Interested in learning jazz? The Milwaukee Jazz Institute has you covered
Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk—all jazz greats had to start somewhere. For those locally who want to get great, the Milwaukee Jazz Institute has been offering programming since 2020. Students can access courses however it works for them, including online workshops, in-person ensembles and jazz jams.
The home base for the Milwaukee Jazz Institute or “MJI” is the Jazz Gallery Center for the Arts in Riverwest. MJI founder and artistic director, jazz pianist Mark Davis, says the Jazz Gallery has an incredible history. “This was a very dynamic jazz club in the late 70s, early 80s,” Davis recounts. “And a lot of the great jazz musicians played here, Dexter Gordon and Sarah Vaughan and Chet Baker and Art Blakey, Wynton Marsalis. And so many musicians came through and played in this space.”
The Jazz Gallery has lived on as a community art space that features local artists in a gallery setting. Davis says MJI partners with them. "And we make use of this space. It's a beautiful place to rehearse and perform." He points to a black and white checkerboard floored stage with a Yamaha grand piano, drum set, PA, and room for other instruments to hook up to speakers. "We hold our ensembles here," he says. "We have eight of them: four youth ensembles and four adult ensembles that meet weekly."
MJI formed in late 2019 and received its non-profit status in February 2020. “Just in time for the pandemic,” recalls Davis. But he says its faculty members have been performing and teaching jazz for decades.
At first, due to the pandemic, MJI started doing a whole lot of online workshops. Some were on history of the music, on listening, on technique. “We started attracting people, not only from Milwaukee, but we suddenly found we were getting people from all over the country, and then all over the world,” Davis explains. “So, it was actually quite exciting for us, you know, just getting started with the organization to realize that we had the potential to have an impact, quite broadly.”
Along with the ensembles that meet weekly at the Jazz Gallery, MJI has started something called “The Jazz Circle.”
“Whenever you see something that MJI offers that says ‘the Jazz Circle,’ that means it's free and open to the public,” says Davis. “Some of those things are online. Paul Silbergleit, one of our faculty members who's an incredible jazz guitarist, has done a number of great presentations on the history of jazz, on different artists, [for instance, on] how can you learn more about what these artists are doing when they improvise. We're also offering classes on jazz theory.” Most of MJI’s courses are about eight weeks long and meet for an hour a week.
The organization also hosts a free monthly jam session that takes place at the Jazz Gallery on the second Monday of the month at 8:30PM and is open to the public.
“A lot of times when people approach me and they're wondering about getting involved with jazz or wondering about getting involved with MJI, I tell them, ‘hey, come to the jam session,’” says Davis. “It'll give you a chance to hear musicians of all different levels, all different ages, all different backgrounds, and hear what they're doing. You'll start learning the repertoire that they play, you'll start learning certain tunes that we call jazz standards, meaning tunes that are frequently played by jazz musicians.”
He says once people start getting familiar with the songs or the tunes that are played at jazz jams, they start better understanding what happens when someone improvises.
“We just create different combinations of musicians, and they get up on the stage and we'll call a tune that everyone knows. And off they go,” says Davis. “It might be a professional musician who has been playing for decades alongside a high school kid who's just getting started in figuring this music out. And that's one of the ways people learn about it.”
MJI has 14 faculty members who can also offer private lessons, either virtually or in person. MJI allows the instructors to arrange that individually with the students. The organization also offers performances with world-renowned artists like Brian Lynch, Benny Benack and Camille Thurman.
Davis emphasizes that there’s many different types of jazz, from straight ahead bebop to Latin jazz to a contemporary funk kind of sound, with a lot of different approaches to it. Musically, learning to play jazz is not simply reading notes on the page, it’s having to understand the theory and what to play when it’s time to improvise.
“Even with my piano students, I find once they start studying jazz, they have a whole new outlook on music,” says Davis. “If they're a classical pianist, they'll start analyzing the Chopin that they're playing. And they'll start realizing what the chords are and what the progressions are. So, it also provides a great basis for people who want to go into more contemporary or other kinds of styles of music. It's really the basis for harmonically and rhythmically and melodically for a lot of styles of music.”
Davis emphasizes that jazz originated as Black American music and is really the fabric of not only American music, but also of its culture. “It's a cultural art form,” he says. “And I find that it brings people together of all walks of life and all ages and all backgrounds.”