Trumpeter, educator and co-founder of Milwaukee Jazz Vision, Jamie Breiwick has dedicated most of his life to the appreciation and proliferation of jazz. He is contributing to the resurgence of the local jazz scene.
Though he’s never lived outside of southeastern Wisconsin, Breiwick is constantly traveling to new musical dimensions. From his days playing in eclectic groups like Clamnation, Hudson and Choir Fight, to his recent contributions to hip-hop records, Breiwick is ever evolving.
In 2013, he was nominated for the first Grammy Music Educator Award for his work as director of bands at Maple Dale School in Fox Point. He currently is the instrumental music instructor at The Prairie School in his hometown of Racine.
You can find Breiwick exploring both time-honored numbers and unfamiliar sonic territory each week at the Mason Street Grill in Milwaukee alongside pianist Mark Davis.
The Grill is where I sat down with Breiwick to track his journey from Michael Jackson enthusiast to a member of Lesser Lakes Trio, which he describes as his “most personal project yet.” The trio’s fantastic new record — The Good Land — is out May 19 on Shifting Paradigm Records.
Handed a trumpet
As far as Breiwick knows, his father was an amateur drummer who played in a rock band in the 1970s. However, the elder Breiwick had hung up his sticks by the time his son was born.
Breiwick’s father had wide-ranging musical taste, from country to classic rock, bluegrass to blues. As a child, Breiwick hated much of that music simply because his father liked it, but as his tastes matured, he grew to appreciate it.
“My first real memory of loving an artist and really listening to an album was Michael Jackson’s Thriller. I was constantly playing that cassette tape on my boom box,” recalls Breiwick.
Breiwick’s journey as a musician began with 5th grade band. “I wanted to play saxophone like most people, because it’s a little more sexy,” he admits. “But at the tryout, they said they had too many sax players and basically just handed me a trumpet.
“I remember the first day I got it, I didn’t know anything other than how to put the mouthpiece in. I’m sure I wasn’t holding it right, but I played songs on it instantly.”
A couple of years of training prepared Breiwick to join the 7th grade jazz band at Mitchell School in Racine. He was drawn to the freedom of improvising. His teacher, Doug Clum, selected Breiwick and a few others for a quartet. The group practiced once a week in the morning before school. “Mr. Clum would get us little gigs and things. As 12 year olds, playing a spaghetti dinner or pancake breakfast, that was so cool.”
At the same time, Breiwick began taking private lessons with a teacher — Eric Weiss — who was a member of his church.
“He wasn’t laying heavy theory on me. It was more like we would play and listen. He had these Jamey Aebersold play along books that had a rhythm section. We would put those on and just play back and forth.”
Hooked on jazz
In middle school, Breiwick had a guidance counselor who made him a cassette tape of mid-1960s Miles Davis. He remembers it being “a little out there” and the young Breiwick couldn’t appreciate it. But in high school, Breiwick received Davis’ Kind of Blue as a gift. Listening to it was “a monumental experience.”
“That was the first rabbit hole, because John Coltrane is on that record. So then I listened to all his records and found other players I dug and it just kept going.”
Though he played guitar in a few high school rock bands, by the time Breiwick was enrolled at UW-Milwaukee he was almost exclusively listening to jazz. Monday night jam sessions at The Jazz Estate provided Breiwick his most important jazz training.
At the same time, Breiwick joined a band called Clamnation, which was active for 25 years.
“I was exposed to so much music in that band. There was Latin jazz, Afro-Caribbean, experimental, some New Orleans stuff. The late ’90s was definitely a vibrant time for the Milwaukee music scene.”
A stable career
Whereas many musicians end up teaching after trying their hand at a playing career, Breiwick never had hopes of becoming a jazz star in New York or some other major market. Instead, he played it safe and pursued a stable career in music education. It took him a little time to find his footing, but eventually he became a celebrated educator.
“A lot of it was thinking back to my own experience in 7th grade when I really started to connect with the music. It was those opportunities where we got to perform in public. Because it’s not just about being in the classroom and learning the scales. It’s about what you can do outside the walls of the classroom.”
Breiwick brings in artists to interact and play with his students. He also plays records representing a variety of genres. His student jazz ensembles have always been extracurricular endeavors, but they’re essential to his teaching. Recently, he brought one of those groups to open for Lesser Lakes Trio at a gig in Kenosha.
“It’s exciting to be able to say, ‘All right, we got a gig tomorrow night at 7:30, wear a tie, here’s our set list, let’s talk about it and who’s going to solo.’ It’s the same way I talk to my own bandmates.
“I think a lot of people get down on this generation of kids for having their noses buried in video games and on their phones, but that hasn’t been my experience. I see these kids who are really bright and when exposed to music in the right way, they get way into it and are super creative.”
Milwaukee Jazz Vision
Breiwick’s passion for jazz appreciation extends beyond his classroom and afterschool activities. In 2010, he and some friends founded Milwaukee Jazz Vision to advance and develop the local jazz community.
“MJV was the result of a late night discussion between Neil Davis, Kevin Hayden, Steve Peplin and myself. We were contemplating the state of the scene and decided that rather than whine and complain, we would do something proactive,” says Breiwick.
MJV’s initial undertaking was the Eastside Jazzfest in 2010. The next year, MJV teamed up with the Riverwest Artists Association to revitalize the Jazz Gallery Center for the Arts. In 2013, MJV partnered with Summerfest to present a free, jazz concert — “Visions on the Lake.” In 2014, MJV worked with Bay View Gallery Night to create Bay View Jazz Fest, which returns June 2.
MJV’s online presence includes the Milwaukee Jazz History Archive Project, which began when Breiwick met local legend Manty Ellis.
“Manty called me a couple of times to play with him and every time he would tell stories that were so detailed and amazing. They had such clarity and relevance. I was like, ‘Man, this has got to be put down before it’s lost to time.’”
Once Ellis gave him the names of some players and venues, it sent Breiwick down another rabbit hole.
“The jazz scene goes deep here. So many great players have lived here and been from here, there’s a pipeline that people don’t know about. I wanted to share what’s going on and what has gone on here.”
Breiwick’s musical knowledge continues to expand thanks to his peers. Steve Peplin first sent Breiwick down a Thelonious Monk rabbit hole, which he’s since embraced and become known for Monk tribute shows.
“Playing Monk gave me a weird feeling and made me play a certain way, because the tunes are really hard technically and harmonically. It pushes you out of your comfort zone and makes you play around the melody.”
A new trend
Over his career, Breiwick has sat in with national jazz artists and backed pop stars such as Eric Benet.
“I still to this day get nervous to play in situations like that,” Breiwick admits. “I think if you don’t get nervous then there’s something wrong. If you’re ever too comfortable then you’re not really ever going to grow and get better.”
“It’s easy in Milwaukee to become insulated and only play with the people that are here and only know the tunes that everyone else plays.”
Though the trend in the 1960s through the 2000s has been for the area’s best jazz musicians to head to larger markets, the last decade has seen some of our brightest stars return or stay home.
“When Russ Johnson moved here in the late 2000s that was big. He’s been a huge influence on me. Russ really validated what I was thinking about my own music and direction. I don’t have to do what person X, Y, and Z are telling me I need to do. It’s okay to be myself.”
Mark Davis — head of the Jazz Institute at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music — is another one of Breiwick’s mentors. Brewick's been lucky enough to hold the Mason Street Grill residency with Davis for seven years.
“It’s been a dream to get to play with Mark this often. This gig is such a great resource for me to try out new things. Playing with Mark is like going to school every time. He knows so much about harmony.”
Lesser Lakes Trio
Breiwick’s latest musical companion and source of inspiration is Wauwatosa native Devin Drobka. A Berklee College of Music graduate, Drobka met Breiwick shortly after the drummer returned home from New York City.
Along with John Christensen on bass, Drobka and Breiwick formed Lesser Lakes Trio a few years back. Their first album — Burst Sessions — was recorded at the Burst Collective studio in Wauwatosa. Their new album was recorded at Howl Street Recordings with Shane Hochstetler.
“The music isn’t what you would consider traditional or straight-ahead jazz. It has very wide-ranging influences. You can hear indie rock, pop and even some country.
“If you drew a line through all the things I’ve done, this trio is where you’d land. But that line is going to keep going. That’s the beautiful thing about music. There’s a whole universe out there and there’s so much more to learn.”
UPCOMING GIGS (Lesser Lakes Trio unless otherwise noted)
Friday, May 19 - Macha Tea Company in Madison at 5 p.m.
Friday, May 19 - The Jazz Estate in Milwaukee at 8 p.m. with Zacc Harris’ American Reverie.
Saturday, May 20 - The Hook and Ladder Theater in Minneapolis at 8 p.m. with Zacc Harris’ American Reverie.
Friday, June 2 - The Highbury Pub in Milwaukee at 8:30 p.m. (as part of Bay View Jazz Fest)
Friday, June 7 - Blu (atop the Pfister Hotel) in Milwaukee at 8 p.m. (Jamie Breiwick Quarter)
Saturday, July 15 - Gibraltar in Milwaukee at 8 p.m.
Friday, July 21 - UW Madison Terrace at Memorial Union at 5 p.m. (as part of the 'Behind the Boat' series)
Friday, July 21 - Cafe Coda in Madison at 8 p.m.
Tuesday, August 2 - The Dead Poet in New York City at 7 p.m. (Jamie Breiwick Trio)
Sunday, August 6 - Visions on the Lake in Milwaukee at 2 p.m. (Dreamland, the music of Thelonious Monk)
Every Tuesday/Wednesday - Mason Street Grill in Milwaukee at 5:30 p.m. (Jamie Breiwick/Mark Davis duo)
MORE INFO AT www.jamiebreiwick.net