It’s 7 p.m. on a Monday at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music’s satellite in Glendale. At this hour, most of the practice rooms are quiet. But in one of the largest rooms, the members of We Six are just getting started. It’s the first gathering to prepare for their last concert of the season — one traditionally devoted to original compositions by the members of the group.
They’ve arrived with music in hand. And even before they run through the first chart, guitarist Paul Silbergleit is talking through his arrangement of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” with Jeff Hamann, scatting some of the rhythm figures and explaining his notation. Then he stops at the piano to talk to Mark Davis. “Is that trippletty thing reasonable?” he asks, referring to an extended knuckle-busting piano trill that floats over a section of the horn melody. Davis plays the passage tentatively, but it’s obviously “reasonable.” Just in case, Silbergleit tells him, “If you’ve got to bail on the last of the triplets, that’s fine.”
In short, they talk like the seasoned jazz players they are. There are many decades of collective jazz experience in the room. The group itself—with a few personnel changes along the way—has officially been together for 14 years.
But as Mark Davis tells me, many of the We Six members have played together in different guises for much longer than that. Saxophone player Eric Schoor and trumpterer Eric Jacobson are relative newcomers, but some form of the WCM jazz group has been around since the 1990s. And, as Davis says, other musical friendships predate that: “Jeff Hamann, drummer Dave Bayles and I have been playing together since”–he pauses for a beat–“oh, I don’t know…I think the 1980s.”
He talked to me during a break at James Madison High School, where he spent the day teaching students about the music he has dedicated his life to. “Maybe a few of them have heard jazz before, but primarily they listen to hip-hop,” he says. “But I’m finding they’re very curious and open to learning more about jazz.”
Davis grew up in Milwaukee, studied at the conservatory, and began teaching there himself in 1992. He was a classical piano student of Adelaide Banaszynski (fondly known as “Miss B”) and a protégé of David Hazeltine, who has been a jazz piano fixture in New York City since leaving Milwaukee in 1992.
Now the director of the WCM’s Jazz Institute, Davis is one of the leaders of the local jazz community, and reaching out to young audiences like the students of James Madison is part of the job description.
“We’re doing a lot more in the schools,” he says. “Most of the students are not musicians, so we’re doing a jazz appreciation-jazz history unit. Like a number of the Milwaukee Public Schools, there’s no music education here any more. The conservatory is working to help some of these schools. It’s kind of the state of where things are.”
The key is to turn that early curiosity into greater involvement with the music, and that requires hands on teaching. “We have to bring it to students directly. It’s not going to happen through the radio airwaves any more. There has to be a lot of direct contact—working with students in schools to bring it to them. To get them playing, to get them exposed to it so they can carry it on.”
Some might argue that “state” is part of a slow decline of jazz in America, or in Milwaukee, but Davis doesn’t see it that way. As evidence, he cites the recent International Jazz Day celebration, and President Obama’s remarks at the broadcast of the nationally televised concert on the White House lawn:
Jazz is perhaps the most honest reflection of who we are as a nation. Because after all, has there ever been any greater improvisation than America itself? We do it in our own way. We move forward even when the road ahead is uncertain, stubbornly insistent that we’ll get to somewhere better, and confident that we’ve got all the right notes up our sleeve.
And that’s what’s attracted a global audience to this music. It speaks to something universal about our humanity — the restlessness that stirs in every soul, the desire to create with no boundaries.
“That was a great moment for jazz,” Davis says. “There’s a lot to look forward to in the future. Jazz is getting organized. There are great young players. Locally, I think we’re seeing new venues springing up, new opportunities to play. I’m optimistic about the future.”
To see and hear some of the forces behind that future, stop by the WCM this week.
All Our Own featuring the We Six Jazz Sextet. 7:30 pm, Thursday, May 12.