There’s something about both jazz and blues that gets deep into your fibers. Genres with myriad powers. Music potent enough to make you muse, sway or wail.
They’re cousins, of sorts.
Jazz, pioneered by Black musicians in the early 20th century, features syncopated rhythms, particular chords and "a large amount of improvisation," says one music glossary. Blues is an "early and basic jazz style of music with a predictable chord structure, not religious and usually slow in tempo."
Characterize them as you wish. They’re best experienced live.
So where in Wisconsin’s largest city can you see jazz or blues performed? That’s what Wisconsin Public Radio’s WHYsconsin was asked.
Even if you’re a fairly music-savvy Milwaukeean, don’t feel bad if a list of clubs doesn’t trip off your tongue.
"There are a lot of places to go to hear music, but it can be a little challenging to figure out where those places are," said pianist Mark Davis, founder and artistic director of the Milwaukee Jazz Institute.
Finding blues venues can be vexing, too.
"Barefoot" Jimmy Schwarz, founder of The Blues Disciples, a Milwaukee band formed in 1990, said "it used to be a little different. You could think of four or five right off the top of your head that were blues all the time."
One consequence of media fragmentation is live music listings aren’t as robust as they were. And clubs that offer live jazz or blues don’t necessarily promote the events on their websites or social media.
Nevertheless, "there’s a lot of great players in the city — there’s the established older players and there’s a great scene of young players coming up," said Davis, who is also an adjunct music instructor at Alverno College in Milwaukee. He cited, among other jazz artists, vocalist Marcya Daneille, saxophonist Juli Wood and 90-year-old guitarist Manty Ellis.
Schwarz, who runs the Milwaukee Blues Facebook page, said Milwaukee’s blues scene is on the upswing, fueled in part by a new generation of players and, perhaps, world events.
"There’s a number of very talented, dedicated young performers that are playing blues. The young energy is really encouraging," he said.
Blues is "a cathartic music," he added. "We’ve been through a couple of tough years."
Here are some jazz and blues options in various parts of Milwaukee, including downtown and the inner city, as well as some suburban choices. Even some daytime and early evening choices.
If we left out a place, it wasn’t intentional, but feel free to let us know (WHYsconsin@wpr.org), so we can consider updating our list.
(One COVID-era note: Double-check before venturing out for a live show. The pandemic has led music venues, like other businesses, to change offerings, shorten hours of operation, etc.)
Jazz: Regular offerings
Ally's Bistro, in suburban Menomonee Falls: 7 to 9 p.m. Fridays.
Bar Centro, 804 E. Center St. (Riverwest): Friday and Saturday nights.
Blu: On the 23rd floor of the Pfister Hotel, 424 E. Wisconsin Ave. (downtown): Friday and Saturday nights.
Jazz Gallery, 926 E. Center St. (Riverwest). The Jazz Institute hosts a jam session at Jazz Gallery from 8:30 to 10 p.m. on the second Monday of each month.
Lupi & Iris, 777 N. Van Buren St. (downtown). Upscale restaurant that offers live jazz with Sunday brunch, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. (Davis sometimes performs here.)
Mason Street Grill, 425 E. Mason St. (downtown). High-end restaurant with live music seven nights a week.
O'Donoghue's Irish Pub, in suburban Elm Grove. Hosts the All-Star Superband, an 18-piece rehearsal big band, on many Thursdays from 6 to 8:15 p.m.
The Lodge, in suburban Muskego: Regular shows, including the Blues and Jazz Experience Quartet, 6 to 9 p.m. on the first Saturday of the month.
The Packing House, 900 E. Layton Ave. (south side): Frequent shows.
Riverwest Pizza, 932 E. Wright St. (Riverwest). Elm Grove-based pianist and vocalist Carolyn Wehner recommends it for great jazz performers outdoors during the warmer months last summer. (No 2023 schedule has been posted.)
Shaker’s Cigar Bar, 422 S. 2nd St. (Walker’s Point): Four nights per week.
Transfer Pizzeria Cafe, 101 W. Mitchell St. (south side). Jazz in a pizza place? Why not? Thursday nights.
Vendetta Coffee Bar, in Milwaukee’s Walker’s Point neighborhood and in suburban Wauwatosa.
Jazz Gallery Center for the Arts, 926 E. Center St. (Riverwest): Free improvisation sessions from 10 a.m. to noon Saturdays and shows.
Jazz: Occasional offerings
Caroline’s Jazz Club, 401 S. 2nd St. (Walker’s Point): Periodic shows, including a "chick singer night" Feb. 22.
Garfield’s 502, 502 W. Garfield Ave. (northwest of downtown). The club boasts it is home to "one of the most diverse crowds in the city."
The Estate (2423 N. Murray St. (east side): Formerly the Jazz Estate, this venue is pulling back on live shows.
Saint Kate The Arts Hotel, 139 E. Kilbourn Ave. (downtown).
Sam’s Place Jazz Cafe, 3338 N. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive (north side), a breakfast-lunch spot of jazz drummer Sam Belton.
The Sugar Maple, 441 E. Lincoln Ave. (Bay View). Lawyer Christopher Stawski, who hosts the weekly "Dr. Sushi’s Free Jazz BBQ" show on Milwaukee radio station WMSE, says this bar attracts top-flight jazz artists, including some from Chicago.
The Milwaukee Jazz Institute plans a two-day Educational Jazz Festival in the spring.
Outdoor summertime offerings include Jazz in the Park on Thursday evenings at Cathedral Park, 520 E. Wells St. (downtown). Bay View Jazz Fest, at various venues in the neighborhood, is set for June 2. In 2022, Jazz at the Vine was offered monthly at Humboldt Park, 3000 S. Howell Ave. (Bay View).
There’s also the annual Fresh Coast Jazz Festival at the Pabst Theater, 144 E. Wells St. (downtown). It’s a two-day event, set for Aug. 25 and 26.
And Musical Mondays at Lake Park offers at least one jazz act each summer, said presenter Jeff Bentoff. In 2022, that included Belton.
Blues: Regular offerings
Greenfield Pub, in suburban New Berlin. Blues jams from 8 to 11 p.m. Thursdays, hosted by blues singer Robert Allen Jr.
Harley-Davidson Museum, 400 W. Canal St. (west side). Every Friday from 5:30 to 8 p.m. in the museum’s Motor bar and restaurant.
Mamie’s, 3300 W. National Ave. (south side). Friday nights.
Miss Katie’s Diner, 1900 W. Clybourn St. (west of downtown). Schwarz says blues performers appear every other Friday from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m.
Blues: Occasional offerings
Anodyne Walker’s Point Roastery, 224 W. Bruce St. (Walker’s Point). Periodic blues offerings include two performers from Alligator Records, a Chicago-based blues label, on March 11 and 12.
Baaree, in suburban Thiensville. Often hosts blues acts.
Conway's Smokin' Bar & Grill, 2127 W. Wells St. (west of downtown). It dubs itself @BluesandRibs. Bluesy enough for you?
Kochanski’s Concertina Beer Hall, 1920 S. 37th St. (south side). Yes, the weekly live music is polka, but there are periodic blues shows, too.
Shank Hall, 1434 N. Farwell Ave. (east side), a venue with a wide variety of live music, including blues.
Tonic Tavern, 2335 S. Kinnickinnic Ave. (Bay View).
Miller High Life Theatre (500 W. Kilbourn Ave., downtown) holds the Milwaukee Blues Festival, set for March 31 this year.
There are also outdoor suburban options. The blues-focused Paramount Music Association holds its 105th anniversary party on July 22-23 (and holds periodic events). The Waukesha Rotary Blues Festival (actually held in Delafield), is set for Aug. 11-12 this year. And the Best ‘Dam’ Blues Fest is scheduled for Sept. 15-16 at Village Park in Thiensville.
Check for details on the Granville Blues Fest, in northwest Milwaukee, which was held in 2022.
This story was inspired by a question shared with WHYsconsin. Submit your question below or at wpr.org/WHYsconsin and we might answer it.
Milwaukee journalist Tom Kertscher was a 35-year newspaper reporter, finishing that career at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Now a national freelance writer, he is a contributing writer for PolitiFact, a sports reporter for The Associated Press and a contributor to other publications. His reporting on Steven Avery was featured in "Making a Murderer." Kertscher is the author of sports books on Brett Favre and Al McGuire. Follow him on Twitter at @KertscherNews and on LinkedIn.
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