Caroline's provides jazz, blues, diversity
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It's late Friday afternoon – two hours before Caroline's Jazz Club opens – and bar manager Michael Williams is preparing for the long night ahead. He let me come in anyway and we immediately fell into deep conversation.
Williams tended bar for three years at Caroline's, 401 S. 2nd St., a medium-sized jazz club owned by Caroline Rubitsky that opened in 2000. For most of his adult life, Williams worked in hospitality, including as a doorman at The Pfister.
"I've always enjoyed working with people," says Williams. "I try to shake everyone's hand who comes in. Find out why they're here."
Williams grew up in a middle class family on Milwaukee's North Side. His mother was a nurse, and his father, a jazz lover, worked in numerous positions in the Milwaukee Public Schools including as the principal of John Marshall High School. He also tended bar part time at a North Side bar.
I order a beer, but Williams tells me he's an "old school" bartender and says he likes to make martinis, Manhattans and Old Fashioneds.
"I make a good one," he says, referring to his Old Fashioneds. "With whiskey or brandy."
Caroline's has three beers on tap from neighbor Milwaukee Brewing Company: Love Rock, Louie's Demise and Pull Chain. Rubitsky says she made a very conscious decision not to serve food – or have a pool table or dart boards.
"We're here for the music," she says.
Caroline's is open three nights a week: Wednesdays is open mic night; Fridays and Saturdays feature live blues or jazz. Soon, Thursday nights featuring Latin jazz will start up again.
Most of the musicians who perform at Caroline's are local, meaning they currently live in town or did at one time. Caroline's is one of two jazz clubs in the area – the other being The Jazz Estate, 2423 N. Murray Ave.
Caroline's is twice as large as it was once upon a time. One room features a large, circular bar and the adjoining space has a small stage and a dozen or so tables. The low lighting and vintage-looking carpeting contribute to the warm and inviting space. The dark walls makes the stained glass stand out and the crown molding, added by Rubitsky, provides vintage charm.
"I wasn't going for anything too specific," she says. "It's a little funky."
As a music lover and the wife of jazz musician Paul Spencer since 1987, opening a jazz club was a natural fit for Rubitsky.
"I love all music, but jazz really frees your mind," she says. "It's spacious for me."
Williams says Rubitsky's love for the music, and the musicians, is apparent to everyone who knows her. His mission from behind the bar, aside from providing memorable service and drinks, is to educate people on the sometimes misunderstood genre.
"Jazz education is important," he says. "I like to help people feel like insiders. Jazz shouldn't be intellectually inaccessible for anyone."
As the conversation goes on, we feel more comfortable and start talking, really talking, about racial issues in Milwaukee. Williams says his family had white friends and he was raised to accept different types of people.
"We have a very diverse venture here," says Williams. "That's how jazz is. It unites the races. It brings people together. The jazz family here, and Caroline, have always made me feel comfortable, like I fit in."
Caroline's is Rubitsky's second bar. She owned one with some friends in Oshkosh while attending graduate school at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh.
"I never wanted to own a bar again," she says.
But when Sal Monreal, who now owns The New Yorker Bar in Downtown Milwaukee, told her he was going to sell the bar, Rubitsky didn't want it to close because she enjoyed spending time there. So she took it over.
When not consumed with the bar, Rubitsky restores houses, mostly in Sherman Park, a neighborhood she describes as an "architectural Disneyland." She learned her skills from her dad and her grandfather, who was a boat builder.
"As kids we grew up with projects and tools," she says. "That was our fun."
A fair share of people who come to Caroline's are from Chicago. Rubitsky says it's because the music is good, parking is easy and the drinks are cheap. She also credits Facebook as an integral part of the bar's success, much to her surprise.
"I used to laugh about Facebook when I heard about it," she says. "Now I think it's phenomenal."
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