Bill Milkowski: Rockers, Jazzbos & Visionaries
Bill Milkowski is a New York-based freelancer who contributes regularly to Jazz Times, Modern Drummer, Guitar Player, Bass Player, Jazziz, Audio, Pulse Guitar Club (Italy), Jazzthing (Germany) and (until its recent demise) Fi magazines. He has written more than 4,000 articles for these and various other magazines since publishing his first article as a freelancer in 1974 and has penned more than 250 sets of liner notes to date. He is also the author of Rockers, Jazzbos & Visionaries (Billboard Books, 1999) and JACO: The Extraordinary Life And Times Of Jaco Pastorius (Miller Freeman Books, 1995), which is being made into a feature film by Blue Rider Pictures out of Santa Monica, California.
Milkowski has also acted as producer and/or co-producer on several recordings including Pat Martino's All Sides Now (Blue Note), Phil de Gruy's Innuendo Out The Other (NYC Records), Come Together: A Guitar Tribute To The Beatles (NYC Records), Who Loves You: A Tribute To Jaco Pastorius (JVC Records) and World Christmas (Metro Blue).
Born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin on September 26, 1954, he began playing guitar at the age of 12 and naturally came under the sway of rock guitar gods like Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck along with blues icons like B.B., Freddie and Albert King. His earliest experiences with jazz guitar came via Charlie Christian (specifically "Breakfast Feud") and later Joe Pass (see his liner notes to Pass' 1998 Pablo/Fantasy release Unforgettable for some autobiographical insights). Milkowski studied journalism at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where he received his Bachelor of Arts degree in 1977. He became editor of the UWM Post campus newspaper in 1975 and worked as a summer intern at The Milwaukee Journal in 1976. Milkowski is the co-founder of Cityside, a biweekly tabloid publication patterned after the Chicago Reader and the Village Voice . The publication had a strong run in Milwaukee from 1977 through 1979. He worked briefly as the editor of the monthly glossy Milwaukee magazine before moving to New York City in September of 1980 to accept a position as managing editor of Good Times, a weekly entertainment publication based on Long Island. He worked there for two years, covering music, theatre and film, before striking out as a freelance writer in 1982.
In May of 1987, Milkowski was diagnosed with testicular cancer and underwent surgery and following radiation therapy. A benefit to help defray the costs of his rehabilitation was held at the old Tramp's nightclub on 15th Street in New York. The evening was hosted by JJA's Howard Mandel and featured such artists as John Scofield, Michael Brecker, Danny Gottlieb, John Zorn, Mike and Leni Stern, Robert Quine, Elliott Sharp, Dave Tronzo, Bobby Previte and Jon Paris. Milkowski's own band The Pit Bulls also performed. From 1991 to 1992, he served as co-host for "The Other Half," a Saturday morning blues show on radio station WNYE.
In 1993, Milkowski moved to New Orleans, where he indulged in all manner of decadence and over-eating and second lining. During his three-year stay in the Crescent City, he served as the overnight dj on radio station WWOZ. His "Milkman's Matinee" program, which aired from 2-5 a.m., was a particular favorite with insomniacs and musicians coming home from their gigs. His daughter Sophie (pictured on the back inner sleeve in "Rockers, Jazzbos & Visionaries") was born in New Orleans on April 1, 1995.
Milkowski returned to New York in October of 1996 and presently resides in Washington Heights (so far Uptown that Harlem is Downtown).
In Bill Milkowski's Rockers, Jazzbos & Visionaries you'll find interviews with 30 of contemporary music's most outspoken and significant figures, from Keith Richards and Stevie Ray Vaughan to Wynton Marsalis and Keith Jarrett to Les Paul and Frank Zappa.
"The best things that I've heard are what the musicians have said themselves anytime where a person interviews a musican and just lets the musician talk." Steve Coleman, talking with Bill Milkowski on September 15, 1991
And that is exactly what you'll find in Rockers, Jazzbos & Visionaries. Musicians talking about their music and their influences, about the industry itself, its collaborators and its critics; about what annoys them and inspires them; about what their aspirations are and so much more. With wit and candor, uncensored and uninterrupted, contemporary music's most interesting and gifted artsits deliver what fans always want the truth up close and very personal.
Music fans of every genre will savor Bill Milkowski's Rockers, Jazzbos & Visionaries, a unique compilation of 30 probing interviews conducted over the last 20 years.
I didn't set out to become a freelance music writer. But certain events conspired to push me in that direction. Number one, I had been an avid music listener all my life. Number two, I studied journlism in high school and college. Number three, the position of pop music reviewer at The Milwaukee Journal was magically laid in my lap in the summer of 1976 when the previous scribe, my good pal Steve Wiest, was busted for raping an old girlfriend and carted away to the Fox Lake State Penitentiary (where he once played checkers with Ed Gein, the notorious Wisconsinite who inspired the ghoulish horror film Texas Chainsaw Massacre ). With a sudden vacancy in the feature department, the newspaper offered me the position. In my humble Midwestern manner, I replied, "Sure."
So there I was 22 years old, working as an intern at a major metropolitan daily newspaper that bicentennial summer, suddenly finding myself reviewing concerts by everybody from Kiss and the Kinks to Dolly Parton and Tammy Wynette to Dave Brubeck and Ella Fitzgerald. A few thousand bylines later and I'm still churning out copy on a daily basis for a dozen or so music magazines around the world. And my parents are still waiting for me to get a real job with regular paychecks, health insurance and a dental plan the whole security package. Of course, they're still waiting for my juvenile fascination with New York to end so I can do the right, responsible thing and move back to Milwaukee. Sorry to disappoint you, folks. Or as they say in New York...fuhgeddaboudit!!
After migrating to The Big Apple in 1980, I worked for two years as managing editor at Good Times, a bi-weekly entertainment publication based on Long Island, before striking out on the freelance trail. It was extremely slow going at first but I finally made some significant breakthroughs with two magazines, Down Beat and Guitar World, both of which began feeding me cover story assignments in 1983. The workload picked up from there as I added Guitar Player, Music Sound Output and International Musician to my list of regular clients.
The magazine work, along with record company bios and liner notes, kept the rent paid for a few years. I was able to make a fiscal leap when I finally connected with a Japanese magazine publishing company, Rittor Music, which began reprinting several of my stateside stories and feeding me regular assignments on the side. My writing has since appeared in numerous publications, including Billboard, MIX, Interview, the New York Daily News, Swing Journal (Japan) and Fachblatt (Germany). I currently am a regular contributor to Jazz Times, Modern Drummer, Jazziz, Bass Player, Pulse!, Audio and Fi magazines. I also write a monthly column on New York happenings for Jazzthing in Germany and contribute regularly to Guitar Club in Italy.
I feel like I've developed a keen ear over the past 20-plus years as a critic, coupled with an ever-expanding grasp of music history, theory and vocabulary. And though I confess to becoming increasingly jaded about the rock scene probably since the emergence of the Pixies, the Cranberries, Fiona Apple and other whining, no-playing charlatans my appreciation for jazz, blues and the essence of improvisation has deepened tenfold. I began losing interest in rock as the players became younger than me. Oh well, I guess there's always The Rolling Stones.
My musical aesthetic may have been formed early by my older siblings. With my brother, Tom, being four years older than me and my sister, Sue, being six years older, I was naturally privy to the popular music of the day long before I came of age and could make my own choices about what was cool or hip. I was younger brother, so I just sat back and soaked it all up. I remember Sue being heavily into the Everly Brothers. She must've thought "Wake Up Little Susie" was written for her. And, naturally, she dug Elvis Presley. In fact, the first record I ever purchased with my own money was a copy of Presley's post-GI soundtrack, Blue Hawaii, a present for Sue on the occasion of her 15th birthday. She and her teenage friends were also into all the latest dances, often corralling me as a partner to practice down in the basement. So I had firsthand knowledge of the Twist, the Fly, the Pony, the Mashed Potato, the Philly Dog, the Continental, the Hully Gully, the Bristol Stomp, and every other new step of the day.
Sue eventually got into the surf music scene, via the Beach Boys and Jan & Dean. I vividly recall her insisting that the family go en masse to see Beach Blanket Bingo with Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello at the drive-in theatre (remember those?). It was a memorable event, not for the movie but the sexual epiphany I experienced during the coming attractions for Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow with Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni. It was somewhat reminiscent of that scene in the orignal Blues Brothers movie John Belushi standing in the Baptist church, light pouring down on him from above, when suddenly he's hit with an epiphany: "The band!!! The band!!!" Only in my case it was more like, "The breats!!! The breasts!!!"
I was right there alongside sister Sue, gawking at the old black and white tv in the living room when The Beatles appeared on "The Ed Sullivan Show." I remember her crying. Naturally, she went for the cute Beatle, Paul. Mr brother Tom had much hipper taste in music. And because I slept in the same room (good God, was it the same bed?) with him for the first 12 years of my life, I had direct and immediate access to the sounds of Fats Domino, Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry, The Coasters, Sam the Sham & The Pharoahs, Del Shannon, Gary U.S. Bonds and Duane Eddy. He later introduced me to The Rolling Stones Now and 12x5, Fresh Cream, The Beatles' White Album, and Da Capo by Arthur Lee & Love.
I began to exert my own direction in music listening when Jimi Hendrix came out with Are You Experienced? Someting about the title track and "The Wind Cries Mary" held me transfixed. And Axis: Bold As Love put me over the top. Not having headphones at the time, I used to lie on my bed with the speakers from an el cheapo stereo system crushed up against my ears, cranking the volume to 11 and listening to "Little Miss Lover" over and over again, just to let that humongous low end seep directly into my brain as I convulsed on the bed. One day my mother barged into my bedroom, caught me in this compromising position and let out with a scream. I got so into Hendrix at one point that I actually concocted book covers out of a Jimi photo spread that appeared in Life magazine. While everyone else at Samuel Morse Junior High had The Monkees bookcovers, I had this psychedelic gypsy cat with eye shirts, a Fu Manchu mustache and a wild Afro do.
Ironically, Hendrix opened for The Monkees that year at The Milwaukee Auditorium. He was soon yanked from the tour for his overt sexuality and "dangerous" demeanor. Those 14-year-old girls screaming for Davy Jones, Mike Nesmith, Peter Tork and Mickey Dolenz didn't know what the hell to make of "Foxy Lady" or "Purple Haze."
Around that same time, I benefitted greatly from a social experiment that began in Milwaukee so-called "forced busing" to desegregate the public schools. Overnight, our lily-white junior high school was "invaded" by these black kids from the inner city. Through a mutual love of basketball, I began hanging out with Mack Bennett, Larry Buck, Richard Williamson and Michael Higgins. They in turn hipped me to James Brown at a time when he had come out with his anthemic "Say It Loud, I'm Black and I'm Proud." I was one of the few white kids in the audience that summer of 1968 (the year of the riots in Watts, Detroit, Milwaukee and elsewhere) to see James Brown get up and do his thing. And it was a major epiphany in my ongoing musical education.
Frank Zappa provided an important bridge from rock and blues into something a bit headier instrumentally, particularly Hot Rats with "Peaches En Regalia" and Weasles Ripped My Flesh with "The Eric Dolphy Memorial Barbecue." Jazz didn't begin to filter into my vocabulary until the early 1970s, via two sources local guitar great George Pritchett, a Joe Pass-inspired player who gigged regularly with a swinging trio at a downstairs lounge adjacent to a bowling alley in the hippe part of town, and late night DJ Ron Cuzner, who went on the air at midnight and played unfiltered, unadulterated jazz until sunrise, five nights a week. Cuzner was my guru, sort of like a Wolfman Jack figure who served as the muse for the Richard Dreyfuss character in American Grafitti . He not only introduced me, via the airwaves, to everybody from Wes Montgomery, Barney Kessel and Larry Coryell to McCoy Tyner, Oscar Peterson and Miles Davis, he also hipped me to Jaco Pastorius, Miroslav Vitous and The Crusaders. In 1975, I was the editor of the campus newspaper, the UWM Post. And during those frantic production nights when we were putting the semi-weekly paper together, we would invariably stay up until sunrise with the radio tuned to Cuzner's ultra-hip show, "The Dark Side" on WFMR. That show gave me a deeper understanding of and appreciation for jazz, as well as a hunger to learn more about it.
I also got a serious schooling by hanging out at the Jazz Gallery, a hip nightclub opened by Cuzner and Chuck LaPaglia. It was there that I got to see the likes of McCoy Tyner, Betty Carter, Eddie Jefferson, Clifford Jordan, Dizzy Reece, the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis big band, Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers, and countless other jazz heavyweights up close and in person. It made a huge impresion on me and helped formulate my aethetic.
Moving to New York in 1980, of course, opened my head up to a myriad of musical worlds. Not only were there regular doses of Jackie McLean, Freddie Hubbard and the Thad-Mel band at the Village Vanguard, but there was also a very vital "weird music" scene going on Downtown with renegades like John Zorn, Elliott Sharp, Arto Lindsay, Christian Marclay, David Moss, Bill Laswell and Fred Frith who were making strange and wonderful sounds at joints like Armageddon, Roulette and Danceteria. I was open to it all, soaking up as much as I could the "out" jazz thing with James "Blood" Ulmer, Arthur Blythe and Leroy Jenkins; the punk-funk thing with James White & The Blacks, The Contortions and Defunkt; the straight ahead jazz scene headed by Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers. I saw Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five perform "The Message" at the old Peppermint Lounge. I saw Devo at Carnegie Hall on Halloween night. I witnessed the first American performances by King Sunny Ade and the Bulgarian Women's Choir. I saw
The Clash at Bond International Casino on Broadway the night the audience nearly trashed the place. I caught Don Cherry and Sun Ra together at a summer solstice sunrise concert in Battery Park. I watched The Plasmatics' Wendy O. Williams smashing tv sets with a sledgehammer at the old Ritz. I was digging Tiny Grimes at Sweet Basil on the night John Lennon was murdered. In fact, it was Tiny who broke the news to me ("Hey man, they done shot that Beatle!"). And I watched a slightly crazed Jaco Pastorius play "The Star Spangled Banner" on the Fourth Of July in the middle of the West 4th Street basketball court!
A few thousand interviews have flown by at least three a week for the past 22 years. (For the record, my first published music piece was a Stanley Clarke interview appearing in a February ?75 issue of Milwaukee's counterculture mag, The Bugle American ). Compiling a mere 30 interviews for this book was no easy task. But for the sake of variety, I split it up into three sections rockers, jazzbos and visionaries. The format here is strictly Q&A, although very few of the pieces originally appeared in that form. It was my hope to retain the language and cadence of the individuals as much as possible, which I feel results in some colorful and sometimes insightful storytelling. I have added new intros to all the pieces to update what these artists have been up to since the time of those interviews and also to provide some personal hindsight of my own.
I can't say that the life of a freelance writer is a lucrative one. On the contrary, it's a struggle. Sometimes the cash flow is poor, sometimes payment is late, sometimes magazines declare bankruptcy and screw you altogether. I've heard every delay tactic and excuse imaginable: "Sorry, our accounts payable person has...a) been on vacation b) been fired c) misplaced your invoice." Or how about: "The office where we keep all of our financial records burned down last week." I even got this one from a Japanese magazine I write for: "Honorable check in mail."
Sure, I could've stayed in Milwaukee and gotten a gig at the post office. But every day I witness something inspiring at the Village Vanguard or the Knitting Factory or Birdland or the Blue Note or any of countless clubs around town that continue to pump out live music on a continual basis, I thank God I'm still here. Recently, I've produced a couple of records (including Pat Martino's Blue Note debut, All Sides Now ) and I have a book that is being made into a movie (my 1995 biography, "Jaco, The Extraordinary And Tragic Life Of Jaco Pastorus, the World's Greatest Bass Player," published by Miller Freeman Books). I hope to get into more of that producing and screenwriting in the future. But I'm still a freelancer at heart. I'm still churning out the copy. And I'm still excited about the music.