Painting of Joan Wildman titled "Inside Out."
The year was 1985. President Ronald Reagan was kicking off his second term in style by giving his blessing to the Iran-Contra deal, and George Michael was carelessly whispering his way to the top of the Billboard pop charts. And the climate for jazz musicians in Madison sucked. The audience for jazz was small, and opportunities for local players to perform were scarce.
One night that year, pianist and UW jazz professor Joan Wildman showed up for a club gig with her trio only to find the doors locked. The club had not even bothered to tell them the show was canceled. And then the same thing happened again.
“It was infuriating,” Wildman recalls. “So I thought about it a long time that night and decided we should do something about it. Because it wasn’t just my trio — it was the whole community. Everybody was trying to scramble along on their own without any kind of group that could support each other.”
So Wildman convened a meeting of core members of the local jazz community to discuss what to do about the sorry state of the scene. “We decided we would get a group together and try to get more respect for the people playing the music and for the music itself.” Thus the Madison Music Collective was born.
On Sunday, April 12, the collective will celebrate its 30th anniversary with a concert by Wildman and bassist Joe Fonda at the Brink Lounge (the final installment of MMC’s spring Jazz on a Sunday series). The performance will be followed by an all-star jam session for current and former MMC members and any other jazzers who show up ready to blow. The event will also feature a silent auction.
From its start, MMC’s main activity was putting on shows. The group started hosting monthly concerts and booking a series of weekly shows at clubs or coffeehouses. Before long, there was a lot more jazz being played in Madison. Over time, the public’s appetite for jazz grew, and being associated with MMC became a good thing for musicians.
Like most volunteer-powered organizations, MMC’s level of activity and energy has fluctuated over the years. But these days, the group is on an upswing. Membership has been growing and is now over 100 strong. It includes pro musicians, amateurs and non-musician jazz lovers alike, according to current MMC president Chris Wagoner, a veteran of the Madison music scene who has played with such groups as Harmonious Wail, Moon Gypsies and the Stellanovas. Wagoner and his partner, Mary Gaines, are the hosts of Mad Toast Live!, a live concert/radio show/podcast that joined forces with MMC to present the Jazz on a Sunday series. The series has been a big success for MMC, and helped spur the group’s recent growth. But it’s only one factor.
“There’s a resurgence in cool things happening in the jazz realm here in Madison,” says Wagoner. In particular, he points to the Greater Madison Jazz Consortium’s InDIGenous project, which focuses on local jazz artists playing new original music, including a series of free shows at the Madison Central Library each Thursday in April. The collective and the consortium are planning another weekly series, to take place this fall in the Fredric March Play Circle at the Wisconsin Memorial Union.
The anniversary show at the Brink represents a reunion of sorts; Fonda was the bassist in the quintet that accompanied Wildman to Madison when she first moved here to teach at the UW in 1977. The members of that ensemble have scattered to various parts of the country, and Fonda went on to forge a luminous musical career. He’s performed all over the world with a number of influential jazz artists, most notably with composer and saxophone legend Anthony Braxton. Wildman says the duo’s set will include Fonda’s original pieces along with her compositions.
Both Wildman and Fonda are known as experimenters and will play multiple instruments, but Wildman thinks the audience will relate to the material. “We want the music to be unlike anything the audience has heard before,” says Wildman. “We want it to be different, both for the audience and for ourselves. But it will be accessible. The music is not going to be just weird.
“All you have to really do is to be very honest with what you play. And if you are very honest with what you play, people will get it.”