Af­ter 50 years, Mil­wau­kee jazz man Jerry Grillo has no in­ten­tion of hang­ing up the mi­cro­phone

Wisconsin Gazette - - Opinion - By Louis Weis­berg Staff writer

Jerry Grillo hasn’t achieved the level of fame en­joyed by Bob Dy­lan, his high school’s most fa­mous alum­nus. But like the No­bel Prize winner, Grillo ac­com­plished what he set out to do when he left Hib­bing, Min­nesota, and he’s grate­ful for the ca­reer he made for him­self af­ter mov­ing to Mil­wau­kee in 1968.

That ca­reer, Grillo says, still is mov­ing for­ward.

Start­ing out af­ter col­lege, Grillo was torn be­tween his de­sire to teach and his dream of singing, and Mil­wau­kee af­forded him both op­por­tu­ni­ties. Dur­ing his years at John Mar­shall High School, Grillo was free to per­form on the week­ends and to tour with his band in the sum­mer, ex­pos­ing him to a larger au­di­ence. His name never be­came a house­hold word, but in ad­di­tion to his lo­cal fan base, he de­vel­oped fol­low­ers through his per­for­mances on the road.

Grillo put his mu­sic ca­reer on a back burner dur­ing much of his time with MPS, but he turned again to mu­sic as he ap­proached re­tire­ment.

He’s re­leased 10 record­ings, begin­ning with 1992’s This Funny World, recorded in Chicago and pro­duced by Jackie Allen, his men­tor at the Wis­con­sin Con­ser­va­tory of Mu­sic. The song “Lonely,” which Grillo co-wrote and recorded in 2005, made Bill­board’s Top 100.

But “Star­dust” is his fa­vorite cre­ation. He ded­i­cated the record­ing of it to Karl Kopp, owner of Elsa’s on the Park. “He played ev­ery­thing I ever recorded, and when­ever I vis­ited the restau­rant, he’d put on one of my songs,” Grillo says.

The Wis­con­sin Area Mu­sic In­dus­try has rec­og­nized Grillo with four nom­i­na­tions for Jazz Artist of the Year, and he took home the prize in 2011. That was an un­ex­pected honor, he says, be­cause vo­cal­ists sel­dom win in the cat­e­gory.

Al­though he’s ap­peared at many venues in the Mil­wau­kee area, An­gelo’s Lounge and Pi­ano Bar, 1686 N. Van Buren St., was Grillo’s mu­si­cal home for sev­eral years.

“An­gelo’s was a la­bor of love,” Grillo said. Owner An­gelo Martel­lano was ag­ing and needed help keep­ing the doors open. Grillo booked in­stru­men­tal­ists for Martel­lano and played a reg­u­lar gig there Fri­day nights for sev­eral years. He strug­gled along­side his long­time friend,

ON STAGE

giv­ing up other op­por­tu­ni­ties to help keep the busi­ness open.

“There was no way I would have left,” Grillo says. “Martel­lano had that busi­ness for 30 years. It was very sad to see that busi­ness go down.”

Martel­lano died in 2016. In col­lab­o­ra­tion with John Hefter, Grillo’s writ­ten two songs hon­or­ing him. They’re sched­uled for re­lease at the end of 2018.

These days, Grillo con­sid­ers his home to be The Jazz Es­tate, 2423 N. Mur­ray Ave., on Mil­wau­kee’s East Side. It’s a small, unas­sum­ing place, but it’s fa­mous in the jazz world. Lu­mi­nar­ies such as Harry Con­nick Jr. go there to jam af­ter their big shows down­town.

This year marks the 50th an­niver­sary of the first time Grillo was paid for singing, as well as the 25th year that he’s per­formed at The Jazz Es­tate, where he has a cel­e­bra­tory gig set for Sept. 12.

IN­VEST­ING IN SCHOOLS

Grillo at­tributes his suc­cess in part to the ex­cep­tional high school he at­tended in his home­town.

Hib­bing rec­og­nized its chil­dren as the world’s fu­ture lead­ers, and city lead­ers

Jerry Grillo per­forms at The Jazz Es­tate, 2423 N. Mur­ray Ave., on Mil­wau­kee’s East Side. Call 414-964-9923 or visit the cal­en­dar at jazzes­tate.com/ full-cal­en­dar. were de­ter­mined to pre­pare them for that role. In 1920, Hib­bing, with fi­nan­cial as­sis­tance from the lo­cal min­ing in­dus­try, built a $1 mil­lion (more than $13 mil­lion in to­day’s dol­lars) high school de­signed in Ja­cobean Re­vival ar­chi­tec­tural style, com­plete with mar­ble and brass flour­ishes. The au­di­to­rium was par­tic­u­larly lav­ish, mod­eled af­ter the Broad­way theater palaces of its day, with chan­de­liers made from im­ported Bel­gian crys­tal.

Grillo and Dy­lan, who is three years Grillo’s se­nior, per­formed in mu­si­cals on that grand stage — ex­pe­ri­ences that il­lu­mi­nated their dreams of what was pos­si­ble.

The pur­pose of giv­ing stu­dents such a mag­i­cal place to study was to make them feel valu­able and gird them for suc­cess, says Grillo, who re­al­ized at a young age that he had a strong voice and stud­ied opera.

For a town of 16,000 res­i­dents, Hib­bing has pro­duced a va­ri­ety of suc­cess­ful peo­ple. The list in­cludes base­ball’s Roger Maris, bas­ket­ball’s Kevin McHale and hockey player Joe Micheletti. Vin­cent Bugliosi, who pros­e­cuted se­rial killer Charles Man­son, gay porn di­rec­tor Chi Chi LaRue, world-renowned ar­chi­tect John P. Sheehy and wine­maker Robert Mon­davi also called Hib­bing home.

STYLINGS AND STAN­DARDS

Grillo fo­cused on the pop stan­dards that dom­i­nated the air­waves be­tween World War II and the rock era. En­dur­ingly pop­u­lar, they were songs recorded by Amer­ica’s leg­endary vo­cal stylists — Frank Si­na­tra, Tony Ben­nett, Jack Jones, Andy Wil­liams, Nat King Cole, Vic Da­mone, Ey­die Gormé, Steve Lawrence, Johnny Mathis, Lena Horne and dozens of oth­ers. Their mu­sic con­tin­ues to thrive at wed­dings, bar mitz­vahs and sup­per clubs, and it con­tin­ues to chart to­day in con­tem­po­rary in­ter­pre­ta­tions by Bar­bra Streisand, Michael Bublé, Diana Krall and oth­ers.

Grillo was drawn es­pe­cially to the mu­si­cal styles of the era’s fe­male stars, such as Di­nah Washington and Sarah Vaughan — and es­pe­cially to Ella Fitzger­ald and Bar­bra Streisand. “Singing along with Bar­bra has kept my voice in shape,” he says.

The Amer­i­can stan­dards lend them­selves eas­ily to jazz in­ter­pre­ta­tions, and it’s at that nexus that Grillo is now fo­cused. He con­sid­ers him­self, first and fore­most, a jazz singer.

To­day, he’s most in­spired by Ben­nett. In re­cent years, like Ben­nett, he’s even taken up paint­ing. A framed dol­lar bill that Ben­nett au­to­graphed for Grillo in a gro­cery store check­out line adorns one of his walls.

PUNC­TU­AT­ING WITH VOL­UME

Grillo of­ten ap­pears on­stage in a less self-con­scious ver­sion of a Rat Pack-styled jacket or suit and a nar­row tie. Usu­ally, he dons a fe­dora, and some­times a scarf. The look is orig­i­nal and cool, evoca­tive of a by­gone era but not an imi­ta­tion.

At 74, Grillo’s face looks lived in but not worn out. On­stage, he projects con­fi­dence and con­trol. He has a tough, brood­ing look that could get him cast in Hol­ly­wood as a Mafia boss.

Al­though Grill can come off as the kind of guy you don’t want to mess with, he also seems like some­one you’d want to tell your trou­bles to.

His voice can go big, but in per­for­mance, he saves vol­ume to cre­ate dra­matic mo­ments. He writes po­etry — most re­cently “Hid­ing Places,” which ad­dresses bul­ly­ing — and, in singing, he uses vol­ume like a writer uses punc­tu­a­tion.

His per­form­ing style of­ten seems like sto­ry­telling. He cups the mi­cro­phone in an in­ti­mate way, as if he’s shar­ing a se­cret. Some­times, he holds the mi­cro­phone with one hand and uses the other in an al­most­con­ver­sa­tional man­ner.

“To me (singing) is like po­etry be­ing in­ter­preted lyri­cally,” he says.

Over the years, Grillo’s voice has taken on a grav­elly qual­ity that works well for him. It’s an appealing de­vel­op­ment that’s brought him new at­ten­tion, and he plans on de­vel­op­ing and us­ing it to give his ca­reer a new kick. He’s nowhere near putting down the mi­cro­phone.

“I have a sus­pi­cion that some­thing still might hap­pen,” he says.

But for decades of fans who’ve been en­livened by Grillo’s jazz and been moved by his sen­ti­men­tal croon­ing, Grillo is still hap­pen­ing — and al­ways will be.

Jerry Grillo look­ing cool.

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