Arts and Culture

All that Madison jazz

Painting a picture of the jazz scene now and then

Three events last fall painted an intriguing picture of the jazz scene in Madison.

  • At the Eastside Club in Monona, Ladies Must Swing celebrated its 20th anniversary. The dance club ran out of parking and seats, and the dance floor was filled with seniors and one particularly enthusiastic young couple.
  • Johannes Wallmann, director of jazz studies at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, premiered his new composition at the Fredric March Play Circle at Memorial Union. All 180 seats were filled, about half by an older crowd and the rest by young, college-age adults. 
  • Wynton Marsalis brought his Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra to a nearly sold-out Overture Hall, which included a few hundred high school students.

Note that this list of events doesn’t include a jazz combo playing a small club—what many of us imagine to be the truest jazz experience. Madison may offer a reasonable facsimile now and then, but despite an obvious fan base for jazz, no such dedicated venue exists here for this genre of music that was once vibrant.

There have been fleeting glimpses of a “golden age” of jazz in Madison. Gerri DiMaggio, a blues and ballad singer who some call the “first lady” of jazz in this town, remembers going to Merlin’s and Good Karma, both music clubs in the 1960s. Ten years later she encountered the legendary Charles Mingus at the home of Ben Sidran, Madison’s most celebrated jazz musician. 

Sidran, who still calls Madison home but rarely performs here (he did appear this past June at the Nomad World Pub), was himself quickly gaining acclaim as a jazz keyboardist after leaving the Steve Miller Band in 1971. Sidran remembers what was amiss about the Madison jazz scene around that time.

“In the early ’60s, some fine jazz musicians played at fraternity parties and in clubs like the Pirate Ship, later at Penny University and The Uptown Café. But by the early ’70s, most of the jazz musicians were either playing ‘free jazz,’ which was never popular with audiences, or playing jazz for free,” he says. 

Sidran, who taught courses at UW–Madison and hosted jazz programs for National Public Radio, has put out more than 30 solo records. He still plays in Europe and on both U.S. coasts.

“The three things a city needs to sustain a strong jazz scene are players, venues and an audience. Madison has always had two of those,” Sidran says. “The jazz business has never been strong because the city lacks a dedicated venue run by a savvy businessman. You need a good business operator who can ride the waves of fashion, understand the needs of both audience and musicians, and somehow make a profit. Why Madison has not been lucky in this regard is anybody’s guess.”

In the late 1970s, Madison could still draw international stars such as tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon. But by the mid 1980s, the jazz scene was anything but vibrant.

That’s when Linda Marty Schmitz says she and others frequently drove to Milwaukee to hear jazz. They noticed that many of the performers there were sponsored by Unlimited Jazz, a nonprofit. Talk of starting a similar organization in Madison resulted in a first meeting in 1984 attended by 32 people. The resulting Madison Jazz Society, which Schmitz now heads, promotes local performers, raises money for area school music programs and, starting in 1989, organizes the Capital City Jazz Fest. 

To date, MJS has awarded more than $119,000 in grants and will continue to promote local events after the group retires the jazz fest this year. After several volunteer organizers moved out of town, the decision was made to end the fest next month, on April 27—its 30th anniversary—Schmitz says.

It was during the latter half of the ’80s that another sign of life appeared: The creation of the Isthmus Jazz Festival. Big names returned to town for each of these festivals.

Nevertheless, local musicians noticed fewer people were showing up at individual gigs to the point where they were playing mostly for each other. So they formed the Madison Music Collective, and for a few years efforts led to more shows at local venues for appreciative audiences. But by the mid-1990s, the players had split into groups interested only in post-bebop and free jazz, once again finding themselves playing primarily for one another. The MMC then entered a period of relative dormancy.

Then in 1993, an important figure moved to Madison from Chicago: Hanah Jon Taylor. Despite  having a national and international reputation that enabled him to bring top-notch performers to Madison, Taylor struggled for years to sustain a jazz club here.

In the early 2000s, a strange dichotomy emerged. Area high school programs, notably in Sun Prairie, were producing nationally recognized ensembles while the UW–Madison Jazz Studies program dwindled to zero enrollees. 

The current revival of the Madison jazz scene was triggered by a series of events. In 2007, the Madison Music Collective came back to life. In 2009, “Jazz on a Sunday” became a feature at the Brink Lounge. And a year later, another group formed to celebrate the centennial of the life of the groundbreaking pianist Mary Lou Williams. Spearheaded by lifelong jazz fan Howard Landsman, a yearlong series of some 50 jazz events involved nearly every jazz musician and jazz-oriented organization in the city.

Landsman harnessed this synergy into a new entity—the Greater Madison Jazz Consortium. Consisting of the Madison Jazz Society, Madison Music Collective, Midwest Gypsy Swing Fest, UW Jazz Studies Department, Madison Metropolitan School District, Union Theater and WORT-FM, the consortium eliminated competition among groups for the same grant money, grew audiences and cross-promoted the widest possible array of performances and outreach events.

Finally, UW–Madison’s all-but-dead jazz studies program was resurrected. After a decade as dean of the UW–Madison School of Music, professor and jazz performer John Schaffer headed a search committee for a director of jazz studies and attracted 170 applicants. Schaffer was quickly convinced that the program didn’t need a big name but a program builder with solid experience as a performer and teacher—which is what the school got with the hiring of pianist and composer Johannes Wallmann, who had experience building a college jazz program from scratch.

With organized support for jazz musicians and audiences hungry to hear them, all that remained was that most revered of all jazz venues: an intimate jazz club (the third element Sidran believed the Madison scene needed). In early 2017, Taylor thought he finally had created just that with his Café CODA on Dayton Street. But despite big-name, out-of-town performers and nightly showcases for college student musicians and local professionals, the club lasted just five months, ending in August 2016. The loss of the site to a hotel development project painfully removed that essential piece from the local jazz scene.

That short stretch for the club was encouraging, though, Taylor insists. He says he intends to reopen Café CODA sometime this year on Williamson Street. Taylor loves what he has seen and heard from high school and college jazz musicians, but knows they need to experience the “truest” jazz experience. He still scratches his head when he looks around.

“Any city that lays claim to being cosmopolitan—and Madison acts like it does—has a complete and healthy jazz scene,” he says. “Madison has to ask itself, ‘What is this going to look like in five years?’ ”

Greg Hettmansberger covers the jazz, opera and classical music scenes for Madison Magazine and

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