I see Joe walking the halls, ambulating as a way to get thoughts in place, or allow a momentary change of perspective to produce observations. Motion as a way to not only stimulate the blood but also the mind. When happening upon conversation Joe stands upright and his hands clasped behind his back, welcoming discourse.
A few weeks ago Joe offered several options for investing. Strategies for how one could pick out ways to make money just by reading the newspaper and placing one’s money in the correct place. Being a poet with my head always somewhere between a book and the clouds I’ve not put a lot of thought in to retirement or investing. He explained different theories of how the economy responds to different inputs and how there is always money to be made if one pays attention. After awhile I almost wondered if I should start day trading.
The most recent time I ran into Joe he was trying to figure out the upcoming presidential election. Rather, he was trying to figure out what the candidates were doing and why. Why they had chosen to focus on certain topics and not focus on other topics. Their reasons for campaigning in certain states and not others. How they will learn to work together once a candidate is selected. The chess of human interaction.
The economy, politics, real estate. It would be easy to miss the point of Joe’s conversation and conclude the guy’s trying to make a buck. But it’s not the money behind these things that makes Joe so curious. The puzzle of how everything fits together is what intrigues him. It’s the strategy, the reasoning behind the action that Joe is always trying to distill. As if he sees the world as a giant Swiss watch and in his mind he’s leaning over a workbench unscrewing every tiny component to hold it closer to the light while squinting and ask the tiny bauble, “Now what have we here…?”
The Pfister has received countless compliments on their Marcus Celebrated Chefs series. Many of the compliments centered around the hotel’s Executive Chef Brian Frakes. People talked about how generous he was with his knowledge and always sent them home with extra food. Guests went home energized with new ideas of how to invigorate their home cooking.
It turned out I’d met Brian briefly when I first came on as narrator. Concierge Peter Mortensen was giving me the introductory tour and we walked downstairs by the kitchen. Brian and I briefly shook hands and exchanged greetings. There were so many people and although good with faces names have never been my strong suit. We were in the kitchen but his manner was so welcoming it didn’t occur to me he could be the hotel’s chef. Most of the chefs I’ve observed in the past exude a territorial bravado (and, to be fair, it’s possible I’ve clicked the television past too many “reality” shows where the chef is always yelling about something), and Brian didn’t carry himself this way. He has a calm confidence and an “ask questions first, then respond with an informed answer,” way about him.
It’s quite possible that is why Brian’s events have translated so well. Yesterday Brian and I sat down and talked about his start in the business, his experiences in the kitchen, and how he ended up in Milwaukee as the Pfister’s Executive Chef. Listen in to give your ears a little taste of his experience and philosophy. Either click play below or download the track to listen later.
Do you remember 1964, what happened after blues and rock and roll exported across the Atlantic Ocean and came back from a stop in England? The Kinks, The Dave Clark Five, The Animals, Donovan, The Rolling Stones, and of course The Beatles. When those four lads arrived in the States there was pandemonium along every stop. Each airport was crowded with admirers. Imagine a limousine driver trying to wade through a sea of screaming high school girls. These four gentlemen had not a moment to themselves once they hit stateside. Countless young ladies tried anything just for a handshake, a wave, a photograph, or even an up close glimpse of The Beatles.
A couple nights ago I met with a woman named Chris who remembered seeing The Beatles at the Milwaukee Arena, today known as the U.S. Cellular Arena. The year was 1964 and two 5th row seats cost less than $5. Nearly 50 years later she sat down to tell me about seeing the band all those years ago. Chris also told me about the rumor which lead to her own variety of “British Invasion” following the show. Listen below to her vivid recollection of seeing the Fab Four and where she tried to find them after the concert.