Jerry Grillo and all that jazz

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Vocalist Jerry Grillo. - PHOTO: Courtesy

Jazz probably isn’t the first thing you think of when you think of Milwaukee. But many nights you can catch jazz artists performing in a variety of venues, including the Jazz Estate and Caroline’s Jazz Club. Of course, in the summer there are seasonal venues, such as the popular Jazz in the Park at Cathedral Square Park.

Vocalist Jerry Grillo is a frequent performer on Milwaukee’s jazz scene. Named Jazz Artist of the Year in 2011 by the Wisconsin Area Music Industry, he was a nominee in 2012 and 2013 as well.

Grillo has a devoted following not just locally but globally. His latest disc, Music Box: Songs for Quiet Moments (jerrygrillo.com), is a four-song EP containing three covers, including “Some Other Time” (also recently covered by Barbra Streisand) and one original co-composition. Grillo answered questions about his career in November.

Gregg Shapiro: Before you became an actor and singer, you were a figure skater. Do you still find time to skate?

Jerry Grillo: I would never stop skating. I was put on skates at 3 years old in northern Minnesota, and if we didn’t learn to skate, we were drowned. Hence, some of my classmates are dead (laughs)!  I Rollerblade now, so I can still do those tricks on cement instead. I like a challenge. 

You have also done theater. Do you have an all-time favorite role?

I loved the roles I have played, every one. But my favorite was out on the East Coast in New Haven, Conn., as George in George M, because they made me learn to tap dance in six weeks, or I would lose the part. I was remarkable!

Is there a dream role you’d someday like to play?

Not really. But when I was playing Cliff Bradshaw in the Milwaukee Players’ production of Cabaret, I would sing “I Don’t Care Much” with the rehearsal pianist, and people in the cast would laughingly say that I should be playing Sally instead of Cliff.  That song is a great jazz song, but you rarely hear it done that way. 

Who do you consider to be your strongest influences?

Well, since the instrumentalists think that we singers aren’t musicians, I would say they are wrong! The female jazz singers are the best, Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Peggy Lee — we know who they are. The male jazz singers are “vanilla,” except for those like Joe Williams and Joe Henderson. 

Your new EP Music Box features three covers and one original titled “Lonely.” With so many songs from which to choose, how do you go about deciding what you want to?

My recordings and choices of songs reflect what I was going through musically at that time in my career.  I didn’t know anybody locally when I started.  I had to go out and find musicians.  My vocal coach, Jackie Allen, helped me find the best! They are on my recordings.  Each CD is a progression of steps I had to take.  First, local brilliance that I myself recognized. Second, NYC with Lynne Arriale Trio. Third, big band with Nick Contorno Orchestra. Fourth, my own invention, Fever, an alternative take on standards. Fifth, piano/vocal jazz ballads. Sixth, a cabaret show, “Songs Made Famous By Women,” from my CD Under The Influence, where I get to sing all of the songs made famous by women — but not in drag.

There’s often a fine line between cabaret and jazz. When putting together a live show, how do you decide what material is better suited for each?

A cabaret set is mostly based upon interpretations from “show tunes” or a singer’s life with a storyline. It’s like a mini Broadway show with one performer. They are brilliant if done right. I have seen many, and mine is done right and written in style. A jazz set is composed of songs interpreted vocally in various rhythms, phrasing, and “moods” based upon the singer’s present moment. A jazz song is never sung the same way twice. I do not have strict charts. My musicians play off of me and what I am doing and feeling as a singer. If they don’t get that, I fire them (laughs).

What do you like best about being a jazz artist in Milwaukee?

JG: A jazz vocal artist in Milwaukee? Not that much to like. Except I did win the WAMI award. And they predicted I would get a Grammy if I left town.

For many years, openly gay jazz artists were rare. But artists such as Andy Bey, Patricia Barber and Lea DeLaria, to name a few, have shaken things up in jazz. Can you please say a few words about your own experience as an out jazz artist?

I don’t know if I am an “out” gay artist. I just sing for whoever wants to hear me. “Out” is a strange word. I have always been an open person. My fans and friends are some of the best people in the world. They don’t think about doors and windows being open and closed. They love me for who I am. I am a fortunate person in that way.

If someone worries about whether they are an “out” artist or not, they will tear down the fabric of their own being. You are who you are, or your music means nothing.  I have rarely had a bad experience … because I am honest with myself and with the music I sing. If I do have a problem, I am giving in, and they are winning! 

We are approaching the winter holiday season. Do you have any upcoming Christmas or New Year’s Eve shows that you’d like to mention?

I am doing Angelo’s Piano Lounge, with Joe Kral, on Fridays through December and on New Year’s Eve. Angelo’s is the one and only jazz and cabaret lounge in Milwaukee that features vocalists, including Angelo himself for the last 27 years.