Top

Jazz

Jazz

The Moon Glow, Satin Doll, The Congo Room, The Bamboo Club! Where did all the good times go? Blame it on the freeway. John Schneider’s “Jazz” is the coolest way to learn the history of Milwaukee’s Bronzeville, a long-gone African American neighborhood centered around Walnut Street. This is the story of the colorful souls who made up the swinging Milwaukee Jazz Scene which flourished during the 1950s along with successful black-owned businesses. It examines the role that racism, segregation, and freeway construction played in Bronzeville’s demise, and it does this through poignant monologues, and slick live jazz set in an intimate cabaret. The effect is an oral history linking patrons to a bygone hotbed of cultural richness. Really Jumping… Opening night and the room is reminiscent of a typical black & tan joint. A term new to me…I learn through the oral-history performance this means a club frequented by black & white patrons. Bronzeville was open to whites long before the rest of the city opened itself to blacks! The theater has been transformed into a tight cozy affair. Handsome cats snapping slick fingers. Fancy cocktail waitresses are working the room. Actor Rodd Walker (as trumpeter Jabbo Smith) introduces patrons to tonight’s Bronzeville performers by highlighting the art (by Lisa Eder & Brian Miracle) gracing the cabaret walls. It honors Milwaukee jazz scene legends. And the stories begin. Azeeza Islam delivers, diva style, the story of pianist Loretta White-Thomas. Eccentric dancer/singer Betty Conley lives through the multi-talented jazz vocalist Adekola Adedapo. Chantel Harpole charms as the cabaret waitress, and Robin Pluer vocalizes as the rare white chanteuse who might have performed at a black & tan. And, in the resonating voice of a poetic historian, Adebisi Agoro shares the story of Frank Gay. Schneider balances this real community history lesson with fine art. The legendary Berkely Fudge leads renowned musicians such as Dean Lea and Robert Hobbs in creating the ultimate jazz experience. Patrons bop their heads, dance in their seats, and you may even get pulled onto the dance floor to cut a step or two. The presence of young Kellan Abston, a teen saxophonist studying with Berkely Fudge, adds to the authenticity of the seamless evening. The women are full of swinging hips and sass. The men are slick and dignified, and at times the cast is just downright funny. But the fun doesn’t diminish the political tones of Jazz, tones which beg discussion and dialogue. Politicians and cops conspiring against the black establishments. Cab Calloway & Duke Ellington bunked at a crib in Bronzeville ’cause they weren’t welcome downtown. Not until the freeway construction project, was the fate of this scene sealed. “The Negro didn’t make the blues. The white men gave the Negro the blues.” Sung by Robin Pluer. In a solemn number, “I Feel Like Going On,” the soul-stirring sound of grief silences the cabaret for a sacred moment. To newcomers and young folks like myself, the seemingly mythical allure of this place called Bronzeville, the jumping jazz scene and thriving hood, becomes real. Leaves one wondering where Milwaukee might be culturally had this scene not been destroyed. This is a must see, or rather, a must-experience for true jazz lovers, folks interested in Milwaukee history, urban anthropology, or simply looking for a real good time. “Jazz belongs to the community,” Schneider says, ” and hopefully it can help move things forward in a good way.” Jazz: A Milwaukee History runs thru May 16. For info, call the Broadway Theatre Center box office @ 291-7800
Jazz