Jazz Virgin

I admit it.  I’m a jazz virgin.

But The Pfister Hotel is going to initiate me.

At the Mason Street Grill on Wednesday evening, after listening to part of a set by the Jamie Breiwick/Mark Davis Duo, I snuck up to a table where a woman was sitting alone.

The Jamie Breiwick/Mark Davis Duo

Her companion had just temporarily vacated his seat to chat with Jamie and Mark.  This seemed like a good opportunity to see what she knew and thought about jazz.  I introduced myself (her name is Sheryl) and remarked about how smoothly Jamie’s embouchure and Mark’s fingers communicated with each other, almost telepathically (I didn’t use the term “embouchure”–I had to look that up!).  I was really bemoaning the fact that I’d never been able to tear my eyes away from the sheet music and just, well, jam.  Improvise.  Instead, my classical and acoustic guitar playing was always literally by-the-book.  Sheryl conjectured that improvisation was like telling each other, “We’re going to do this together–but also separately.  Let’s just agree to play in this key, this tempo, this style.”  Then I’m going to play, then you’ll come in when it seems right.  I’ll listen to your notes, you listen to my rhythm.  We’ll build off each other.   Communicate and create with a look, a beat, a tone.  We’ll build off what we know and take it from there.

20160608_214806Sheryl’s husband, Kurt, whose seat I had taken, is an accomplished pianist, composer, and arranger.  When Kurt returned to the table, I learned that he had arranged the music this spring for James & the Giant Peach at The Prairie School, where Jamie and I just got done teaching for the year, and had also just performed with Aretha Franklin at the Riverside the previous Friday.  When I told them that one of my missions as the Narrator is to uncover the story of jazz at The Pfister–and educate myself on the genre–both Sheryl and Kurt recommended that I begin my instruction with Ken Burn’s famous Jazz documentary series.  Sheryl admitted to knowing about as much as I do about the technical side of jazz, but it must be nice having a jazz expert to which to defer when jazz virgins like me ask questions like “How do Jamie and Mark know when to come in after the other one solos?” or “Are there many female jazz musicians?  Have there ever been?  If not, then how come?”  or “Were they just playing Coltrane or modern jazz or Monk or someone else?”  She was able to help up to a point, then she and I were in the same boat.  I hope we’ll find ourselves in that boat again during my year-long Pfister initiation into the world of jazz.

This pleasant conversation seems like a good starting point for my initiation–that and Ted Gioia’s Jazz Standards, which I had tucked into my bag in case I had time to read while listening to Jamie and Mark.  I wouldn’t have time to read, but I would go on that evening to meet several other people who undoubtedly will become some of my jazz mentors this year.

Jamie made sure to introduce me to August (Auggie) Ray, vice president of Jazz Unlimited of Greater Milwaukee, whose mission is “to support the art of jazz in all its forms and encourage local jazz musicians, composers and venues by cultivating an interest in jazz through local live performances, youth scholarship opportunities and community outreach throughout the Greater Milwaukee area.”  Auggie sat near the piano and typed prodigiously into his iPhone, posting to Facebook a photo of the Duo, some notes, and the location.  He calls The Pfister “one of the best promoters of live music in the city.”  With live piano seven days a week, live music in the Mason Street Grill six days, and live music at Blu at least two times a week, I couldn’t argue with him.  The Pfister is not alone in promoting live music, especially jazz.  Auggie moves from one live music venue to another throughout the week, averaging two a day, although his personal record is six in one day: Amelia’s at 5:00, The Packing House at 6:00, Caroline’s at 8:00 (mostly blues), Mason Street Grill at 9:00, then the Jazz Estate for until 1:00 am (reopening in July!).  At each new place, he posts to Facebook.  He is a constant presence in the life of jazz and blues in Milwaukee.  We only got to chat for a little bit, because he was headed up to Blu, but not before he gave me a Jazz Unlimited newsletter (this is going to be invaluable!) and told me that Dan Albrechtson, who plays piano in The Pfister lobby, has a steady gig–on every second Monday at Hart Park in Wauwatosa, where I live–giving a concert and jazz history lesson with Pete Wood, Bruce Yeo, Don Shesky, and Rob Moore.  (I’ll see you there soon, Dan!)

Before the night ended, I joined Mark Davis and his Wisconsin Conservatory of Music colleague, guitarist Paul Silbergleit, at Blu, where, it turns out, Mark Thierfelder had booked The Julie Lyon Quartet from New York City to play a special show with his Mark Thierfelder Trio.  (Of course, Auggie was up there already, posting away!)  Among other musical combos, Mark also plays with The Jazz Corporation, joined by Greg Marcus and Bill Bonifas.  While Julie sang the Ella Fitzgerald/Louis Armstrong version of 1945’s “Frim-Fram Sauce,” popularized by The Nat King Cole Trio, Paul and I discussed my earlier regret, the one I’d shared with Sheryl, about never being able to improvise or jam.  In something of a consolation, he assured me that there are musicians who only improvise but who don’t really know music, and that there are musicians who can only read music, who know notes on the page and perhaps music theory, but who don’t really feel music.  He argued for a happy medium.  We also talked about how one’s environment can come out in one’s music, just as it can emerge in writing (Paul referenced Hemingway and Key West).  

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The Julie Lyon Quartet

However, as interesting and cerebral as our conversation became, these are things I’ll have to think about later as I try to learn more about jazz, as an art form and as a source of stories here at The Pfister Hotel.  Sometimes, at midnight, in a crowded bar with interesting gentlemen and songs about pork chops and bacon, oss-en-fay and shafafa, one just wants to enjoy one’s Old Fashioned, nibble on wasabi peas, tell stories, laugh–and listen.

An Introduction: Prequel No. 1

Greetings, Milwaukee!

While Narrator Emeritus Jonathan West’s photograph and bio still linger on the sidebar–it’s no wonder, since he has become such a presence and voice at the Pfister over the past year–I offer you two “prequels” to my first official post as Pfister Hotel Narrator, in which I will formally introduce myself and give thanks to those who have come before me.  These two prequels are adapted from the two sample blog posts I submitted to the selection committee.  The first, “My Nemesis,” is brought to you by . . .

. . . a recent mid-April evening, when I followed a young man with a guitar case into the Mason Street Grill, in search of a story to write as part of the process of becoming the next Pfister Hotel Narrator.  As one of three finalists, I knew I had to work with a close ear and a nimble pen.  My plan was to listen for a while to the Jamie Breiwick/Mark Davis Duo, then snag Jamie for an interview in between sets.  This should be easy, I thought, since Jamie is a colleague at a local independent school, where I currently teach English and he teaches Instrumental Music.  I’ve enjoyed hearing him at Blu several times, but always in the evening, when the lounge is bustling.

Jamie Breiwick on trumpet at Blu.

However, as I sat down with a whiskey, my phone, and my stylus, I felt a presence.  In fact, I saw him and heard him. I could swear that this presence was also a finalist for the Narrator position.  I imagined that, just because he was writing in a notebook, he must have had the same objective as I had.  It’s not every day that you see people scratching in actual notebooks anymore.  He had had, I assumed, the same idea: hang out at the Mason Street Grill and capture the ambiance of the Grill and the rhythm of the Duo.  I really did feel a tad competitive–even nervous–because he seemed to have an “in” that I didn’t have, as you’ll see, even despite my connection with Jamie.  This is the poem that emerged from this, my first “foray” in the Pfister’s first-floor restaurant where I hoped to spend plenty of time in the coming year:

My Nemesis

I know the trumpet player,
so I head toward him,
accidentally intercepting
the snap of his 1-2-3
with a handshake-hug,
then, embarrassed, take a seat
at the bar to strategize
how best to write the song
of this Mason Street crowd.   

What I don’t know is this room yet:
a bustle of dark wood, cool leather,
dim ceiling dinner din.
The portamento of the familiar trumpet
guides me, glides me from table to table:
two women crack up over selfies,
a man leans into his conversation
with a woman who sits near
another man politely slicing
a tenderloin as another one–
my nemesis–
tells the bartender coyly,
“Oh, you talked me into it.”

I know the trumpet player,
but I also already know my nemesis,
my competitor, because I can tell
he’s been here for awhile
and already gotten used to
the polyrhythmic beat of the bar and the band,
the bustle of dark wood, cool leather,
dim ceiling dinner din.

He has beaten me to a bench near a bookcase
in the corner between the kitchen
and the exit, as valets enter and leave.  
He sits there, visible but secretive,
writing in a notebook.
I had seen him see me come into the bar,
felt him eye me knowingly,
writer to writer,
as I removed my phone and stylus,
moved to the loveseat in front of him,
and alternately sipped my whiskey
and jotted notes about the music.
If we were both going to narrate the Pfister,
then at least I would be closer to the band.
But I worried my words were his words,
only more cliche:
“Sprinkling staccato keys.”
“Punctuating, gallivanting, tumbling.”
“Skipping trumpet.”
“Pulsing pluck of guitar.”
I feel his competitive words behind me,
his seasoned bluesy ear
that was probably writing
more than gerunds,
his comfortable rapport with the bartender:
“Oh, you talked me into it.”
And then my suspicions are confirmed
when the music stops and he approaches the band
before I can, with another drink in hand,
like a reporter, a critic, to confirm their names
and read an excerpt–he’s pretty forward–
from his review, which, I am shocked,
uses words like “derivative” and “painful.”

But neither the trumpet player who I know
nor the piano nor the guitar seems to mind.
Instead, they augment the dinner din
with ironic chuckles and slap my nemesis on the back.
Defeated, I wonder how he has glided so easily
into their blues, gotten to know this room
so confidently.

It’s been such a long time
since I’ve observed and listened,
written unhindered by the looming
deadlines of anxious clocks.
Dragged along by the melancholy tug
of the blues, I realize that I allowed
my mind to wander and create a character
out of a corner bench, a notebook,
a glance, and “Oh, you talked me into it.”
To insert and assert myself into the lives
of these Mason Street strangers,
I will need to become my own character,
learn to interrupt their dinner din,
blend my pitch with theirs,
emerge from the dark wood and cool leather,
and smile myself into their lives
as cooly as my fantasy nemesis,
who turns out to be a prolific drummer

who’s known the trumpet player longer than I have,
who’s known rooms like this longer than I’ve been alive.  

Turns out that my “fantasy nemesis,” however, was just retired drummer Rick Krause, who, according to a performance bio provided by Jamie, was “about 14 years old when he began taking the bus from Oconomowoc to Milwaukee every other week to study jazz drumming.”  He was there, of course, to enjoy the Duo; his critical “review” was a joke among friends.  For about 40 years, from 1971 into the aughts, Rick performed with locals like Mark Davis (my piano man this evening!) and national artists like Eartha Kitt.  The list is pretty extensive; I’ve never heard of any of these people!  I’m realizing that the jazz world is a networked litany of names and notes: Melvin Rhyne, David Hazeltine, Barry Velleman, Teddy Wilson, Bud Freeman, Eddie Higgins, Richie Cole, Chris Connor, Jackie Allen, Pete Condoli, Edie Adams, Barbara McNair, Kirk Stuart, Rich Crabtree, John Gary, Johnny Desmond, Ken Berry, Phil Ford and Mimi Hines, Kaye Ballard, Arthur Siegel, Hildegard, Tony Martin, The Four Lads, Jimmy Rodgers.  

One of my plans this year is to narrate this unfamiliar (to me) world of jazz for the guests of the Pfister and visitors to the website.  Incidentally, the young man with the guitar case was the Duo’s accompanying guitarist Max Bowen, who, I learned, moved to Milwaukee from Michigan only about a month ago.  I got a chance to sit down with Jamie and Max in between sets–talking about education and jazz and improvisation and Africa.  More on both of them, too, I hope, in future posts!