Why Jazz in the Park Endures

Now 27, it offers a great venue, great music and a music booker who looks for variety.

By - May 29th, 2018 12:40 pm
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Jazz in the Park. Photo by Melissa Miller.

Jazz in the Park. Photo by Melissa Miller.

This year is the 27th anniversary of Jazz in the Park, the music series at Cathedral Square. “This is the oldest music series in Milwaukee,” says John Ertl, booking agent for Jazz in the Park, as well as many other music venues. “This has been going on quite a long time.”

The annual music outing is presented by the East Town Association, whose history goes back more than half a century, to the early 1960’s when a group of East Town merchants began working together to spur the growth of the business community in downtown Milwaukee.

Officially incorporated in 1983, the association has made great strides toward improving the health of the business community and creating a vital neighborhood for corporations, retailers, restaurants, and service providers. Today over 200 businesses, members of East Town Association, are committed to the economic growth and vitality of downtown Milwaukee.

And Jazz in the Park, launched in the early 1990s, has become a showcase for the East Town area. “We usually draw between three and four thousand people,” Ertl says. “We always hope for an enthusiastic and responsive audience, and we almost always get that.”

When discussing Jazz in the Park’s longevity, Ertl is quick to make the distinction between Summerfest and a music series. “Summerfest is a different animal, in an entirely different league. That’s a festival, not a series.”

So where does Ertl find all these stellar jazz acts to fill Cathedral Square Park?

“Our bookings are primarily a regional thing,” Ertl said, calling from his summer home in upper Michigan. “Chicago has an awesome jazz sound, and there’s a strong jazz representation in Madison, Milwaukee and the Fox Valley,” Ertl said. “If we happened to pick off a national act that’s touring and we can get them on a Thursday night, we do that too. Most of our acts are from northern Illinois, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Chicago. ”

Most folks would never guess the Fox Valley is an area where jazz has been cultivated and even thrives. “I was just up for the WAMI awards at the Fox Valley Performing Arts Center,” Ertl says. “Jay Edward Blues Band, in our lineup this year, is from the Fox Valley. Jazz Orgy, another act this year, is from that area.”

Ertl says when he books Jazz in the Park, he shoots for a diversity of jazz styles: “There are multiple styles. I recently had a conversation with the executive director of the Sioux Falls Jazz Festival and he said if you asked 10 different people what jazz is, you’d get 10 different replies.”

Ertl notes that a younger generation of students and musicians is providing their own influences and interpretations. He feels that’s also what feeds the series’ always diverse audience. “It’s comprised of high school students to Baby Boomers. I think younger kids understand a lot of quality jazz and we should attribute that to some incredible music programs that have expanded that fan base. People are willing to experiment with music if you give them a chance.”

Cathedral Square Park is full of people enjoying Jazz in the Park. Photo by Melissa Miller.

Cathedral Square Park is full of people enjoying Jazz in the Park. Photo by Melissa Miller.

British musicians have long had deep roots in jazz. “The UK has incorporated jazz and blues influences,” Ertl notes. “One of the legendary blues guys in Europe will probably surprise you. It’s Tom Jones. Yes, the guy who made it big with ‘It’s Not Unusual’ in the 60s on the Ed Sullivan Show.”

Or take an R&B musician like Ray Parker Jr., best known for doing the movie theme song “Ghostbusters. Ertl recalls hearing him perform at A Taste of Colorado. “After his show I walked up to him and said his style of music would work in jazz. He just smiled, gave me the biggest hug and said, ‘Finally, somebody gets me.’”

In addition to Jazz in the Park, Ertl books locally for Bastille Days, Watertown Riverfest and Major Goolsby’s.

Ertl says he tries to spread the wealth in terms of acts for Jazz in the Park. “We try not to repeat an act for at least two or three years,” he notes, and yet “cover all the bases.”

By any measurement, Jazz in the Park has been a huge success. The mission of East Town Association has been to use its events and programs to cultivate a vibrant community experience, enhancing the neighborhood image and appeal. This concert series serves that mission each and every summer.

The 2018 Lineup

May 31 – Jazz Orgy

June 7 – Charanga Agoza

June 14 – Hot & Dirty Brass Band

June 21 – The People Brothers Band

June 28 – We Six

July 5 – Sweet Sheiks

July 12-15 – Bastille Days (No Jazz in the Park)

July 19 – Jay Edward Blues Band

July 26 – The Right Now

Aug. 2 – Cache MKE

Aug. 9 – Mike Mangione & The Kin

Aug. 16 – Steez

Aug. 23 – Unity

Aug. 30 – Chicago Tribute Anthology

Jazz in the Park Gallery

2 thoughts on “Why Jazz in the Park Endures”

  1. 40+Years in the City says:

    This has indeed been a successful series, and I have good memories of the early years. To call it a jazz series is bordering on fraud. It’s been years since a significant part of the line-up could be considered jazz of any recognized genre. Follow the lead of Summerfest – years ago they renamed the “Miller Jazz Oasis” to just “Miller Oasis” – truth in advertising!

  2. David says:

    I love this website! I’m also one that had regularly attended the series for many years, and a huge jazz fan (caveat that ideally would be unnecessary: I mean actual jazz). All that said… what a puff piece!

    Has Mr. Cryns even assessed the lineup? Is he even jazz (not just music) fan? Or is he simply a fan of crowds (even if largely comprised of unsophisticates)? The 2018 lineup is embarrassingly (and, to those with taste, disappointingly) weak! Is this really the best they could do? Or is there an intentional re-calibration to appeal to a different demographic; one that doesn’t appreciate actual jazz, and took 20+ years to even get hip to the whole series?

    I think this is the “jumping-the-shark” moment for the series (amongst what would’ve been sophisticated attendees).

    Perhaps they should consider changing the name of the series, because to intelligent people, it comes off as inaccurate (for those who know the lineup) and/or misleading (for those assuming quality jazz is central to the series).

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