4th Street Elevator swings into the jazz scene
Milwaukee-based gypsy swing band 4th Street Elevator has been playing in venues all around town since 2010, but the six-piece formed years earlier.
Most of the members of 4th Street Elevator met at Bremen Cafe, 901 E. Clarke St., in Riverwest, beginning when Gareth Lippe met Phil Schwinn there in 2007.
"He had his mandolin and I had my gypsy d-hole guitar. We wound up playing minor swing. I remember being excited to find someone who actually knew about and wanted to play this kind of music," says Lippe, who is also a registered nurse.
Other members of 4th Street Elevator include vocalist Jenniffer Cintrón Cuevas, guitarist Ryan Eckert and Lodewijk Broekhuizen on violin.
"Phil and I started to play duets at Bremen Cafe and then Ryan came along, and later Brad (Edwardson, 4th Street's first bass player), then Jenn we met, I think, at Bremen Cafe when she was singing and accompanying herself on guitar," says Lippe.
Current upright bass player Mike DeNomie, who's also a software engineer, joined the band in 2010.
"We played our first public show in the summer of 2008 at the Riverwest Farmers Market," says Schwinn, a Milwaukee Public School science teacher who also played with Eckert in another combo before 4th Street Elevator.
"Gareth was the first person I ever met in Milwaukee who had a real gypsy jazz guitar," says the mandolin playing Schwinn.
Modern gypsy d-hole guitars are modeled on the original Selmer acoustic guitars designed by Mario Maccaferri and played by Django Reinhardt, the founder of the gypsy jazz genre. Generally speaking, jazz guitarists use "archtop" electric guitars. Acoustic guitars like the Maccaferri have d-shaped sound holes that differ from both the f-shaped holes of most archtops and the oval sound holes of other acoustics.
Other area bands who use Maccaferri-type guitars include Milwaukee Hot Club.
In addition to the instruments, gypsy jazz is sometimes characterized by its "hot jazz" guitar sound, developed by Reinhardt, who was part of the foundational group Quintette du Hot Club de France, along with violinist Stephane Grappelli.
The early collaborators, who all lived within a few blocks of each other in Riverwest, developed the group's sound over the course of a year.
"Gypsy Swing or Gypsy Jazz is the popular name used throughout the world to describe our genre. The reason it is called 'gypsy' is because Django Reinhardt was a Manouche gypsy. The Manouche are one particular clan of the Roma (gypsy) people whose nomadic ancestors originated from India. Reinhardt is the most popular of many Roma musicians who blended their passionate and fiery style with the American jazz of the time," says Schwinn, who counts among his biggest influences David Grisman, to whom he also attributes the elevated status of the mandolin in gypsy jazz.
"To me, gypsy swing applies to pre-war American Jazz fundamentals, to European folk melodies, waltzes, polkas, Latin rhythms, etc.," says Lippe. "Gypsy swing will not save your life, but it will make your life a happier one."
Schwinn and Lippe came up with the band's name from a landmark in Dubuque, Iowa, near where they both grew up.
Cuevas, who also works at GE Healthcare, was doing her "solo thing with a guitar" in August 2008 when she first saw the other members of the burgeoning band perform a couple songs at Bremen Cafe.
"It kinda reminded me of Buena Vista Social Club, and we started chatting. They invited me to come jam, and I accepted," says Cuevas.
Eckert says the band started out as a "workshop," people with similar musical interests coming together to jam. Soon they realized it was mostly the same people coming together all the time so they decided to form a band.
"Phil introduced me to a lot of good music, but my parents were the ones who first got me into gypsy jazz," says Eckert, whose day job is installing and repairing outdoor sprinkler systems.
DeNomie's parents also introduced him to the European music genre with American jazz roots.
"My dad used to play Hot Club records around the house when I was a kid. He is a big fan of Stephane Grappelli and worked as a promoter for Grappelli when he played at the Blue River Cafe in Milwaukee in the early '80s," says DeNomie.
4th Street Elevator used to have a weekly engagement at the Bremen Cafe but now performs regularly at Circle-A Cafe, 932 E. Chambers St., Walker's Point's Transfer Pizza, 101 W. Mitchell St. and O'Keefe's House of Hamburg, 5937 S. Howell Ave., as well as The Hamilton and Kochanski's Concertina Beer Hall, 1920 S. 37th St.
"My new favorite venue is the Great Lakes Distillery," says Schwinn.
OnMilwaukee.com recently saw 4th Street Elevator perform at the Walker's Point distillery. Older members of the multi-generational crowd were enjoying GLD's craft cocktails, made with mostly in-house ingredients, and everyone present was vibing on the good sounds emanating from five stringed instruments accompanied by Cuevas' vocal stylings.
In true jazz fashion, each instrumentalist took a moment during at least one song to solo, highlighting their improvisational chops.
The band's members each say they are always adding new songs to their repertoire and coming up with different arrangements.
The decision-making process for 4th Street Elevator is egalitarian, like for most large bands whose members have other jobs, families and so on. The group picks songs based on individual's preferences, but anyone interested in introducing a song to the band usually has to at least provide sheet music.
"One person in the band has to know it well enough that they can carry the theme and be able to teach the nuances of the tune to the rest of the band," says Schwinn.
Eckert says the group is currently working on original material and plans to eventually host a festival featuring local acts as well as others in the gypsy swing milieu.
"There is no album that we've packaged to sell, but we have many recordings," says Lippe.
Schwinn adds that 4th Street records nearly all of its shows and that they hope to get a new demo out this August. People can watch video of the band and catch up on all its goings-on at the 4th Street Elevator website.
But Schwinn says that 4th Street is mostly just enjoying playing music this summer.
"We have played music festivals, one-year-old's birthday parties, dive bars, art galleries, weddings, night clubs, restaurants, private parties, clothing stores, art festivals, shopping malls, you name it. My favorite show is whatever one I'm playing. Our band fits well into a variety of venues," says Schwinn.
Upcoming shows include performing on the Glorioso's Stage at the Brady Street Festival on Saturday, July 28, the Riverwest Farmers Market the next day, the Villa Terrace Decorative Arts Museum, 2220 N. Terrace Ave., on Sunday August 19, and a return to the Great Lakes Distillery on Thursday, August 23.
"My favorite show was probably a private wedding gig, a commitment ceremony for a same-sex couple who had been together for 20 years. People were dancing, laughing and smiling, and it was such a great time! It made me feel great to help them celebrate, and it gave me hope for the future of our society. Also, the food was delicious," says Cuevas.
DeNomie enjoys 4th Street's daytime shows, such as at farmer's markets and Eckert enjoys playing pop-up, speakeasy-style shows where vintage music and dress are celebrated.
"And it would be great to play Summerfest one day," says Cuevas.
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