Johannes Wallmann remembers the day he found his people.
He was four hours from his home, a high school piano player with a German accent on a bus in Vancouver filled with honors band students from all over the region. The province’s largest city had a jazz radio station, and the young musicians were transfixed.
“Someone would say, ‘Is that Dexter Gordon? It sounds like Dexter Gordon,’” Wallmann recalls. “We’d try to guess who the different players were based on their sound, and then the announcer would come on and say, ‘That’s Dexter Gordon from One Flight Up,’ and you think, ‘Nobody at my high school would have known who that was.’
“But then you get to college, and the other kids who know, they are all there.”
Decades later, sharing that sense of belonging is a big part of the mission for Wallmann, the dynamic director of jazz studies at UW-Madison. In the five years he’s been leading the rejuvenated jazz program at UW’s Mead Witter School of Music, Wallmann has been connecting jazz to the city and state while also bringing together those who play the music or just plain love it.
“He’s done great things for us in terms of the Wisconsin Idea, the way he’s reached out to the community,” says Susan Cook, director of the School of Music. “He’s kept us honest about what we need to do to be a 21st-century school of music.”
Wallman, 42, arrived on campus in 2012, tasked with reviving a dormant program. Under his watch, the university has joined most of the rest of the Big Ten in offering a jazz studies major. However, the impact of the German-born, Canada-raised pianist and composer goes beyond the concrete confines of the Mosse Humanities Building. He has helped create playing and teaching opportunities for Madison-area musicians and connected with high schools in the state. He serves on the board of the Greater Madison Jazz Consortium, performs locally, and sometimes is just a guy in the audience listening to jazz. He also pushes boundaries with his own music — his latest collaboration is with a local DJ.
Wallmann with Susan and Jonathan Lipp and 2016 jazz studies scholarship recipient Robert Medina (from left).
“Any place that has jazz, you’ll see him,” says Susan Lipp, co-owner of Full Compass Systems and a UW supporter who helped steward the $1 million gift that endowed Wallmann’s position. “We’re really lucky we got him. Really lucky.”
Wallmann’s connections to the community go beyond music. He and his husband, Keith Borden, were one of the couples in the ACLU lawsuit challenging Wisconsin’s constitutional ban on same-sex marriage. And in his one big passion away from music, he’s a team captain in the Madison Gay Hockey Association.
Making connections is just what Wallmann does, says his friend Patrick Farabaugh, who has known him for 15 years since they both lived in New York.
“I don’t think his level of engagement is unique to Madison,” says Farabaugh, founder and publisher of Our Lives magazine and founder of the hockey league. “This is what he was like in New York, too.”
By bringing more jazz to the university and beyond, Wallmann hopes to promote the notion that jazz isn’t just about the past, with its storied history and legendary names. It’s now also about highly trained musicians pushing the boundaries of the genre.
“Look up any end-of-the-year Top 10 list on NPR, Downbeat or The New York Times, and listen to what this generation of 20- and 30-somethings are up to, it’ll blow your mind,” Wallmann says. “We want to prepare our students to be part of that.”
With Our Lives editor Patrick Farabaugh.
Wallmann started playing piano at age 6 with a mild enthusiasm for his 30-minute lessons. When he was 12, his parents separated, and he moved with his mother from Germany to Vancouver Island. Shortly after, while waiting for a piano lesson, music coming from some college kids’ boombox caught his attention. It might have been the ’80s, but it wasn’t Wang Chung.
“I’d never heard anything like it; it blew my mind,” Wallmann says. “I worked up the courage to ask what the music was, and one of the guys says, ‘Man, it’s Miles Davis.’”
The next day, he asked his mom to drive him to the record store so he could look for a Miles Davis record. He bought two with cool covers, later moved on to John Coltrane and Charlie Parker and eventually to pianists McCoy Tyner, Herbie Hancock, Thelonious Monk and Oscar Peterson, one of Canada’s most celebrated musicians.
“Within a couple weeks I knew that was the music I wanted to play and that was what I wanted to do with my life if I had the chance,” he says.
Thirty minutes of practice turned into three hours a day trying to figure out how that music worked. He formed a quartet after school and began writing music for it.
“Pretty soon I was saying to the bass player, ‘Try this’ or saying, ‘Try this’ to the drummer,” he says. “I chuckle because I’m basically doing now what I was doing when I was 15. Now I’m better, and I get paid for it, but it’s pretty much the same thing.”
He attended Boston’s Berklee School of Music on a music scholarship, followed by grad school at New York University. The draw for New York was to play in the city, but he soon caught the teaching bug.
“I thought, ‘With music, I’m pushing myself to do it the best I can, and if I’m going to teach, I should approach it the same way,’” says Wallmann, whose mother, Katharina Rout, is a literature professor at Vancouver Island University. “So I worked at becoming a great teacher.”
Watching Wallmann on stage provides a window into his teaching.
During a recent performance of the UW Jazz Orchestra at the Fredric March Play Circle, he directed the band with a spring in his step and a smile on his face. When there was a burst of beautiful sound, his arms shot up into the air — more like a high-five than a conducting move. When it was time for a solo, he disappeared to the side of the stage to give the spotlight to a young musician.
“Johannes makes it very comfortable; it’s not intimidating,” says pianist Sam Moffet, a junior in the jazz studies program. “The first time I had a conversation with him he said, ‘First of all, call me Johannes. If we ever have a gig together it would be weird if you called me ‘Professor.’”
At rehearsals, Wallmann moves among the players, offering gentle guidance to individuals as the music plays. “He’s having fun because the kids are having fun,” says Scott Eckel, the band director at West High School and director of the school’s Jazz West ensemble. “He can get a concept across without the kids even knowing they just learned something.”
“If Johannes is playing a nightclub or is in front of 25 students, it’s the same,” Eckel adds. “He’s got them in his hand.”
Before moving to Wisconsin, Wallmann taught at Cal State East Bay, south of Oakland, where he created a jazz studies program and honed his particular skill set: He is a world-class musician who succeeded in New York, and he also has an understanding of how to navigate academia, which can sometimes be as tricky as a tune in 7/4 time.
“Johannes’ mother is an academic, and I think it shows,” Cook says. “He knows how this kind of goofy situation works.”
Wallmann first set foot in Madison in 2011 for a friend’s wedding. His friends took him to Jazz at Five at the top of State Street, where the Tony Castañeda Latin Jazz Band was playing. At the time, he had no idea that visit would be his introduction to a community he’d be asked to join just a year later.
Michael R. Anderson
Conducting the Johannes Wallmann Brasstet, Jazz at Five.
Jazz had been taught at UW-Madison for decades, but stopped being an option for a major after pianist Joan Wildman retired in 2002. Afterward, there were faculty members with jazz pedigrees — such as legendary bassist Richard Davis and saxophonist Les Thimmig — as well as a jazz orchestra under the direction of Jim Doherty. But participating in these ensembles was considered an extracurricular activity.
Top jazz players in the state gravitated toward jazz studies programs at UW-Eau Claire or Lawrence University if they stayed in state. Supporters of jazz and the UW wanted more for the state’s flagship music school. They saw Big Ten schools such as Indiana University, which began its jazz studies program in 1968, continually showing up alongside elite private music schools in ratings for top jazz programs in the U.S.
One of the people advocating for more jazz at UW was Full Compass’ Lipp. “I said, ‘Our university is desperately lacking. We have one of the best music schools in the country, and we have no jazz program, and that’s pretty sad.’”
Lipp and other critics argued that the UW, in emphasizing European classical composers, didn’t do justice to what some have called “America’s one true original art form.” Performance majors were not getting a thorough grounding in styles they could make a living playing, and music education majors were not getting enough exposure to jazz, which serves as a foundation for rock, hip-hop and funk — forms that are popular with young musicians.
“It is a music admired and celebrated worldwide and ought to have a central place in all American music education,” Wallmann says.
The John and Carolyn Peterson Chair in Jazz was established to change course. Wallmann, intrigued by the offer from a flagship university and impressed that Madison had a gay hockey league, got the job and set about building a program.
Immediately, Wallmann made changes. First, he added ensembles. There had been two: the big band Jazz Orchestra and the Black Music Ensemble, directed by Davis until he retired in 2016. Now the school also has a Contemporary Jazz Ensemble, the Blue Note Ensemble, dedicated to the artists from the famed jazz label; Afro-Cuban and jazz standards ensembles; as well as a jazz composers group. Musicians now get credit for performing in them, and more music majors are participating.
The jazz program is also a popular draw for dual majors. Moffet is double majoring in jazz studies and biochemistry. Another student combined jazz and engineering and designed a new saxophone mouthpiece, and yet another majored in athletic training, focusing on the physical challenges faced by musicians.
Wallmann also began making connections with local schools and musicians, recruiting players, not unlike what a football or basketball coach would do. The Class of 2018 will be the first to have a jazz studies major for all four years, and the next incoming class will have eight members, on par with a goal of six or seven per year. The music school averages about 70 incoming undergraduates a year.
Wallmann also reached out to the greater community, and the school hired a who’s who of local jazz players as instructors: Nick Moran on bass, Louka Patenaude on guitar, Keith Lienert on drums and Eric Siereveld on trumpet. They joined Wallmann and saxophone professor Les Thimming in breaking down the walls between the local music scene and the academic players.
“It was like an official invitation to be on the payroll,” says Moran, a UW-Madison alum and Madison native. “And Johannes has been really good about asking for our input on a wide range of things like recruiting or curriculum.”
These relationships helped establish an annual festival in partnership with the Madison schools, held in early December. Wallmann also founded the UW Honors Jazz Band, which will bring top high school musicians from the region to rehearse and perform in Madison in April.
Two years ago, the guest artist and clinician for the festival with Madison schools was internationally acclaimed trumpet player Ingrid Jensen. She’s known Wallman since his days in New York, where she is still based, and was amazed by what he had accomplished so quickly in Madison.
“I’ve seen him turn into a force,” Jensen says. “I was surprised when I was there to see how quickly he has rallied the community and the students and the school. That is how you create a scene.”
Shortly after arriving in Madison, Wallmann played every Saturday night at the Fountain on State Street. He wasn’t out to prove anything or trying to make money; he was doing a musician’s version of networking.
“I never expected anyone to turn down a $350 corporate gig, or a wedding or festival to play with me,” Wallmann says. “So the personnel would change from week to week. I got to know a lot of musicians that way.”
...and as recording artist.
Wallmann has released six records, including two in 2015. One, The Town Musicians by the Johannes Wallmann Quintet, was an Editors’ Pick in Downbeat magazine. The other, Always Something by Wallmann and the Sweet Minute Big Band, featured 16 of the top players in the Madison area.
It’s melodic jazz; a snippet of a Wallmann tune can be an earworm that stays in your head all day.
“To the degree people enjoy my music, it’s because the melodies speak to them,” he says. “But it’s jazz, and part of jazz today is that there is a high degree of complexity in the music. The melody is the thing that is going to communicate with people, and the complexity comes in as people think, ‘Wait, what’s going on here?’”
In his compositions, Wallmann tries to create freedom for the players to connect with each other.
“Typically on each tune I’ll have one soloist for a longer time rather than three for a short time,” he says. “I’d rather have one person have a deeper conversation with the rhythm section.”
It’s a style musicians can recognize, Moran says.
“You listen to a composer and think, ‘Oh yeah, that’s so-and-so,’” he says. “Johannes definitely has that. It doesn’t matter if it’s a combo or a big band. I can hear a sound that is his.”
With husband Keith Borden.
In 2014, Wallmann and Borden, who were married in Canada in 2007, were asked to be part of the ACLU lawsuit against the state of Wisconsin over its constitutional ban on same-sex marriage. The couples in the suit all had different legal situations; Wallmann and Borden had lived legally as a married couple in Canada and California, but lost that status upon moving to Wisconsin.
The couple agreed, knowing they were already comfortable being in the public eye — Wallmann as a teacher and musician, Borden as a singer and yoga instructor.
“We started getting calls from local and national news writers and stations asking for our opinions and sound bites,” Wallmann says. “I’m sure there were some people who had no idea I was part of this because I just kept performing, composing, teaching and living my life.”
The attention waned when the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the appeal on the ruling that declared the state’s ban to be unconstitutional. “In the end, we were honored to play a small part in it,” Wallmann says.
He has no gauge for how being gay might have affected his professional life because he came out early in his career. But by living his life openly, Wallmann hopes he’s been able to be a role model in jazz. And he says it’s time for jazz to shed its masculine image.
“It’s bizarre because we play this music that is about beauty,” he says. “But at the same time there’s this macho tough-guy quality to it that doesn’t seem all that relevant anymore.”
Says Cook: “He has gone out of his way to bring in female performers to be role models. Students, particularly high school students, can see women on saxophone, trumpet, piano or drums. That shows that jazz isn’t a male-only enclave.”
Wallmann is also sensitive to the difficulty musicians have making a living in Madison’s market. He won’t teach private lessons away from the university and he turns down piano-playing gigs at weddings or corporate events in order to ensure those opportunities go to working musicians in town. Wallmann says he has a university salary, and his focus is on performing his own music.
He’s currently shopping for a label for a new work, Love Wins, inspired by the marriage equality trials in Wisconsin and nationwide. It’s a collaboration with Madison hip-hop artist Rob Dz and is targeted for a spring release.
“There are some tunes with lyrics and a vocalist; those are departures for me,” he says. “Fundamentally it’s a jazz album, but it pushes the boundaries a little.”
Pushing boundaries has worked well for Wallmann in his short time at UW.
“I think he walks above the water,” says Lipp. “That program he is creating has grown from nothing. He could have gotten a job anywhere: New York, Los Angeles, around the world. He has friends who want him everywhere, and we have him.”
Catch Wallmann in action at “Behind the Beat with the UW Jazz Orchestra,”
Dec. 16 at 5 p.m. at The Sett, Union South, 1308 W. Dayton St. Free admission.