HUMANS OF THE PFISTER | SEPTEMBER 2016 | Back-to-School edition | “Is That All There Is?”

20160915_133845In between his sets at the Mason Street Grill this Monday–where he plays every Monday from 5:30-9pm–Chicago jazz pianist Joel Burt and I talked a little about his musical journey and, using a bit of interpretive poetic license, about the most important question any learner can ask: “Is that all there is?”

Getting here has been a life-long journey.

When I was younger, like ten years old, my mom said that I should take piano lessons.  And when mom says you’re going to take piano lessons, you take piano lessons.  But of course I wanted to play baseball, football.  I only dibble-dabbled with the piano for years after that.

I became an underwriter, but at one point I decided I’d like to try piano again.  I didn’t want to be in the front seat of the hearse; I didn’t want to be a vegetable.  So I enrolled at Berklee in Boston. Each day is a new day, right?  I always want to do something today that I didn’t do yesterday.  It’s always new–otherwise, what’s the point of doing the same thing all the time.  Like my mother used to tell me: “Make sure you go clean underwear on.”

I started off as a sideman for different bands, but now I’m pretty much in the lead.  I’ve been playing for six years at The Pfister and they finally gave me a drummer.  I mean, I’m not famous, but it’s nice getting called back.  I’m always learning, always getting better. I recently heard an arrangement played by an eighteen-piece orchestra and contacted the arranger: “You got to teach me how to do this.”  And he finally told me, “When’re we gonna start?”  Not “Here’s how much it’s going to cost” but “When’re we gonna start?”

I don’t ever want to live in a box.  Because life is like . . . a cabbage. A huuuge cabbage, with so many levels of life.  You can keep peeling it back and there’s still more!

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Mr. Burt and I ended our pleasant talk between sets by suggesting I listen to Peggy Lee’s song “Is That All There Is?”  If I’m understanding the lyrics correctly, the title line in the chorus suggests that the speaker has come to understand that powerful forces aren’t always as powerful as she perceived them to be.  Taken out of context, though, the title line could certainly echo Mr. Burt’s passionate optimism and desire for new experiences:

I remember when I was a very little girl, our house caught on fire.
I’ll never forget the look on my father’s face as he gathered me up
In his arms and raced through the burning building out to the pavement.
I stood there shivering in my pajamas and watched the whole world go up in flames.
And when it was all over I said to myself,
“Is that all there is to a fire?”

Is that all there is?
Is that all there is?
If that’s all there is my friends
Then let’s keep dancing
Let’s break out the booze and have a ball
If that’s all there is

And when I was 12 years old, my daddy took me to a circus.
“The Greatest Show On Earth.”
There were clowns and elephants and dancing bears.
And a beautiful lady in pink tights flew high above our heads.
And as I sat there watching, I had the feeling that something was missing.
I don’t know what, but when it was over,
I said to myself,
“Is that all there is to a circus?”

Is that all there is?
Is that all there is?
If that’s all there is my friends
Then let’s keep dancing
Let’s break out the booze and have a ball
If that’s all there is

And then I fell in love, with the most wonderful boy in the world.
We would take long walks by the river
Or just sit for hours gazing into each other’s eyes.
We were so very much in love.
Then one day, he went away and I thought I’d die.
But I didn’t.
And when I didn’t I said to myself,
“Is that all there is to love?”

Is that all there is?
Is that all there is?
If that’s all there is my friends, then let’s keep-

I know what you must be saying to yourselves.
“If that’s the way she feels about it why doesn’t she just end it all?”
Oh, no, not me.
I’m in no hurry for that final disappointment.
‘Cause I know just as well as I’m standing here talking to you,
That when that final moment comes and I’m breathing my last breath
I’ll be saying to myself-

Is that all there is?
Is that all there is?
If that’s all there is my friends
Then let’s keep dancing
Let’s break out the booze and have a ball
If that’s all there is

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.

Alivia and Elly

There was no dance floor so they created their own. Their dance moves were abstract, like the jazz. They were show stoppers – at just two feet tall. Who were these two little angels dressed in matching zebra print and ruffles at the Mason Street Grill? “People often mistake them for twins,” says Stacey, their mom. “They love to perform for others and make people smile and laugh. They are best buddies.” Elly is two and her sister Alivia is one – they are 13 months (to the day) apart and they’ve got serious rhythm.

Elly and Alivia
Elly and Alivia

Like trying to grab a slippery fish out of water, Stacey chased after her daughters as they continued to gyrate and giggle. She finally grabbed a hold so she could introduce me to these little dancing machines.

Goldberg Family lives in Chicago, but has been back and forth to Milwaukee ” so many times, we have stopped counting” in the past three and a half years. At just two years old, Elly has been to the hospital more than I have (and is probably a lot braver).

Because Stacey was 39 when she was pregnant with Elly, doctors recommended a more thorough “level two” ultrasound at 20 weeks of pregnancy. Doctors thought at the time  that Elly would be born with a congenital lung disease referred to as a CCAM (congenital cystic adenomatoid malformation) so the pregnancy was closely monitored. There was a growth of unhealthy tissue mass in Elly’s left lobe of her lung.

“Prior to Elly’s birth, we met with specialists both in Illinois and Wisconsin. We were incredibly impressed with Dr. Casey Calkins at Milwaukee’s Children’s Hospital. His broad knowledge, experience with this type of condition, and wonderful ability to connect with the children and families made him, without doubt, the number one choice for Elly’s medical journey,” reveals Stacey.

Miraculously, Elly came into this world asymptomatic, but needed a CT scan shortly after birth to determine the specifics of the mass, which they determined was a pulmonary sequestration. “It  is even more unique in the sense that it is a mass of nonfunctioning lung tissue that lacks normal connection with the tracheobroncheal tree and receives an anomalous blood supply and in Elly’s case, to the aorta,” said Stacey, although she might as well have been speaking Greek. She is no doctor herself, just (most obviously) an incredible mother committed herself to her daughter’s care.

Imagine being 40, four months pregnant and taking your 6-month-old baby to have the lower left lobe of her lung removed.  Dr. Calkins performed a thoracic surgery that created just two small incisions on her left side of her body. Both the physical and emotional scars from the surgery are minimal and quickly fading.

Milwaukee has become a special place for the Goldberg family throughout their journey and tonight they are celebrating the holidays together as a happy, healthy family at the Pfister.  Though they love Dr. Calkins, The Goldbergs were ecstatic to learn in July that Elly would no longer be under his care, without further follow-ups. Elly’s left lobe has been replaced with healthy lung tissue because the smaller the lung, the quicker it regenerates.

Stacey remarks, “We have found our new ‘home away from home’ at The Pfister. What a special place. The people in Milwaukee are delightful, warm, and so friendly. Milwaukee provides a big city feel, at a level that meets the needs of everyone.” The Goldbergs will most definitely be back to Milwaukee in 2013, under much happier circumstances.

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The Great Conversation

 

I was sitting in Timothy Westbrook’s studio this afternoon. It is a few days after his first successful gallery showing and already the man is back at work. While Timothy constructed new fabric joining cassette tape and wool I listened to the repeating slick/slack/creak/crack sound of his loom in motion. With the new dress in the works I sat thinking about the ongoing, timeless, human dialogue we seem to have termed “The Great Conversation.” This may seem strange or lofty material to be considering at work, but when surrounded with artwork on every wall you do feel like you’re having a regular dialogue with the artists. In this case, when Tim is working, you can have a conversation. Sitting in this artist’s studio/gallery, the below is something I observed. Considering, and offering to, that great conversation.

 

Timothy Westbrook rendering at his hand and foot powered loom.

The art created

these many human years

 

the sculptures

composed symphonies and jazz,

finger paint family portraits.

All of our literature,

film and photography

dance and theatre and

elaborate costume

 

The Dadas, the punk rockers

the Impressionists

and the Rococo

 

Even cave paintings and

Damien Hirst too

 

Every work

is a flare shot into the clouds

of a dark star-speckled sky, a prayer,

a boomerang flung quietly in to the ether,

 

Hopeful

 

that on the other end

they make contact

and are returned

by someone who

grins and responds,

 

“Me

too.”

 

 

Part 2: The Talking Piano of Dr. Jeffrey Hollander

 

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.

 

Family Dinner in Mason Street Grill

 

Saturday afternoon I swung in to Mason Street Grill. The restaurant wasn’t open and jazz played quietly while the fireplace crackled to an audience of empty bar stools. This Saturday was a sunny thaw of a day which followed a sudden Friday snowstorm. Roads now cleared by snowplows and sunshine generally forecasts a busy night for bars and restaurants. I was hoping to sit down and speak with Heather Kanter-Kowal, the restaurant’s assistant manager and sommelier. A sommelier is certified as a wine expert and anyone who has been able to pursue a field they love and convince the world to pay them for it is a person I want to know a little better.

It turned out Heather wasn’t available, but I noticed something curious. Nearly the entire restaurant staff was in the dining room seated at the counter. Everyone appeared to be eating and talking with one another. It was about 4pm, an hour before the ‘Grill opens for service. I happened to catch the bartender Ryan prepping the bar for the evening. 

I asked Ryan what was going on in the dining room. He took a brief look back through the clear glass behind the bottles and didn’t notice anything out of place.

“Oh, you mean our family meal?” he asked.

“If that’s what you call it, yes. What’s that all about?”

Ryan went on to explain that every evening before the restaurant opens the staff sits down for family dinner. This is the time when everyone gets to eat a meal before they plan to work around food for the next several hours. They are also able to try the evening’s specials to accurately describe them to diners. If wines are added to the restaurant’s palette, or changes in cocktails, or new menu additions this is when the staff is able to sample them in order to relay informed observations to customers. Managers Ed and Bradley take time to list all ingredients in case guests happen to have any aversions or allergies.

After the day’s specials were covered the managers brought out customer comments. When compliments were announced the appropriate employees received recognition. If there were criticisms everyone tried to pinpoint which day the guest may have visited, any issues that arose that specific evening, and how the guest’s experience could be improved upon. The two managers explained that to be successful the crew had to run smoothly as a team and to always strive to make their guest’s visit extraordinary.

I’ve worked in a few restaurants and I couldn’t help but marvel at the logical simplicity of such an idea. Feed your staff and they will be satisfied and smiling. It’s silly to think that anybody half hungry will be able to focus when in such a delectable environment. Then give them the tools to assertively explain to guests their dining and drinking options throughout their meal. Allow them the time to ask questions and voice any concerns. Then give them a few minutes to speak with one another as colleagues, friends, and family before they spend the next several hours concentrating on the needs of their guests. A staff requires down-time to communicate with one another before they can hope to perform successfully in the fray of a busy Saturday night. I stood quietly in the background listening to everyone. If a staff doesn’t have time to feel like a family, how can they welcome guests as warmly as one? It made so much sense I couldn’t help but chuckle to myself.

Family dinner struck me as an obvious metaphor for the Pfister ethos I’ve learned about up to this point. It starts by employing the best possible staff. Whether they’re a piano player, a dishwasher, or a wine expert, pay them well and fill their bellies. Then provide them with the tools they need to excel in their field. Keep the staff happy and they will make guests happier. Then open the doors and turn them wild at what they do best.

 

Strangers on a Bar Stool

Here’s what I like about Mason Street Grill…the vibe. It’s not just the cool jazz in the corner or the hushed lighting at the bar. It’s the eagerness of the patrons. They don’t have the “whew, no rx it’s over” aura of other happy hour revelers. In fact, I watched as businessmen gathered for a meeting as late as 7 p.m. As one trench-coated executive was mentioning his flight had just arrived and his colleagues greeted him quickly as a matter of task, unhealthy  I said to the man sitting next to me “Wow, they’re here to work?” and after a glance at their portfolios, he nodded, “yes.”

But it isn’t just that there’s still an eagerness and energy to the bar rather than a winding down. It seems to be full of secrets. The men chat each other as easily as the women do, but there’s something to the cast of the light that implies a spy novel is about to erupt. Or maybe a murder mystery… no, I’ve got it wrong, it’s noir. The entire space is a crackling film noir… this woman is clearly meeting her connection, that man has been jilted here before and the bartender keeps many secrets.

It takes more than clients to create such an elaborate dark, mysterious novel. The staff works like ninjas. From nowhere our food appeared and our drinks never emptied. Like Val at the lobby bar, Josh works quietly, hurriedly and with an efficiency unmatched. But he, too, seems to have an undercover quality. Edges of tattoos peek out from his collar and shirt cuffs. The two girls checking coats walk formally to the closet, but once inside, they grin and chat in hushed whispers to one another—another life, another side of the hotel becomes hidden among fur collars and wool.

I’m happy to steal a peek at what may lie beneath. It adds to the allure. Service is always impeccable at the Pfister and whether I’m wearing the tell-tale I-may-be-writing-about-you nametag or not, not a single staff member has ever missed a beat. But when the jazz filters in, the married ladies get to talking after the husbands relieve them at the bar, and dinner guests start departing for their tables while the cocktail drinkers saddle up…that’s when the vibe envelops you. And that’s when I like to see the staff reveal a glimpse of stocking.

I like knowing that they watch; I like the slippages that reveal they’ve seen it all before—bad pick up lines, first dates, love affairs, incredible business ideas left behind on cocktail napkins. I think they’re checking on me while I perform the duties of a Friday night out, making sure I play the right character in the movie and help move the plot forward.

Maple Dale School Students Will Shine On Stage at Mason Street Grill

Fox Point’s Maple Dale Jazz Combo Band takes their sound to Mason Street Grill’s music stage this Friday, December 3rd. The group, consisting of seven middle school students, performs there for the first time from 7:30 to 8:15 p.m.

Their opportunity was made possible by Maple Dale’s Director of Bands Jamie Breiwick, who also plays jazz music weekly at Mason Street Grill. Breiwick says his love of music was enhanced by a middle school performance and wanted to provide the same opportunity to his students. “I want to show these kids how their music studies can translate for others to enjoy, outside the school walls.”

The show consists of jazz standards like Duke Ellington and Herbie Hancock. Breiwick says the students have practiced for months and are “beyond excited” about the performance.

The show is open and free for the public. Everyone is also invited to stay for the Jamie Breiwick Group which starts playing at 8:30 p.m. that Friday.

Music on Mason [LIVE MUSIC]

The East Town Association’s Jazz in the Park has come to an end for the season, but the music doesn’t have to stop.

Soothe those Jazz blues at Mason Street Grill, where the music is playing Tuesday through Saturday.

Jamie Briewick Group performs Tuesday & Wednesday from 6:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. and Fridays from 8:00 p.m. to Midnight.

Jamie is regarded as one of Wisconsin‘s most in-demand and versatile jazz trumpet players. Jamie has shared the stage with many nationally recognized musicians including: Dan Nimmer, Joe Sanders, Willie Pickens, Jim Pugh, Steve Houghton, Brian Lynch, Pete Zimmer, Rob Wilkerson, Rick Germanson, Dan Kinzelman, and Carl Allen.

Mark Thierfelder Jazz Trio performs Thursdays from 7:30 p.m. to 11:30 p.m.

Mark Thierfelder is a native of Milwaukee, WI and began his musical studies on trumpet at age 12. Some of his strongest musical influences include, but are not limited to, Miles Davis, Benny Green, Duke Ellington, George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Louis Armstrong. Mark Thierfelder performs unique arrangements encompassing many different styles and genres.

Edgewood Entourage performs Saturdays from 7:00 p.m. to 11:00 p.m.

Luke Edgewood performs piano music with song arrangements that have just the right blend of pop & jazz. Solo, duo, trio or quartet; Luke Edgewood is versatile & will provide you with just the right level of entertainment.