As the last few articles I’ve posted here have drawn increased traffic to the site, I am thinking about perhaps making it a little bit more than just a place for me to post excerpts from Wisconsin Riffs and other writing I’ve done.
In that spirit, I’m attaching a link here to something my son Paul just wrote. Many of you know him as a composer, big band arranger and jazz trumpeter of considerable skill. But he’s always listening, and thinking, about new music. He has written this review about Maria Schneider’s stunning new double album Data Lords. Read about it here: https://www.pauldietrichjazz.com/blog
But my post today is primarily to pay tribute to yet another Wisconsin jazz musician (and teacher) whose passing I unfortunately missed. Milwaukee pianist and sometime singer Frank DeMiles left us last November. I had the pleasure of hearing Frank play several different years at the Bunny Berigan Jazz Jamboree in Fox Lake, in the quintet of his friend, trumpeter Kaye Berigan (I even had the honor of sitting in a time or two). Frank had a style of his own — which is part of what jazz is all about. He seemed to have no fear of trying just about anything when he played. His career in Milwaukee was somewhat different, as you will read; again, a modified excerpt from Wisconsin Riffs.
A significant member of Frank’s family, his son, bassist Peter Dominguez, is returning this fall to take over the string bass professorship at UW-Madison, a position long held by jazz legend, and Peter’s mentor, Richard Davis. It will be great to have Peter back in the neighborhood. Frank was also father-in-law to pianist Rick Germanson, a true luminary on the New York scene for many years. When I interviewed Frank at one of the Berigan festivals, his delightful life partner Nancy was there to help keep things under control. She sadly, also passed away, just months after Frank. They left a significant legacy.
Pianist Frank DeMiles is about a foot shorter than his sometime musical foil Kaye Berigan [whose profile precedes that of DeMiles in Wisconsin Riffs]. DeMiles was born Francisco Dominguez in Waukesha in 1931. He describes his early music education as follows.
[I] went to a teacher to continue my lessons when I was eleven years old on the Hawaiian guitar; she said she didn’t teach that string instrument. She says, “Let me see your hands.” And I held out my hands, and she said to my dad, “He should play the piano.” So when I was twelve to fifteen, when we were still in Waukesha, I took lessons from this Blanche Wilson, who came to the door when we first met her with a wig as white as could [be, and] teeth I swear belonged to George Washington, because they sounded like wood. Anyway, but that’s where I started; classical training. And we came to Milwaukee, and . . . I still studied a little classical music at Wisconsin College of Music, [with] Irma Habeck Dufenhorst.
DeMiles attended Marquette High School, where he played in the orchestra and sang in the choir. He says, “[I] never picked up any jazz music in school; it was all on my own.”
Next, he went on to Marquette University.
My dad wanted me to be a doctor; he worked in a foundry all his life. And he wanted me to not have any worry about money when I grew up. So I was in premed. . . . After my two years [in premed], I said, “Dad, I don’t want to be a doctor.” I said, “The sciences and I don’t agree.”
DeMiles tried dental school for two weeks, but it was clearly another bad match. At the instigation of his young wife, Nancy, he decided to do what made him happy, which was to study music. He went to UW– Milwaukee, got a degree in teaching, and started teaching choral music in 1956 in Greenfield. Despite all the playing that DeMiles ended up doing in Milwaukee, he needed a steady-paying day job, as he and Nancy ended up having eleven children.
DeMiles got his first professional job in 1950 at the Italian Village, in a small band of musicians led by Honey Trent. “It was not a jazz band,” he remembers. “It was there for dancing.” At this time, he changed his professional name from Dominguez to DeMiles. His heritage is half Italian and half Mexican; he decided that his Hispanic surname did not fit the Italian selling, so he changed it.
Around 1954, DeMiles began playing with Zeb Billings, a saxophonist at that time. Billings went on to found a successful piano and organ store and eventually came up with innovative organ lessons on cassette, which were, according to a Journal Sentinel article, “popular enough that some organ manufacturers built cassette players into their instruments.”
After several years with Billings, DeMiles landed a plum job at the Holiday House. He describes the Holiday House as a “showcase lounge” located at Clybourn and Van Buren that brought in name performers. DeMiles played in the house band, which also played for many headliners over the years. But his encounter with Tony Benne”, one of America’s revered entertainers, was one of the most meaningful of DeMiles’s life.
I’ll never forget the night that Tony Bennett, who used to, on his breaks, go back in the corner of the barroom, where a table was nice and dark; nobody could bother him . . . but the waitress came over and said, “Tony wants to talk to you, Frank.” So I went over. He says, “Frank, I’ve been listening to you guys.” He says, “You’re great, I love your music.” I said, “Thank you, Mr. Bennett.” He says, “I would give my right arm to trade places with you.” ’Cause he had heard about the family. . . . I said, “What do you mean?” He says, “You can go home to your wife and kids every night.”
On the jacket of his 1959 album (and 1994 CD re-release), Live at Stefano’s, DeMiles listed Milwaukee-area clubs where he had played. !e list included a wealth of names that will resonate with Milwaukee jazz fans of a certain era: the Italian Village, Kodric’s, Lakeside, the Blackamor Room, Stefano’s, Gallagher’s, Curro’s, Sardino’s, the Holiday House, De Salvo’s, the Layton Place, Bobby’s Lounge, Pal Joey’s, Tonight Milwaukee, Ma’s, Hanon’s, Aladdin’s, Richard’s Retreat, Andy’s Tap, Tumblebrook Country Club, the Red Garter, Pitch’s, Columns of Tuckaway, Alexander’s, Hoffman’s East, Gritz’s Pzazz, Edelweiss Cruises, Cathedral Square, the Red Mill, and the Cigar X Change.
DeMiles told me flatly, “I was not jazz like Siggy Millonzi (Milwaukee star jazz pianist of the ’60 and ‘70s) was.” When playing with his own groups, especially earlier in his career, the songs would emphasize DeMiles’s skilled and attractive vocals. However, DeMiles’s piano playing in the trio was tasty—and jazzy. And many agree that his later recordings and performances display a true jazz player— quirky, demonstrating an original synthesis of a variety of influences, and with a remarkable ability to quote from a dazzling spectrum of tunes (see discography).
From left to right: Tom, James, Frank (DeMiles), and Peter Dominguez at Milwaukee’s Italian Community Center, 2013. Courtesy of Peter Dominguez.
In the 2010s, DeMiles’s public performances have become infrequent. But he plays private parties, works occasionally at the Italian Community Center, and makes a yearly appearance at the Bunny Berigan Jazz Jubilee with Kaye Berigan’s group.
Of DeMiles’s eleven children, two—John and Peter, both string bassists—have distinguished themselves in the jazz world. (His daughter Susan, who plays and teaches violin in New York, is married to Milwaukee- born New York pianist Rick Germanson (profiled in chapter 7 of Wisconsin Riffs), and his son James plays drums in a Milwaukee firefighters’ band.) John Dominguez was a prominent bassist on the Milwaukee scene for years before heading for California in the early 2000s. Better known on the national scene is son Peter Dominguez, whose story follows [in Wisconsin Riffs].
A photo from 2003 of a group that includes Frank DeMiles on piano, his son John Dominguez on bass and Kaye Berigan on trumpet. Flutist Rick Aaron is next to his father Joe (on saxophone). Photo courtesy of Kaye Berigan.