The Jazz is back in the Jazz Gallery
Jazz Visions and the Riverwest Artists Association have brought live music back to a classic Milwaukee venue.
The Jazz Gallery, 926 E. Center St., is just a few blocks from home. I pass it often, and have often wondered what’s going on in that place these days?
That, says Mark Lawson, is exactly the problem. Hardly anyone seems to realize that music occurs there on a regular basis and has for some time. Singer Kit Calvosa,for example, is in from New York for a show at 8 tonight (Friday Aug. 30). On Saturday (Aug. 31), Jackie Allen will sing at 7 p.m.
“RAA has had gallery space since 1992, but the rented spaces never really worked out,” Lawson said. “In 2008, we found the perfect place, and we purchased it just before the financial crisis. The timing was great and the price was good. We knew it was a historic jazz venue, so we kept the name as a nod toward that period of creativity.”
Lawson said the place was a mess when RAA bought it, but the group had budgeted for the required wiring, plumbing, HVAC and cosmetic corrections.
For four years, only the Gallery part of the name applied, as RAA used the space to show work and for its educational and outreach initiatives. In 2012, Milwaukee Jazz Vision (MJA’s website, by the way, is a great place to keep up with all things jazz in Milwaukee) approached RAA about reviving the Jazz part. Jazz Vision is a very active promoter of jazz in all its forms. The group has deep and wide connections in the jazz world and has been a vital link for the Jazz Gallery.
“I think they didn’t quite realize, at first, that we were running an art gallery, not a club,” Lawson said. Jazz Gallery serves no alcohol or food, and provides soft drinks as a courtesy to its patrons. Volunteers run it as a non-profit co-op. “There was a learning curve with Jazz Visions.”
RAA has no money to guarantee musicians a fee and can’t sell drinks to turn a profit. Everything depends on the modest cover charges, which go entirely to the artists.
“Sometimes a musician will drive up from Chicago and make $50,” Lawson said, a little ruefully. One plus for the Jazz Gallery: Jazz artists with Milwaukee roots often desire to play in their home town. Jazz Gallery is more than happy to accommodate them, as in the case of Calvosa and Allen this weekend.
Free, open jam sessions on the first Tuesday of every month are a big part of the Jazz Gallery’s musical effort and among Lawson’s favorite events. Aspiring young players can mingle musically with some of the city’s most revered jazz veterans in front of a sympathetic audience.
Lawson said that RAA is forming a music committee of its own to expand the range of the gallery’s musical offerings.
“We want it to be a showcase for thoughtful, under-served artistic music of various kinds,” Lawson said, noting the Once Now Ensemble as an example.
But this will be in addition to rather than in place of current offerings and the collaboration with MJV. Jazz will always be a part of it. After all, it’s right there on the sign over the door.