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Jerry Grillo's Jazzy Take on Milwaukee

Jerry Grillo

What does Milwaukee mean to Jerry Grillo? According to his latest recording, “My Hometown Milwaukee,” it’s a city whose “museum has wings and so many things—happening through the year.” Sung with easy going Tony Bennett swing, “My Hometown Milwaukee” even ventures to predict the Brewers will reach the World Series this year.

Remarkably, Grillo wasn’t born here but arrived, fresh from college, for a teaching job with Milwaukee Public Schools. When he retired a quarter-century ago, the free time finally enabled him to study the craft of jazz singing. He never thought of leaving town. There was always just enough opportunity to entertain at jazz clubs and piano bars and just enough support for a prolific recording career with over half a dozen albums to his credit from the ’90s and ’00s.

“My Hometown Milwaukee” is a rarity in his catalogue—an original song. Grillo credits the owner of the Jazz Estate on the city’s East Side with planting the seed. “‘Someone should write a song about Milwaukee,’ he told me,” Grillo recalls. “He put the bug in my ear, but it took a few things for it to happen: the Bucks, Fiserv Forum—it seemed like a Milwaukee Downtown renaissance. I don’t think there was a time during my lifetime when the city was this buzzing.”

Rather than write songs, Grillo set his sights on interpreting the Great American Songbook, that remarkable pre-1950s repertoire from the pens of Cole Porter, George Gershwin and Rodgers and Hart. “I’ve always done the standards,” he says, insisting that his influences weren’t the usual suspects of Mel Tormé or Frank Sinatra. “It’s the female singers, actually—Sarah Vaughan, Carmen McRae. I identified more with them and their interpretations than the male singers of those songs. They are so in tune with the emotional interpretation of the lyrics.”

“My Hometown Milwaukee” can be found on Spotify and YouTube and has been heard on WMSE. “I’ll never do another album,” Grillo insists.

The new song caught some ears outside the regulars at Milwaukee’s jazz clubs. “I sent the lyrics to the mayor and he came to a show at the Jazz Estate the night I introduced the song,” Grillo recalls. “It was a very kind gesture on his part.” As for Milwaukee, the singer praises the city’s “easy to and fro situation” and a “pizzeria with live jazz twice a week. What other city has that?”

-- David Luhrssen
July 2, 2019

Jerry Grillo Says Hurrah for Broadway

Jerry Grillo

Jerry Grillo made a name for himself in Milwaukee as a jazz singer. Since retiring from MPS nearly 30 years ago, Grillo recorded half a dozen albums, including long players with jazz pianist and bandleader Nick Contorno. Lately, he’s returned to his original love, Broadway show tunes.

“I was in a lot of shows,” he says, reflecting on the ‘60s and ‘70s when he was a regular with the Milwaukee Players. “I had lead roles in The Fantastics, Cabaret, Company. And I haven’t song any of those songs since then.”

But first, a digression: Earlier this year, Grillo gained local notice for a song about the city where he has lived since the ‘60s, “My Hometown Milwaukee.” It’s a rarity in his repertoire, an original song about a town whose “museum has wings and so many things.” Mayor Cavalier Johnson proclaimed May 13, 2022 “My Hometown Milwaukee Day” and presented Grillo with a proclamation at City Hall. “I never expected that in my life,” he says. But not to rest on laurels, he decided to go back to live performance and his musical roots.

“I just decided it was time to look back on that part of my life,” Grillo explains. “And I love those songs.”

For his Broadway repertoire, Grillo picked nothing recent but looked to material from those golden mid-century years of West Side Story, Company, My Fair Lady, Carousel, Gypsy, Funny Girl. And like a cabaret singer, he may tell a few stories in between numbers. He’s keeping accompaniment basic for the show he calls “Broadway My Way,” leaning only on pianist John Hefter, a longtime collaborator, and a newcomer to Milwaukee, saxophonist Jeanne Marie. “My voice is surprisingly better than ever,” Grillo says. “Maybe it’s the five COVID shots.”

-- David Luhrssen
January 23, 2023

Singer Jerry Grillo Looks Back on 25 Years in Jazz

Jerry Grillo

Jerry Grillo’s dream of becoming a jazz singer was long deferred. He played in high school and college musicals, did a few shows after moving to Milwaukee in the late ’60s and sang in pop cover bands through the ’70s. None of it was exactly what he wanted to do. After a while, Grillo abandoned music and focused on teaching at John Marshall High School. However, in the last years before retiring from MPS, Grillo finally reinvented himself in his spare time as a serious jazz vocalist. 

Next week Grillo marks the 25th anniversary of his debut album, This Funny World, with a performance and a remastered reissue of the recording. 

Grillo cites vocalist Jackie Allen for inspiring him to realize the dream after hearing her sing at the Wyndham Hotel. “I was blown away by her nobody was doing what she was doing here,” he says. “I knew I had to go to her.” And he did, signing up for her voice lessons at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music. She became his mentor and encouraged him to record This Funny World. “She hooked me up with the musicians and the recording studio. She gave me one of her songs.”

Allen’s “I Chase the Sun” is the lone number on This Funny World not drawn from the Great American Songbook. Singing in low-key almost conversational tones, Grillo focused on interpreting the songs of Rodgers and Hart, Cole Porter, Johnny Mercer and other writers from the pre-rock era.

“I had heard these songs by other artists,” he says, speaking about the choice of material. “Jackie taught me how to construct a set in a night club and I followed suit on the album by varying the tempo not too many ballads. I love ballads but they can bring the energy level down.”

Most of Grillo’s reference points came from female, not male, jazz singers. “Dinah Washington, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan,” he ticks off the names. “Tony Bennett is the male singer who is closest to evoking that lyrical sensibility interpreting the songs on an emotional and a musical level.”

In the quarter century since This Funny World, Grillo released eight other recordings including collaborations with the Lynne Arriale Trio and the Nick Contorno Orchestra and with such esteemed local instrumentalists as Kirk Tatnall and Barry Velleman. For his 25th anniversary showcase at Transfer Pizzeria, one of his consistent performance venues for the past decade, Grillo will perform with keyboardist Neal Charles, guitarist Bill Martin and drummer Omar. He hopes Transfer’s owner Russell Rossetto will sit in on trombone along with other guest players. Grillo promises “a complimentary champagne toast, and everyone will receive a copy of the album.”

Several people involved in the original release of This Funny World have gone on to success. Allen was signed to Blue Note records and is now on the music faculty at Doane College in Nebraska. The Milwaukee artist responsible for the cover’s funky drawings, Chrisanne Robertson, has been exhibited in galleries and has received commissions for her work.

“Bringing out the lyrical content is what I like to do,” Grillo says. “I’ve always loved the romantic emotion of the Great American Songbook.”

Jerry Grillo performs 7:30 p.m., Tuesday, May 2 at Transfer Pizzeria, 101 W. Mitchell St.

-- David Luhrssen
Apr. 25, 2017

Jerry Grillo’s 20-something Anniversary
Jazzman is still singing after many years in the business

Jerry Grillo recently announced that he will celebrate his 20th anniversary as a jazz singer with a pair of performances. When pressed slightly, he readily admits that it’s been longer than 20 years, actually. “Someone threw it to me: ‘Haven’t you been in this business 20 years? You should perform at some of your old venues.’ Well, people are surprised at how long I’ve been doing this.”

Jerry Grillo

Grillo’s first CD, This Funny World, was released in 1994, and if memory serves, he was performing at the Jazz Estate even earlier but why quibble over the calendar? From the 1990s through now, Grillo has recorded nine albums and until a few years ago, maintained a vigorous performance schedule around Milwaukee. “I did so much, curriculum vitae wise, that anyone would think that I would’ve left town,” he says. “It seems that I should have had the goal to go farther, and I did have that in mind at first.”

His career was in education and he pursued the calling of music on weekends and weeknights. While teaching at John Marshall High School, Grillo acted in musical theater on the side, and he continued teaching until 1999, several years into his run as a jazz singer. His musical imagination was always shaped by the era of the Great American Songbook, an epoch when pop melodies commonly provided material for jazz interpreters. Grillo began seriously focusing on jazz singing under the tutelage of Jackie Allen, an instructor at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music who later became a Blue Note recording artist. Allen helped Grillo secure a Chicago recording studio and session musicians for This Funny World. “She was very generous,” Grillo says. “She gave me one of the first songs she ever wrote, ‘I Chase the Sun,’ to record on the album.” It fit well alongside such standards as “Honeysuckle Rose” and “Speak Low.”

Album followed album, and although Grillo has relaxed the pace, he has kept himself busy. He was the subject of a short documentary that was shown at the Milwaukee Film Festival and other festivals, and is booking agent, promoter and soundman at Angelo’s, a bar featuring live jazz on the city’s East Side. He remains optimistic about the music’s future.

“There are a lot of young people who are just discovering these songs and what they are about,” he says. “They are curious about this music. I know there’s so much else out there these days, but we can’t let go of these songs.” Jerry Grillo will perform May 28 at the Uptowner, 1032 E. Center St., and July 31 at the Jazz Estate, 2423 N. Murray Ave.

-- David Luhrssen

Local jazz singer Grillo prepares for a change in tempo

It was the summer of 2012 when Jerry Grillo met pianist Joe Kral at Angelo's Piano Lounge. Kral -- trained by Willie Pickens and a veteran of clubs in Milwaukee, Chicago and New York -- was sitting in for the evening's performances, but Grillo could he was a special musician, one he'd want to work with.

"It was clear to me that he had very good training with a very good teacher," Grillo recalled. "You can hear it. The techniques. The approach to a song. The sensitivity. As a trained jazz musician myself, I can hear that, and I can sense what the combination of the piano player and myself is able to accomplish."

Grillo's sense appears to have been correct, as the two have continued to work together over the past year. They still gig together at Angelo's on Friday nights, as well as at other venues and events scattered throughout the city. The duo also recorded a few unreleased ballads to go along as a tribute to Elsa's On The Park wall mural featuring the sheet music of "Stardust."

The experience of working with Kral in the studio on those tracks, combined with the pianist's adept touch for classic ballads, inspired Grillo to create "Music Box," the local jazz legend's latest recording project. Grillo will be celebrating the four-song ballad collection at a CD release show Friday night at the Jazz Gallery, 936 E. Center St.

The idea of releasing an album of ballads may come as an intriguing contrast to a music industry currently emphasizing energetic singles and poppy, catchy hooks. For Grillo and Kral, however, this is the music they wanted to do.

"We both like them so much," Grillo said. "All songs are written for a reason and with a message, but there are certain ballads that are written which have much more meaning to them than, say, an uptempo jazz or swing tune. We picked songs that have a lot to say, lyrically and musically."

Among the four songs included on the disc are "Always On My Mind," "Some Other Time" and "Blame It On My Youth." That last song, an ode to loves lost at a young age -- performed by the likes of Nat King Cole and Frank Sinatra -- is Grillo's personal favorite of the four, but they all have a timeless quality that speaks to all audiences.

"The lyrics and what they say to people about relationships and feelings are all things involved with the human experience," Grillo said. "They're universal. The song is going to last forever because every generation that hears that song is going to identify with it. And that's not so true with songs written today."

Of course, that didn't stop Grillo from trying. Completing the four-song set is "Lonely," featuring lyrics written by Grillo and music by Roe Fosco. A friend of his wrote the melody after her father passed away and let Grillo write his own lyrics for the song. What he ended up with was a love song about loneliness, emptiness and relationships ending for any variety of reasons.

"It's a break-up song and all about loss, but it's not really depressing," Grillo said. "None of these ballads are depressing. For me, ballads can be uplifting because they have messages that can help ease the pain."

He recorded it previously with a jazz trio with a more Latin tempo, but he wanted to give the song another, slower try with Kral. In fact, that's what Grillo is attempting to do with the entirety of "Music Box": slowing down the songs in the hopes of making the meaning come out more.

"We did these at a very slow tempo so the lyrics could be totally understood," Grill said. "Because of the way (Kral) plays them and the way we interpret our feelings through the songs, that's basically why I called it 'Music Box,'" Grillo said.

"To me, that's what it sounds like. Well, a music box that lasts a half hour. To me, it's a similar feeling of sitting back, letting that music play, listening to it and letting your feelings go. People don't do enough of that today in my opinion."

It's an interesting and "meditative" direction for the local jazz icon's latest recording, as well as possibly his last. No worries, local jazz fans: While touring and travelling the country have lost their appeal to Grillo, he still loves to perform and would even like to hop back into musical theater (he's previously done "Cabaret," "Fiddler on the Roof" and "The Fantasticks"), possibly even to rejuvenate his cabaret show "Jerry Sings Broadway."

As for recording, though, his time is likely done. Probably.

"I think I've said what I pretty much have to say musically," Grillo said. "I've pretty much recorded the songs that I love the most. Each CD has songs that I've always wanted to sing. Sure, there are other songs that I do sing that I've never recorded that I love very much, but I'm not going go out and record them. "Music Box" will be the last CD I do, other than if I write all of my own songs. If I write all of my own songs, I'll do another one."

-- Matt Mueller
On Milwaukee
Nov. 20, 2013

Jerry Grillo's Traditional Jazz Stylings

Jerry GrilloJerry Grillo has been at it long enough to call himself a veteran even if he answered his calling as a jazz singer relatively late in life. Only after retiring from a career as a schoolteacher in 1999 was Grillo able to devote himself to his first love. Since then he has released no fewer than nine CDs. He has also watched CD sales shrink, the ladders for getting a leg up in the industry collapse and opportunities to perform dwindle.

"People say, 'I got your CD at the library and copied it!' How am I supposed to answer that?" Grillo says with a sigh. "For singers, it's not as good as it was."

Grillo forges onward anyway, lending his foggy voice to the standards of pre-rock American songs in settings that sometimes depart from the norm. He's enjoyed a varied track record, performing with a diverse range of musicians, including The Danglers and the Nick Contorno Orchestra. He's sung with only a pianist for accompaniment and with a trio. Usually his combo includes bassist Madeline Dietrich, guitarist Kirk Tatnall and percussionist Randy Maio, who loves slapping the skins with his palms and playing with wind chimes as well as drumsticks.

To find work in restaurants and private functions, many jazz singers have switched to pop tunes, "and not in a jazz way," Grillo adds. He has always sung a few of his favorites from the 1950s ("Venus") and has added a couple of country songs ("For the Good Times," "Rambling Rose") that open easily to jazz, but prefers to draw from the classic jazz singer repertoire. Songs popularized by Frank Sinatra are a mainstay, along with compositions by Antonio Carlos Jobim for a Brazilian lilt, a funky "Summertime" and a sizzling, edgy rendition of "Fever."

"I can't change 'Moonlight in Vermont' or 'The Nearness of You' in good conscience," he says. "But we do many songs in a nontraditional way, changing the chords, the voicings and the rhythm. Kirk will play guitar with pedals and come close to a rock guitar solo never a real rock solo, but close."

Grillo's voice has gained assurance and nuance, as attested by a close listen to his 2009 anthology CD, Some of the Best. He pops up in unexpected venues, such as LuLu Cafe or Paddy's Pub, and accepts the changing times with a shrug. "I wonder sometimes if I shouldn't have left town, but the problem is I really love Milwaukee. Where else would I have gotten an award? I'm proud of my WAMI."

-- By David Luhrssen
Wednesday, March 28,2012

Grillo film looks at historic Milwaukee jazz venues

"Vintage Grillo...Milwaukee" is a new documentary created by a team made up of local jazz singer Jerry Grillo and filmmakers Tim Chiapetta and his wife, Lisa. The film looks at historic Milwaukee venues that occasionally feature jazz bands, including Transfer Pizzeria, 101 W. Mitchell St.

This lesson in local history will include songs from Broadway and the Movies. A premiere screening of the film will be shown during the intermission of a concert by Grillo at 6 p.m. Sunday at the Wherehouse, 818 S. Water St. Weather permitting, the event will begin with a short cocktail hour on the patio.

A line of jazz art-inspired T-shirts from Grillo's design company will be sold at the event. There's no admission price, but there is a two-drink minimum (includes soda).

-- Jackie Loohauis-Bennett
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
June, 2011

Grillo captures Historical Mystery Band at Lulu gig

For years, Jerry Grillo has been Milwaukee's jazz singer. He's been a constant on the scene, forging his own style out of a passion for singers like Frank Sinatra and Bobby Darin, but always letting the Grillo come through.

He's recorded numerous CDs with different bands and in different settings. When he takes the stage at Cafe Lulu, 2265 S. Howell Ave., in Bay View on Saturday, May 8 at 10:30 p.m. it will be fronting a new group called Historical Mystery Band.

"I've always have had a band," says Grillo. "With jazz bands, however, most singers and players use whoever is available, because their skills are such that they can play any chord charts in almost every rhythm."

But with the Historical Mystery Band, which includes keyboardist Scott Currier, guitarist and bassist Kirk Tatnall and percussionist Randy Maio, Grillo wants to work with a band in a much more close-knit fashion.

"I would like my songs to be done in a way that is familiar to my own chosen musicians, and I also prefer musicians who write some of their own tunes, so we can feature them. I have chosen this band for that particular reason. I will also add saxopone or trumpet depending upon the gig."

Historical Mystery Band is a band, says Grillo -- who also performs with the 15-piece Nick Contorno Orchestra -- not just backing musicians for him. Currier and Tatnall have been writing original material that the band will perform alongside a selection of standards.

"Instead of just showcasing myself, I wanted the band to have a name other than only mine. We are a band, not just Jerry Grillo, the singer."

That band will be caught on film at its second performance (the first, on Thursday, April 29, is the start of an every-other-week residency at the Harbor Room, 117 E. Greenfield Ave.), says Grillo, who says a relatively low-fi video of a performance provided inspiration to make a DVD. Tim Chiapetta of Milwaukee Metro Design is filming the performance

"I was recorded on a cell phone at a gig, and that video was sent to me via Facebook," he recalls.

"It prompted the thought that I would like to have a better quality documentation of my bands and myself as performer. (Chiapetta) offered to film that, and I indicated that I wanted to be filmed at venues which would be considered historic because of the buildings they were housed in, or because they were considered historical because the venue was a Milwaukee landmark venue for so many years.

"I didn't want a staged video because I generally don't find them interesting for a jazz band. The documentary form was appealing to me because, if it is done well, it highlights the venue and the band at the same time. This is a concept film which includes the band as well -- not just a video. Film documentaries have always intrigued me. Videos of a band just playing their songs, don't really interest me at all. That is only a promotional tool."

If the name of the band seems like something of a mystery, itself, Grillo says it has a meaning relevant to the group and for the film project, too.

"The mystery part of the title is because of the fact the venues will be decided upon as we go along," he says. "This is part of a journey, filmwise, and will take quite a bit of effort and time to produce. I also have always been interested in historic venues, performed in many of them, and have never been filmed live professionally. "

Cafe Lulu, says Grillo, fits his criteria perfectly and is therefore perfect for the event.

"Cafe Lulu was selected because the original restaurant was a George Webb, and if that isn't historical, nothing is," says Grillo. "Also, they have become an intrinsic destination in Bay View, and were the first to develop that corner. The transformation of Kinnickinnic and Lincoln has been very interesting to watch."

Grillo's most recent solo CD, "Some of the Best," is available for purchase at performances only.

--Bobby Tanzilo
April 24, 2010

Jazz on Camera: Jerry Grillo’s Historical Journey

Jerry GrilloJerry Grillo was a little taken aback. When a fan he had never met before, Lisa Chiappetta, showed him the video she made on her cell phone camera of one of his performances, Grillo thought, “I don’t like the YouTube quality.” But the encounter sparked a series of conversations, a train of thought that led to the Milwaukee jazz singer’s latest project.

Starting this spring, the Jerry Grillo Historical Mystery Band will be on a tour of landmark local venues, trailed by cameras. Lisa’s husband, Tim Chiappetta of Milwaukee Metro Design, will edit the footage into a documentary suitable for the festival circuit.

“I thought it would be fun to do something more involved and of better quality than just something you throw online,” Grillo says.

The singer and showman is no stranger to working with film and video artists. In the early ’90s, when his career as an interpreter of classic songs had just begun, Grillo did a short subject with Milwaukee filmmaker Cathy Cook, who has since gone on to national acclaim. The intervening years, however, mostly have been devoted to making music. Grillo has released no less than eight CDs and recently posted an original song on his website.

Music will be the most significant aspect of the planned documentary, but not the only one. “To me, it’s a historical journey,” Grillo explains. “I’m picking venues that don’t normally feature jazz, located in buildings associated with Milwaukee history in some way.”

He chose the location for this weekend’s gig at Café LuLu (2265 S. Howell Ave.) because the building once housed one of those favorite diners for Milwaukee night owls, George Webb. On May 13, Grillo will take the show to the Harbor Room (117 E. Greenfield Ave.).

The Historical Mystery Band features top-flight local jazz musicians, including Kirk Tatnall on guitar and bass, Scott Currier on keyboards, Mike Caldwell on saxophone and Randy Maio on drums and all manner of percussion. Several songs in the set list are instrumentals by Tatnall and Currier, but the focus will be on songs chosen and sung by Grillo.

“I don’t go beyond the ’60s—it’s hard to find songs that are good for me from beyond the ’60s,” he says, explaining a repertoire that runs roughly from Gershwin through Lennon and McCartney. Although in earlier years he was a purist, Grillo has become a creative interpreter. “I wanted to appeal to a different audience and create something more exciting for the band as well,” he says, explaining the reggae rendition of “Witchcraft” and an “almost hip-hop” take on “Summertime.”

The Jerry Grillo Historical Mystery Band performs at 10:30 p.m. Saturday, May 8, at Café LuLu.

-- David Luhrssen
May 6, 2010

Jerry Grillo’s Sentimental Journey
Jerry GrilloSeveral years ago Jerry Grillo was one of the most prolific jazz performers in town, recording no less than seven CDs from 1994 through the middle of the present decade and singing consistently in local clubs. He didn't fall silent as much as he became quieter, playing modest duets at Paddy's Pub and weddings and corporate parties with the Nick Contorno big band.

"I was content for a while not scratching around for gigs," Grillo says, explaining that his father died recently and his mother has been unwell. "It puts one in a contemplative mood," he continues. "For a while I didn't feel like doing anything."

Grillo returned recently with a new CD called Some Of The Best, a digitally remastered career retrospective culled from many of his previous CDs, plus a live bonus track and an alternate take of Frankie Avalon's hit "Venus." It's the culmination of his contemplative phase.

"I started thinking of all the musicians I've worked with over all these years," he says, explaining that at one time he toyed with ideas of either a bluesy album or a disc of songs newer than his usual repertoire of Gershwin, Ellington and songs from the golden years of popular songcraft. "The project became more of a sentimental thing, more of a tribute situation. And it was easier to do."

From the get-go Grillo attracted many of Milwaukee's best jazz musicians. On electric guitar: Jack Grassel, Kirk Tatnall and Steve Peplin. Barry Velleman and Scott Currier have been heard on piano. Randy Maio, Charles McFarlan, Jeff Hamann and Tom McGirr are among the rhythm players. Milwaukee expatriate Julie Wood lent her saxophone on occasion. All are represented on Some Of The Best, a set that includes edgy experimentation and straight ballads, '30s swing and '50s pop.

Although Grillo had dabbled over the years in cover bands and musical theater, he was a late bloomer as a jazz singer, tossing his hat into the bullring only after retiring from Milwaukee Public Schools. Some encouraged him to follow his star in cities where lights are brighter, but Grillo refused to leave.

"I love my house. I love the city. I'm thrilled with what's happening here-other than the winters," he explains. "There were so many negatives about moving. But the big reason was all the musicians I could work with here. I feel these people could play anywhere in the world with anybody. They are exceptional."

He pauses for a moment and adds, referring to Some Of The Best, "Maybe this is the final product. I don't know if I'll actually make another CD" in a world of rampant piracy and an imploding music industry. "But I'm adding songs to my repertoire and I have the people who can play them."

--Dave Luhrssen
Shepherd Express
April 2009

Standards With a Twist
Cupping his hands around his microphone, his eyes half closed, Jerry Grillo sways to the rhythm of an inner reverie as he puts his singing on pause to allow his guitarist to take a solo. Live, Grillo is the consummate lounge singer, wrapping his voice around the meaning of every word of every standard he sings.

But when speaking about his fifth full-length CD, Fever...And Other Symptoms, Grillo declares, "This is not lounge at all to me." The 12 tracks are all standards from the classic era of American pop music, the '30s through the '50s, unless they are more recent tunes in the style of a Brazilian samba, but most of them aren't performed in a standard way. "It's alternative. It's in your face. It's funky," he explains.

When Grillo released his first CD in 1994 he colored strictly within the lines of his repertoire. A few years later, he edged the material into less explored areas. And then he pulled back a little, finding a comfortable balance between familiarity and strangeness. "It's taken me years to find out how far I can go without going too far," he says.

On "Fever," Grillo incorporates lyrics from Sonny and Cher, the Doors and Gershwin to the song's elastic rhythm while guitarist Kirk Tatnall tears off a Hendrixy solo. Pianist Scott Currier threads a bluesy pattern through "Come Rain or Come Shine." The inherent funkiness of "Softly As In a Morning Sunrise" surfaces with help from guitarist Steve Peplin and drummer Randy Maio. Grillo also relaxes into a more intimate mood on three songs accompanied only by pianist Barry Velleman.

"I'm putting my own stamp on these tunes," Grillo says. "I don't think artists can make it today without stamping their own heart and soul on the pieces. This is definitely who I am."

Shepherd Express
Dave Luhrssen
June 21, 2001

Jerry Grillo has created a jazz vocal showcase for himself with such classics as "Softly As In A Morning Sunrise," Cole Porter's "Get Out Of Town," Jobim's "How Insensitive," Carmichael's "Georgia On My Mind" Davenport's "Fever," George Gershwin's "Summertime," Johnny Mercer/Barry Manilow's "When October Goes," Holiday's "God Bless This Child" among others in the outstanding CD release titled FEVER......AND OTHER SYMPTOMS. 12 selections. 

Backed by various artists, including guest pianist Barry Velleman, this is an entertaining collection of jazz classics. It is a pleasure listening to the solo work by these artists.

The rendition of the Mercer/Manilow song, "When October Goes," is a highly emotional and sensitive interpretation, and it reveals the complexity and range of Jerry Grillo's voice. The piano accompanying Grillo is played by Barry Velleman.

A nice listening experience, this CD will find a home among jazz vocalist fans everywhere. Jerry Grillo at his best! 

John Barrett Jr.
Jazz Review
July, 2001

A throwback to the days of cabaret, Grillo has earned comparisons to Frank Sinatra and Bobby Darin, and it's easy to hear why.  He has a rich, resonant voice and a good dose of swagger that commands listeners to pay attention.  On this single, he offers two versions of the title ballad.  The second version is slightly bluesier, and clocking in two minutes longer, it allows for some nice solo work by members of the Barry Velleman Quartet.

Donna Kimura
am Jazz, Minneapple Records 2004

A close listen of Milwaukee jazz vocalist Jerry Grillo's new CD What's It All About? is akin to a perfect date in Manhattan. It's a crisp night, and you're holding hands. Seeking warmth and a big glass of red wine, you duck into a small, smoky club. A few couples whisper to each other, and there are a few single people up at the bar. The man at the piano begins, and then a voice begins to sing. But New York has plenty of that.

Thankfully, Milwaukee is the city that gets Jerry Grillo.

In his sixth and final CD for the amJazz label, which he created in 1994, Grillo pairs up with pianist Barry Velleman to sing classics of renewal and devotion. Velleman, Grillo's frequent collaborator and member of the Jerry Grillo Quartet, brings his own arrangements to the party. It's twinkling lights and ice cubes, carefully scored "I have always wanted to do a jazz piano/vocal recording with a great accompanist since I heard the Tony Bennet/Bill Evans albums many years ago," Grillo explains.

He calls it "jazz with a dash of cabaret", which is a particularly apt description on his version of Cole Porter's "Night and Day." Grillo calls "Cry Me a River" the "perfect revenge song," and here he sings it with an almost drunken apathy, as if he is shrugging and flipping someone off, a smile on his face the whole time. And although it is a little early for holiday songs, the album's last track, "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," is enough to get you in a eggnog sort of-mood. Extra whiskey, please.


-- The Press
Jessica Zierten
September, 2002
One thing is clear upon hearing Jerry Grillo's new CD, What's It All About: He admires good piano players. On Grillo's sixth full-length disc, the Milwaukee singer is accompanied exclusively by pianist Barry Velleman, who brings a high level of musicality to the proceedings.

What's less apparent — although it makes perfect sense if you're listening for it is that the 13 standards comprising the CD (but not the bonus track of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas") are sequenced to tell a story. Grillo imagines What's It All About as a cabaret show. All he needs is to show up in a club with the songs, plug in the mike, wheel in the piano and add a little between song banter. The outline for the act is already digitally inscribed on his new disc.

"In my mind I already had the story. Then I picked the songs," Grillo says, explaining the choice of jazz era favorites such as Cole Porter's "What Is This Thing Called Love" and Rodgers and Hammerstein's “We Kiss in the Shadows," along with Burt Bacharach's "Alfie," John Lennon's "Love" and the Carpenters' "For All We Know. "It's about two people getting together, how love develops, how it comes to a point of stabilization and into a breakup. You don't know if the couple get back together or not, but they come to terms with their own lives," he says.

In many respects, Grillo who through his eight year recording career has fronted a big band, dabbled in cutting-edge jazz and toyed with ways of retooling the old music for a new generation comes full circle with What's It All About. It's a collection of lovingly performed pop songs from the pre-rock era, plus a few newer, compatible tunes, arranged in a style similar to the classic jazz-vocal combos of the '50s. His next goal is to take his voice out of the bars and into the concert halls. "I'm looking for a quiet room where people pay to hear me. I think I've paid my dues. I think I'm ready for it," Grillo says.

--Dave Luhrssen
Shepherd Express
October, 2002
He s become Milwaukee's Ol' Blue Eyes.

Approaching 10 years of singing in town, local lounge crooner Jerry Grillo, a fixture at Caroline's Jazz Club and Hi Hat Lounge, prepares to celebrate the release of his sixth album "What's It All About" with a show 3 p.m. Sunday at Wisconsin Conservatory of Music's Bader Recital Hall, 1584 N. Prospect Ave.

The event is free and open to the general public. It will have Grillo performing as part of a duet with pianist Barry Velleman.

Velleman, a Berkelee College of Music alumnus, performed with many well-known jazz singers and musicians on the east Coast in the late '60s and early '70s before moving to Milwaukee to teach at Marquette University.

Grillo's five previous albums had him mainly performing in expanded combo or big-band situations. This time, the entire album sticks to a cabaret format with Velleman providing lone accompaniment to Grillo's voice. Sly content musical moments include Grillo's refiguring of Sinatra's Versions of "Learning the Blues" and "Night and Day" breezier, more upbeat strokes come on the Latin-tempo number "Who Are You Now?" from the musical "Funny Girl." Unusual moments include Grillo’s interpretation of John Lennon's "Love," a voice-and-piano-only ballad itself, from the late Beatles' 1970 solo debut album, "Plastic Ono Band.”

“There's pretty much variety on this album, compared to the earlier ones, but I'm still always looking to expand my repertoire," Grillo says. “To me, those later pop and rock songs on this album are the stuff of standards; it's only recently that a song written after the '60s could be considered a jazz standard.”

--Nick Carter
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
September, 2002

Jerry Grillo, Live At The Uptowner
Grillo is the star of the extended-play live recording. He sings seven songs backed only by guitarist Grassel and bassist McGirr. The same dynamics Grillo brought to big band singing are present on this small combo outing. On this club date, he has freedom to rearrange the melody line and deliver a more expressive statement..... the date takes on a swinging demeanor. Grillo is an entertainer who can get a crowd into the performance through his personality and delivery.

Cadence Jazz Magazine
March, 2000

"Grillo croons from gig to gig with a '40s, early '50s flare." Highlights of Grillo's career plus comments on his latest CD release and his rural beginnings in Hibbing, Minnesota, going to high school with Bob Dylan.

"He's routinely booked into venues as varied as The Uptowner, a popular boho dive in Riverwest that brings in live music, and Hi-Hat Lounge, the trendiest of nightspots along the rapidly gentrifying Brady Street strip."

Nick Carter
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Weekend Cue Night Life Column
August 20, 1999

Comments on The Uptowner CD, the Nick Contorno Orchestra release, and conductor Nick Contorno's career.

"In the past five years he's worked his way back and forth across the repertoire of the 30's and 40's, crooning the old songs, jazzing them up, deconstructing them and putting them back together again. The Contorno disc is already Grillo's fifth CD, and he shows no signs of stopping now."

Shepherd Express Metro
"Swinging the Old Songs" by Dave Luhrssen
August 26, 1999

Goody for You, his new release of jazz standards, and his captivating club appearances testify to the remarkable improvement Grillo has made as a vocalist and entertainer since 1994, when he released his first CD, "This Funny World," and began performing live.

"The secret is I finally found my own style," Grillo said. "It is very natural. I'm more spontaneous, more upbeat, not mellow or torchy, and my presentation is very audience-oriented.

"At the beginning, I thought I had to sound like someone else, but now I have my own way of singing these wonderful songs. I keep working on technique, just getting out there and improvising."

Indeed, Grillo is carving out his own identity with skilled improvisations, changing the phrasing and emphasizing different words as he expresses the lyrics. There are no formal arrangements.

"Every song is what I feel at that moment," Grillo said. "It is a wonderful experience to go out as a jazz performer because every evening is new, and it is a thrill to me to sing the song a different way each time."

As a performer, Grillo exudes the inner excitement he feels. With confidence and cabaret charm, he finds the right groove, taking each song in the direction he wants it to go. Often, he'll sing a slow ballad, such as "What a Difference a Day Made," and put a sunny spin on it.

"People go out to have a good time, and they want to swing. So I might do 'My Funny Valentine' with high energy and a blues sound, like Etta James would do it."

In 1997, Grillo retired after 30 years as a teacher with Milwaukee Public Schools, and now devotes full time to his singing. He credits his successful musical transformation to vocal lessons he took from Chicago songstress Jackie Allen and to frequent collaborations with guitarist Jack Grassel and pianist Barry Velleman.

"They really challenge me because we are constantly improvising and playing off each other," Grillo said. "Each night is a jam session."

Grassel and Grillo perform together as often as twice a week, and Grassel has encouraged Grillo to bring a high energy '90s approach to timeless tunes from the '30s, '40s and '50s.

"Jerry has an unusually high level of musicianship," Grassel said. "I can stop playing altogether and then come back in a few minutes later, and Jerry is still on the same pitch. Our music is greater than the sum of its parts.

"He has gone from being an average Milwaukee vocalist to being a world-class vocalist.

"If you look at what Jerry has accomplished in the last three years, just think where he'll be in the next three years."

June Lehman
Special to the Journal Sentinel

Singer Jerry Grillo takes a more cautious approach with a dozen standards on "Mister Grillo," his second amJAZZ CD. Grillo has a mellow rather than adventurous approach to interpretation. He makes the most of "Take the A Train," "All or Nothing at All," "Angel Eyes", and "Sweet Georgia Brown." His accompanists, including pianist Barry Velleman, guitarist Jack Grassel and saxophonist Julie Wood, are uniformly terrific.
- Keith Spore, publisher of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, a longtime jazz listener and a former music critic for the Milwaukee Sentinel.

Keith Spore
Milwaukee Journal
ON JAZZ - January 12, 1997

...In 1993, Grillo released his first CD, This Funny World. On it, he gave his former jazz teacher a thank-you by recording one of [Jackie] Allen's songs, "I'll Chase The Sun." The new Mister Grillo builds on the success of the first CD and includes an all-star Milwaukee lineup of pianist Barry Velleman, guitarist Jack Grassel, bassist Jeff Hamann, drummer Charles McFarlan and on one cut, saxophonist Julie Wood...

Frank Savoy
School Of Cool - October 20, 1995

...the re-embodiment of '50s lounge cool for an era that has begun to rediscover the music he loved while growing up. Immaculate in a dark suit, dark shirt, and bolo tie, singer Jerry Grillo puts one foot on the piano bench on Cafe Phyllis' tiny stage, leans back against the handsome art noveau piano and, holding the tiny microphone between the cups of his hands, taps his fingers to the beat of "The Nearness Of You." Guitarist Jack Grassel states the melody and rhythm....It's music full of moonlight, starry skies, impossible dreams and the all-too-real emotional contradictions of adult life, that towering feeling of falling in love and the bitter aftertaste of its dissipation. It's an unlikely choice of music for someone who grew up in the bleak mining town of Hibbing, Minnesota, a schoolmate of Bob Dylan. Country didn't push Grillo's buttons, nor did rock 'n roll. Later on, when he went away to college in the '60s, Grillo listened to Tony Bennett while his roommates [buddies] grooved on the Beatles...

Dave Luhrssen
"Jerry Grillo Is Playin' It Cool"
Spring 1995: Shepherd Express


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Jerry Grillo
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