Keeper of the Flame
Tiny, yes, but The Jazz Estate remains the city’s preeminent club for live jazz.
Jazz Estate co-owner Brian Sanders has a curious way of praising this city’s standing in the jazz world. “There’s a bizarre undercurrent of jazz talent in Milwaukee,” he says. “Most cities this size don’t have the comparable amount of talent.”
From the 1950s to the 1970s, Sanders says, Milwaukee had a very good jazz scene, with numerous places to go to catch live music. There are fewer places today, but The Jazz Estate is still going, winning praise from publications like onmilwaukee.com as one of the city’s best live music bars.
The building that houses The Jazz Estate at 2423 N. Murray Ave. has been home to various bars since the 1940s, including the original Champion’s Pub. Another bar that predated The Jazz Estate was Lolly’s, the first bar for Erwin “Chuck” Pociecha, who eventually established The Jazz Estate in 1978. “I had a number of other bars intermittently after Lolly’s closed in 1953, but still they were not the exact format that I wanted,” Pociecha once told a reporter. “I guess sometimes you have to sacrifice what you want to make a living, but I always had this idea of having a real jazz environment, playing records from my own personal collection.”
Pociecha and his wife Rosella, aka Lolly, called it The Estate, a name the Pociecha’s daughter, Kathy Brinkerhoff, said was chosen because the building was part of Lolly’s mother’s estate. In order to create the right environment, Chuck put in an old 1940s juke box with 78 records and remodeled the space to look like a New York basement nightclub. The Pociechas played jazz records and sometimes had a jazz trio play live music. They sold the place after a few years, but the name stuck and the bar became a mainstay for live jazz performances for more than 15 years before it closed down in 1999.
The Jazz Estate had been closed for months when Sanders randomly walked by one day and saw the “for sale or lease” sign. After moving to Milwaukee in 1995, Sanders had been to The Jazz Estate a few times to see some shows, but says he was not the biggest jazz fan. Similar to Chuck Pociecha, though, he says the allure of the place was that it would allow him to do his own thing. Unable to purchase the bar on his own, Sanders made a pitch to Mike Honkamp, and the two bought The Jazz Estate in early 2000.
By then, the bar was in rough shape, so some remodeling had to be done. But Sanders maintained its unique atmosphere: a dimly-lit interior, whose only illumination is candles placed along the bar and on the tables, as well as some shaded hanging lights that cast a faint green and red glow upon the customers seated around the bar. However, Sanders did make some changes, including moving the stage. Before remodeling, the stage used to face the doorway, which Sanders says made the back area pretty pointless. Now the stage faces the right wall, allowing people sitting at the bar and in the back area to enjoy the live music.
Kate Glodoski, who has lived next door to The Jazz Estate since 2000, says she was introduced to both Sanders and The Jazz Estate because of the remodeling process. One day, Glodoski says she saw Sanders unsuccessfully trying to use a hammer to nail a two-by-four to the wall. Then a carpenter at the Skylight Theater, Glodoski says she offered to provide Sanders with a nail gun in order to make the process easier. “I had the tools and knew how to do it,” she says. She ended up helping with angling the stage and taking out some of the old paneling on the right wall — and becoming a friend to the place. “If I go out, this is where I go,” she says.
For instance, pianist Dan Nimmer, who is now part of Wynton Marsalis’ band. Sanders said Nimmer used to come to The Jazz Estate as a teenager and would often fall asleep at one of the tables as he tried to catch the late-night shows. Other nights, Sanders says Nimmer would take over the piano after the band had left for the night and play until closing.
Sanders says he tries to bring in a few national acts each year, but that can get pricey. With only 50 seats, Sanders says The Jazz Estate’s small size often limits his income. As a result, he relies on local acts to keep the place going. In order for a band to get a gig, Sanders says he has to hear the band play or they have to come highly recommended by someone he trusts. Sanders says he understands that jazz is not for everyone, so he tries to bring in a wide variety of jazz performers. “It’s hard to get people to come every week,” he explains, “so we try to get something cool so that random people will enjoy it.”
Some of the bigger names who’ve played at club since 2011 are the Rick Germanson Trio, Dave Hazeltine Trio, Clyde Stubblefield and the Brian Lynch Quartet. Some local musicians who perform regularly include The Erotic Adventures of the Static Chicken on Tuesday nights, Evan Christian every Wednesday and Nineteen Thirteen every second Thursday of the month.
Sanders has no plans to make changes to The Jazz Estate. “You gotta be careful because you could wreck a place by changing it.,” he says. “Part of the allure is that it’s small.” Andrew Moring, a customer making his first visit to The Jazz Estate in five years, agrees: “It’s been awhile, but it’s not like it’s changed. It’s just one of those gems that’s different from anywhere on the East Side.” In fact, there’s nothing quite like it in town.