Breathing Lessons

Longtime rock musician Joe Turano was taking a break from his busy career when he dropped into Elm Grove’s jazz mecca, The Grove, for dinner. Visiting home-town relatives, the singer-saxophonist was fresh from his work as a backup musician and arranger for singer and fellow ex-Milwaukeean Al Jarreau. Just inside The Grove’s front door, Turano heard two notes from the world-class clarinetist in residence, and knew immediately who it was. “Wow, that’s got to be Chuck Hedges,” he told his companion. “He’s one of my all-time favorites. I’ve just got to play with him.” Turano’s saxophone was in Waukesha, and…

Longtime rock musician Joe Turano was taking a break from his busy career when he dropped into Elm Grove’s jazz mecca, The Grove, for dinner. Visiting home-town relatives, the singer-saxophonist was fresh from his work as a backup musician and arranger for singer and fellow ex-Milwaukeean Al Jarreau. Just inside The Grove’s front door, Turano heard two notes from the world-class clarinetist in residence, and knew immediately who it was.

“Wow, that’s got to be Chuck Hedges,” he told his companion. “He’s one of my all-time favorites. I’ve just got to play
with him.”

Turano’s saxophone was in Waukesha, and he’s worked with countless musicians, including Rod Stewart, Michael Bolton, Alice Cooper, Joe Cocker, George Benson and Neil Diamond. But he was so anxious to play with Hedges that he hurried through dinner and raced back to get his sax, arriving at The Grove ready to go.

Hedges had once repaired a Turano horn and knew a little about him, but the two musicians had never played together. For less accomplished performers that would have posed a giant, perhaps impossible, stretch. Hedges rarely encourages sit-ins.

But once onstage, this short, slight stranger with his shaved head and alto saxophone clicked with Hedges – and vice versa. In one of those priceless moments that can happen when top professionals improvise, for two sets, rock/pop performer Turano merged seamlessly with the jazz performers in Chuck Hedges’ band, the Milwaukee Connection.

The distinctive sound of Hedges, the sound Turano recognized immediately, has been a fixture on the Milwaukee musical scene for decades. For five years, his band has played Thursday nights at The Grove, and the quintet recently ended a long run on Fridays at Selen’s House of Prime in Cudahy. Before that came 15 years at the Red Mill in Brookfield.

Hedges, 75, is Milwaukee’s most internationally celebrated jazzman. Over more than a half-century, he’s performed with the music’s major figures, including its paterfamilias, Louis Armstrong. And he’s toured worldwide, recorded dozens of albums as leader and dozens more as a featured sideman.

If performing at jazz’s highest level for that long is rare, Hedges’ ability to withstand punishing diseases is all but miraculous. In the last six years, he’s survived two critical cancer assaults, type 1 diabetes and other infirmities. Two days after a 2001 surgery for colorectal cancer, he was back on stage, attached to chemotherapy tubes.

In late 2005, pancreatic cancer – usually lethal – required seven hours of surgery, lengthy hospitalization and two months of recuperation. His recovery so far defies medical odds and, after a scan last spring, a doctor’s prediction that Hedges had six-plus months to live. A recent scan of his remaining pancreas showed no recurrence.

Now injecting insulin twice daily and fighting sleep apnea, he flies to festivals around the country. In November, battling a severe ear infection that restricted his hearing, Hedges entertained fans on a weeklong cruise in the stormy Caribbean.

Hedges has cut back his performing to some degree, letting go of a regular Chicago gig and ending his European tours. But he remains a Milwaukee treasure, with a band of aging hipsters who expertly improvise and re-create the music which once dominated American pop culture.

Led by the bands of Benny Goodman and Milwaukee native Woody Herman, among others, swing was the nation’s pop music of the 1930s and ’40s. And nowhere was jazz hotter than Chicago. In the ’30s and ’40s, “Chicago Jazz” revived the New Orleans style with a colorful collection of characters, a foundation laid in the 1920s by Armstrong and his mentor, King Oliver.

Hedges grew up in Chicago and gravitated to the clarinet, the most popular instrument of the time, as personified by players like Goodman, Herman, Artie Shaw and Jimmy Dorsey. Hedges got his start playing in Chicago joints like Club Silhouette, where an underwater dancer stripped while the band played on. “We had a madman trombonist named Mike Riley,” Hedges recalls. “He’d turn his horn upside down and blow out water.”

Drummer Hey Hey Humphrey suffered from Tourette Syndrome, which caused him to spout epithets at inappropriate times. During his wedding in a jazz club, he blurted several four-letter words.

But no musician was wilder – or closer to Hedges – than international cornet star Wild Bill Davison, who spent the ’30s in Chicago and Milwaukee. Much later, the two men toured Europe together. Davison’s malapropisms anticipated Yogi Berra’s. A classic: “If the customers don’t want to come in, you can’t stop them.”

“Bill loved the ladies and he wasn’t particular,” Hedges recalled. “The syndicate (Mafia) ran most the clubs. As long as you stayed away from their women, their checks wouldn’t bounce.”

The young Hedges would sit enrapt at Chicago clubs, absorbing from Dixie legends like Mugsy Spanier and George Brunies. As the evenings wore on, they’d drift off the bandstand, and Hedges filled in. At closing time, he’d pack up his horn and often walk all the way home.

Hedges cites Goodman, Shaw and Jimmy Noone as his leading influences. And he reveres Pete Fountain, sometimes put down as too commercial. “A wonderful, wonderful man and a great player,” Hedges says. “He taught us all how to finger the high notes.”

In 1965, Hedges was lured to Milwaukee by trumpeter Dick Ruedebusch, whose band landed a long run at the Tunnel Inn in the alley across Wells Street from the Pabst Theater.

“Dick was a kind man who looked like a bouncer, played like an angel and was very uptight,” Hedges recalls. “Woody Herman discovered him here and got us bookings in New York and Las Vegas and an appearance on ‘The Ed Sullivan Show.’ ”

For a time, Ruedebusch & Company earned national bookings and record contracts. But by the 1970s, rock’s ascendance had killed most of the old jazz clubs. And Hedges’ growing family responsibilities made club work and traveling a problem. So, for a decade, he hung up his clarinet and devoted himself full time to instrument repairing, something he had done to supplement his performing income.

With assistants, Hedges operated three repair shops, looking after Milwaukee Public Schools’ woodwinds, among others. No one knows clarinets, or other woodwinds, better. As a craftsman, he was known as a perfectionist.

As his children grew up, jazz’s clarion call lured Hedges back. He began two long gigs – at the Red Mill and a 20-year Monday night date at Andy’s in Chicago’s Loop – with countless other bookings. Meanwhile, he built up an itinerary of jazz festivals – some continuing – and recording contracts on small national labels Delmark and Arbors.

“Chuck’s a magnificent player,” says Joe Aaron, an elder statesman of local jazz woodwind players. “The clarinet is a ‘motha’ to play, the three-octave range is so much larger than the saxophone’s and the fingering is much more difficult. Chuck Hedges plays one note and it swings.”

Another senior professional clarinetist, Sammy Armato, is a fan who’s regularly in front of Hedges at The Grove’s bar. “He has fluency over the horn’s entire range,” Armato says. “He’s right up there with Goodman and Shaw.”

Russ Dagon, retired principal clarinetist with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, calls Hedges “the consummate musician, still practicing like mad to make his playing even better.” Another MSO clarinetist, the late Michael Cheskiewicz, was a huge fan.

Hedges’ only performing flaw: He reads music poorly. A fellow musician once told him, “You read like a dyslectic.” But with his ear, taste and technique, it doesn’t matter. Besides, virtually all his group’s music is improvised, variations on jazz evergreens and classic pop standards.

With Hedges, the sound is everything. Playing a French-made Leblanc clarinet (Leblanc Inc. is based in Kenosha, but has a French factory), his solos cover the instrument’s range, from woody basement notes to silvery highs. A favorite trick at racehorse tempos is finishing a long string of sixteenth notes without breathing, then sustaining a terminal note an octave over high C. It’s a “Wow!” moment. In a puckish mood, Hedges can squeak even higher.

As Aaron puts it, “Some guys can make a squeak sound pretty.”

The Grove, a beamed-ceiling restaurant and bar warmly decorated in rust tones and colorful prints, offers jazz four nights a week. Thursdays, the Connection plays. After decades of professional playing with others and several years together, its members make up what is, arguably, Wisconsin’s best jazz band.

Vibraphone player Bob Maynard attacks the instrument’s keys and pedals like a happy octopus, tattooing his keys with two or four mallets. For the last 10 years, Andy LoDuca, a bearded bear of a musician, has massaged the drums and cymbals intensely. In December, LoDuca left the band, replaced by powerhouse percussionist Jack Carr. The “string section,” bassist George Welland and guitarist Dave Sullivan, aren’t quite as athletic. But their fingers furiously fuss over the frets.

When he joined the band several years ago, Maynard was returning to music after a quarter-century in business. While continuing his insurance work, he learned the band’s “book” by reading on stage. After shocking veteran musicians with his speed at picking up the repertoire, he’s now the Connection’s surprise backup solo star.

Milwaukee’s top jazz bassist, Welland has backed such legends as singers Billy Eckstine and Mel Tormé. The band’s best reader, he can play hundreds of standards in any key. Sullivan’s forte is dropping “quotes” into his solos, phrases from wedding marches, rock or country tunes.

The band offers a driving style of chamber jazz. Whether playing at romantic or rocket tempos, they improvise, merge and diverge under Hedges’ soaring lead. “The greatest contributor to our creativity,” Hedges muses, “is the inability to remember how we played something before. Musicians have successful patterns, just like talkers do. Armstrong and Goodman kept that. I’m with the school that says, ‘Let’s get rid of it.’ ”

On stage, Hedges isn’t demonstrative in the manner of some strutting bebop saxophonists or horn-waving Dixieland show boaters. Going stratospheric for a Z over high X, he will simply point his clarinet’s bell towards the ceiling. Only clarinet aficionados can fully appreciate the agility with which his long fingers skitter over the metal-on-wood keys.

“He can play at the speed of those half his age,” local clarinet player Dave MacGregor says. “Other clarinetists are perhaps as facile, but none have that tone or breath control.”

Despite his medical history and a lifetime of breathing saloon air, Hedges seems almost robust, with good color. The hair skirting his bald dome is, mostly, brown. His mustache and goatee are mostly white. He’s rather dapper on stage in his usual blue blazer and gray slacks.

“With the serious surgery he’s gone through, he hasn’t lost a thing,” Aaron says.

Hedges’ breath control is astounding, especially with his lifelong smoking habit. Despite doctor’s orders, it continues. During performances, he’ll leave the bandstand for a few drags on mentholated Basics. Red wine and an occasional late-night cognac also lubricate Hedges embouchure (the lip and jaw foundation).

Hedges has let nothing stop him, rushing back on stage after surgery. “Chuck’s proving something to himself,” says LoDuca. “If he can still play, he’s still alive.”

Hedges has five children by three wives and five grandchildren. His current spouse, of 16 years, is a retired psychiatric nurse – the ideal partner for a jazz musician. He calls Carole the “sweetest and strongest person I’ve ever met.”

Between Hedges’ surgeries, she was stricken with cerebellar ataxia from a rare auto-immune neurological disorder that has slightly affected her speech and walking. Still, she accompanied Hedges on the November cruise and often attends performances using a walker.

The health problems of Hedges and his wife led to the decision to stop touring Europe, where he has a sizable fan base. “That broke my heart,” Hedges says. Ending his 20-year run in Chicago didn’t hurt as much. He still returns to his hometown periodically, most recently in January at the Chicago Cultural Center.

These days, with jazz banished from Milwaukee radio and clubs preferring the lighter paydays of smaller groups, venues for jazz quintets are scarce. Hedges fills all the bookings he can, which keeps the Connection performing around the metro area and sometimes beyond in parades, festivals and even private parties, where admirers may pay far more than a club.

This winter, the band released two more CDs, one augmented by a cello, viola and two violins. Hedges sells them at performances and on the Web at

His loyal followers also know Hedges for his witty, sometimes cutting ripostes. To a heckler: “Get a manager. You’ve been handling yourself long enough.” To those admirers who ask him to stop smoking “because we want you around awhile,” he replies, “I’ve beenaround awhile.”

Hedges’ song introductions can be droll. The standard “I Remember You” becomes “I Dismember You.” Introducing “The Man I Love,” Hedges may note, “That doesn’t describe the proclivities of anyone in this band.”

Hedges scoffs at the idea that he is an artist. “Music is a craft,” he says. “Artist is a term used by, and for, people who aren’t.” As Frank Sinatra did, Hedges calls himself a “saloon musician,” observing, “Saloon players have to take care of the people, their audiences.”

As for how the audiences take care of him, in 1982 Hedges told an interviewer, “Success for a jazz musician is defined
as survival. Jazz musicians don’t get rich and famous.”

A quarter-century later, Hedges still isn’t rich, still plays with undiminished passion and without a drop of self-pity. “No one in Wisconsin makes a living just playing jazz,” he notes. “We’re dinosaurs. The meteor has hit the earth; we just don’t know it.”

Longtime jazz critic and fan Michael Drew wrote our October story on pianist Jeffrey Hollander.