NPR logo A Life Of Craft Beer And Free Jazz

A Life Of Craft Beer And Free Jazz

Worlds colliding: Ken Vandermark's Caffeine, with Jim Baker (keyboards) and Steve Hunt (drums), performs at the Sugar Maple in Milwaukee, Wis. Md2545 / Flickr hide caption

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Md2545 / Flickr

Worlds colliding: Ken Vandermark's Caffeine, with Jim Baker (keyboards) and Steve Hunt (drums), performs at the Sugar Maple in Milwaukee, Wis.

Md2545 / Flickr

Dedicated fans of out jazz know Bruno Johnson's Okka Disk record label for putting out discs by several of today's leading free improvisers: Fred Anderson, Peter Brotzmann, Ken Vandermark and the like. Epicurean tipplers of Milwaukee, Wis. know Bruno Johnson as co-owner of two of the city's great watering holes: the Sugar Maple (60 beers on tap!) and the Belgian-beer-specializing Palm Tavern, both in the neighborhood of Bay View.

Good music by day, craft beer by night — literally. Basically, Johnson has the Best. Life. Ever.

Milwaukee happens to be this blogger's hometown, so on a recent trip back, I made it a point to find out more about Johnson's multiple enterprises, and if they intersected at all. You wouldn't call Milwaukee a world-class jazz city, but there's certainly some good music going on, and Chicago is less than two hours down the Interstate. So I brought a microphone and digital recorder to the Palm Tavern, where Johnson graciously agreed to an interview in spite of his migraine:


OkkaDisk is 15 years old now. Take me back to that: Why did you start the label, and what inspired you?

Well, I had made a lot of money as a bartender, and since I had been in the record business doing rock music ... I saw Fred Anderson perform at a show with the Ken Vandermark quartet, and I talked to Fred about doing a recording — which he hadn't done in a while — and he immediately called me the next day and said he had a tape already done, and was ready to go. And since he said he would do it, I couldn't back down, and we started. And I've been going ever since.

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You said you had your own small rock label. This must have been when you weren't that old yourself.

I was probably in my late twenties when I first started. I've been in the record business my whole adult life, and I did some rock records in the early '80s. But it just wasn't as interesting to me. I'd started listening to jazz since my twenties, and it's more interesting musically — it's just a lot more interesting than rock music. So I kind of stopped with the rock label, and started up anew with the jazz label.

I also got a job at the Jazz Record Mart, which didn't hurt. I was working there as one of my many jobs.

A lot of the material that you put out is "avant-garde," or creative improvised music. How did you get into that scene? I mean, you must have been in Chicago and listening to this music — what was it like back then? Ken Vandermark was fairly new to town. Fred Anderson hadn't recorded in many years ...

Well, I originally started out listening to the more "avant-garde" things. A friend of mine I knew in college was more worldly than I, and I was listening to a lot of more really far-out rock music. And he said, "Well, you should listen to the Art Ensemble [of Chicago]," who happened to be coming to town. His thing was, you know, they sounded as wild as the rock bands I was listening to — Caberet Voltaire, Einsturzende Neubauten — but they could actually play their instruments.

So I went and saw them, and I loved the cacophony — but controlled chaos was really what it sounded like to me. So I started listening to anything I could find that had Don Moye, or Roscoe Mitchell, or any of those guys. Which sorta led me to a lot of European music, but also started leading me back into the '60s to the more — the Coltrane, the Sonny Rollins — that more experimental wing of traditional jazz, if you want to put it that way. Which then, of course, led to anything: Duke Ellington, Red Mitchell, anybody. Finding it from avant-garde music was interesting, but it was really interesting to find the whole history.

You also worked at Bob Koester's Jazz Record Mart. What kind of experience was that?

Yea, I was sort of a jack-of-all-trades there. I did some buying, I did the stocking. A good friend of mine has been the manager there for over 20 years, so he gave me whatever job I wanted. But working for Bob was always very interesting. He's very opinionated. He's had his own label for over 55 years. The people who have actually worked there have gone on to become great label owners in both jazz and blues. So it was a good education for me — a lot things I learned from Bob. A lot of things I learned to not do from Bob as well, but you know, he's sort of an iconoclast. So he gets to be crazy and everybody has to accept it, I guess.

A few recent releases on Bruno Johnson's imprint. courtesy of Okka Disk hide caption

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courtesy of Okka Disk

A few recent releases on Bruno Johnson's imprint.

courtesy of Okka Disk

So basically, you got to know these artists who are record for you just by approaching them at shows and saying, 'Hey, I want to work with you and put out these things.'

Yea, Fred [Anderson] was very approachable; so was Ken [Vandermark]. That's one of the really beautiful things about this end of the music, is that the audience is fairly small, and it's been very stable for the last 30 or 40 years. And musicians are very approachable — I mean, there are some who aren't, but for the most part, they understand how the music works, and how the system works. So they're very easy to deal with. It's a lot of handshake deals.

'Cause, you know: even a hit is still a marginal sales for anybody. You know, I mean, there are some rock labels which put out as many promos of a release as I do print copies of records altogether. And people understand that's what it is. So even though Peter Brotzmann may have done 250 albums in the last 40 years, he's still somebody you can just talk to after a gig, or before a gig.

Your label is still very much a low-tech thing, and you've carved out a certain identity, and a certain process, and method. As you mentioned, you went up and talked to these musicians yourself. You don't have any signed contracts at all.

I don't. My deal is very much a 50-50 deal with the artist. If they're happy with what I'm doing, and they want me to release a product, then that's what I'll do. If they're not happy, they can have everything I have back, and then go to somebody else with the material. You know, there's not a lot of money involved, so ... people trust me, and I trust them.

It's sort of like the ESP [Disk' recordings] thing. Their quote was always that, "The artist chooses what you'll hear on their ESP Disk'." And I have sort of the same thing. I don't tell them what to record; I don't tell them how to do it. They choose the material they want to use; they can do all the graphics if they want. It's their art. One of the big differences between me and somebody like Bob Koester is that he controls the end product, and I don't. I just see myself as a medium for it, and if the music wants to go somewhere else, then that's where it's going to go, and that's fine as well. It sort of appalls me that people can constantly reissue records by artists, and those artists have nothing to do with that reissue. It's like owning a painting by someone, and once they've sold it, they never can get it again. It just seems sort of wrong to me. It's not a good business model, but it's the way I feel more comfortable.

Lately, there's been something of a resurgence in selling vinyl. Do you experience that at all?

Yea, I actually did a couple LPs last year, and I'm going to do another one with Peter Brotzmann this coming winter. I've actually been sitting around with Ken Vandermark for the last six-or-eight months, sort of strategically planning out for the future. CD sales tend to be on the wane; LPs have sort of re-surged. A lot of it is nostalgia, but a lot of it is that it's more interesting. I prefer an LP to a CD — it's more physically attractive. And it's more limited, I think. You know, a lot of CDs that are 38 minutes or 45 minutes are beautiful. And some people will then add another 30 minutes because you can. And then you end up with not nearly as interesting a recording — it kind of loses impact sometimes. So it's nice to see that return. That said, it's far more expensive to do than CDs. Is it going to go away like CDs? Who knows.

It seems to me the digital medium is really becoming quite powerful. I'm kind of a Luddite about it all — I've never downloaded anything; I don't really understand the whole process, really. I don't know how you spend money getting something that's just a digital file, that conceivably could just disappear off your computer if it crashes, or gets a virus. So it's always been sort of — I dunno —

Hey, it's worked for you for 15 years. Though I presume you aren't earning a whole lot of profit off these things. Why do you keep doing it?

Well, I'm never going to be a musician myself. I understand — I played a little bit in a rock band, and I know I'm not as good as I would need to be to even be mediocre. But I can do what I can do, and I think it's beautiful music, and it needs to be disseminated out to people. And owning a label is one of the ways to do that. I have friends who are musicians, and I help them, along with other labels, to get their music out. Which I think is very important.

Somebody like Fred Anderson, who just turns 80 years old — and people revere him. But he still doesn't make any money doing this, and some day in the near future, he'll be gone. And we can say how wonderful he was, but without anybody helping him, there's just less material out there for him.

Outside the Palm Tavern. cattoo / Flickr hide caption

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cattoo / Flickr

Outside the Palm Tavern.

cattoo / Flickr

I hear that. So let me change directions now. About seven years ago, you came to Milwaukee. Why?

Well, my wife and I are both in the bar business. I had some wonderful jobs — including working at the Green Mill in Chicago, which is a great jazz bar, and I was a weekend manager there, and I loved it. But I also was getting older, and I was tired of working for others — great people to work for, but they had the business, and I was just an employee. ... So my wife and I searched Chicago, and couldn't really afford anything there, and then we came to Milwaukee.

So this here is the Palm Tavern — it's a smaller enterprise compared to the Sugar Maple, which you also own. And that's newer.

I got a cold call from a guy who, with his partners, they were buying a building and wanted to know if I was interested in doing another bar. 'Cause this place [the Palm Tavern] is fairly well-known, and it's got a good reputation. And we thought it was a good chance. It's been a lot of fun: our new place, the Sugar Maple, is 7-8 times the size of the Palm. And it also has a small back room where I can do music. So now, I can actually do live shows and stuff — and I've had a few people play there. Which is exciting, in its own way.

As I'm looking at everything here, I see a huge list of craft beers, and Belgian beers especially. And local beers: I also read that you have some 60 beers on tap at the Sugar Maple. There's an array of top-shelf whiskeys and such too. You know your booze pretty well.

I know it pretty well, I think. Could always be better, but it's a lot of fun. As I always tell customers, it's America, and we have abundance here: you know, we're the land of plenty, and there's no reason why you shouldn't investigate that. So our new bar has 60 drafts, all American craft beer. It's exciting; America is the best place for beer right now. There's breweries making stuff that nobody else has even thought of doing — it's just incredible. But also, there's traditional Belgian breweries that make some of the greatest beer in the world. So it's nice: I have the best of both worlds, and it's a lot of fun. I also have whiskey, which is addictive ...

Bruno Johnson's other bar. courtesy of the Sugar Maple hide caption

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courtesy of the Sugar Maple

Bruno Johnson's other bar.

courtesy of the Sugar Maple

It's certainly been a favorite drink of musicians for many years. So what about the reception here in Milwaukee? Does anybody here know you run this record label?

Some people do. Much like Chicago, the scene is kind of insular. People who know the artists know the artists, and some people don't know it even exists at all. A lot of people know jazz as much as they can by knowing Miles Davis, you know. Or Bill Evans, maybe. There are some people in town who actually know me, and they don't even know I own bars — they know I own a record label, but they're not interested in bars. But it's a pretty well-kept secret, I guess, really.

What's the market like here? Is there a local free improvisation scene in the line of Chicago's?

Not as large. There's a few bands that have been playing here for years ... but that's really about it. There's not really a huge scene.

This spring was your 15th anniversary of Okka Disk. And you actually put on a few concerts at the Sugar Maple. You had some internationally-known artists: Taylor Ho Bynum and Tomas Fujiwara, Joe McPhee and Ken Vandermark were here. Peter Brotzmann, Fred Anderson came up. How did that go?

Oh, it was very successful. I was really happy. We initially started because Peter was looking for a show for the trio he was touring with [Ed.: Nasheet Waits, drums and Eric Revis, bass] — I always say yes to Peter, so of course we put him on — and it's an interesting group that Peter put together. They did 10 or 12 dates. And we got them to play on a Saturday night. And then my wife said, "Well, if we're doing all that, why don't we do a little mini-festival?" So we called Joe McPhee, and he came; and Ken came; and we got Fred Anderson to play. And it went quite well. I lost money, but it wasn't nearly as bad as I thought it was going to be. It was a really good turnout — almost everything was sold out, which was really good. It was fun, so we may even do it yearly now, as a tradition.

Do you have anything else you'd like to say about where Okka Disk is going? Anything about the bar business, and craft brewers in America? The Midwest? Milwaukee?

Well, the Midwest is getting to be very exciting with beer. There are more and more breweries opening up that are shooting for excellence — not just shooting to sell a lot of beer. So beer is great — we'll always be drinking beer, I think. As for jazz: it's something I've been doing for 15 years. I may not be the smartest man now with technology, but it's a lot of fun, and I hope to always be doing it. As long as there's a market — as long as there's something to be said, and to be done, I'll keep on doing it.


Visit Okka Disk online for more information.