The Milwaukee Jazz Gallery

(Chuck LaPaglia)

In 1978 I was living in Milwaukee’s Riverwest neighborhood and teaching at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee (UWM) when I heard that a local tavern and adjoining wedding hall were being sold. I thought that the space would be perfect for a Chicago-style jazz club, but I had a long debate with myself before deciding to open one. (An interesting dream of mine finally decided the issue.) My main qualifications to open the club were my experience from the years I had hung around in Chicago jazz bars and the close association I had formed with musicians. The only business experience I had was managing an Officer’s Club bar in the army. Two close carpenter friends, George Basta and Leo Barton, renovated the room.

The three main construction projects were:

1. designing and building the stage.

2. tearing down the wall between the bar and the hall to give the bar and the bar room a good view and sound. (This was a major project because the wall was a retaining wall holding up the upstairs apartment. We had to put in a massive steel beam.)

3. designing the logo and constructing the sign. Thinking the room should be as acoustic as possible, I bought two Klipsch speakers and a small sound mixer. It was the beginning of my long struggle with sound.

Thinking the room should be as acoustic as possible, I bought two Klipsch speakers and a small sound mixer. It was the beginning of my long struggle with sound. My next big project was to search for a club piano. I found my piano in the Milwaukee Journal’s want ads – an old 85-key Steinway grand, built in the late 1880’s, making it roughly the same age as the club. It had been a concert musician’s personal piano.The piano became well known and loved by musicians. Because the piano had only 85 keys, instead of the usual 88, one musician’s favorite joke was to pantomime running arpeggios up the keyboard and falling off the end. I learned that an old piano has a difficult time staying together with the kind of playing it gets in a jazz club. Through the piano, I met Shari Malofsky, an expert piano restorer and tuner, who cared for the piano for the entire time I ran the Jazz Gallery (from September 1978 through Fall 1984).

I met Kathleen Connelly through one of the classes I taught at UWM. Kathleen had a major influence on my decision to open the club. With extensive experience waitressing and managing clubs, she was able to organize the 2 business end. She found the staff, ordered the booze, set up the procedures, and managed the club at the beginning. The Milwaukee Jazz Gallery would not have happened without her.

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