Cliff Gribble

Here’s a profile of yet another great jazz educator in Wisconsin, my friend Cliff Gribble. I first got to know Cliff when he was a major force in the relatively new Wisconsin chapter of the National Association of Jazz Educators. I’m sorry to say that at that time I did not hear any of his school ensembles.

That pleasure came when Cliff was in his last, and arguably most important school job, at the brand new Milwaukee High School for the Arts. With Cliff tapping into the great talent in the Milwaukee area, and knowing just how to foster that talent, MHSA became a legendary program.

Cliff and I became good friends, and as things progressed with NAJE (becoming International — the IAJE), Cliff and I became roommates at some of the great NAJE/IAJE conventions (teachers have to save money, after all). We hardly ever saw each other during the days at those affairs, but late at night or early in the morning would compare notes about who and what we had seen and heard.

I hope you enjoy this profile.

Cliff Gribble is best known for the latter part of his teaching career, when he headed the jazz program at the Milwaukee High School of the Arts.  But his work in jazz started long before that, in another uniquely Wisconsin story.[i]

Gribble, however, was born in Detroit, Michigan, December 3, 1943.  The family moved to Ontonagon, Michigan, where Cliff lived until he was in elementary school, at which time the family moved to little Lena, Wisconsin, in the northeast part of the state.  Cliff’s father Ernest was a school music teacher.  Cliff says, “And I was actually playing in the senior band in fifth grade, because we needed somebody, and I had started trumpet, and I could play a few notes.  So [my dad] put me in there.  He was careful not to give me too many lessons, though, because I might like it too much.”  The elder Gribble didn’t want Cliff to follow him into the music teaching profession because he thought it was too much work for too little pay.  It could be a “difficult situation with your dad as your teacher in anything, but particularly in a performance group.  We were fine, but the feeling with your peers is always strange, and getting this, ‘Why is this snot-nosed little kid playing in the senior band?’  Well, because he needed trumpets and I could play, you know.” 

The elder Gribble then moved to the music job at Sevastopol, in Door County, but the family had Cliff go to school in nearby Sturgeon Bay starting in eighth grade, where he would have “the ability to take a foreign language, or an advanced course of some sort.”  He played but then dropped out of basketball and baseball, so that he could conduct the school pep band.  There was also a “dance band” at the high school, run by the director, John Reichart, who also had a professional band that worked on weekends.  But when Reichart left for a teaching job in the Milwaukee area, the dance band seemed destined to disappear with him.  But young Cliff volunteered to take over leading the band, “And that was the beginning of it then, right then.  Because not only did I take over, but it was fun.”  What “it” was, was the leading of a jazz band.  The band started playing for dances, and Cliff starting writing for it – “poorly.”  When he realized it was time to let his parents know just how much it meant to him, “I can still see the look on my parents’ face[s] when I [told them I] was going to be a music major.” 

Although he had entertained the idea of going to school at Lawrence College [now Lawrence University] or UW-Madison, Cliff selected Carroll College in Waukesha, which had offered him a better scholarship than the other schools.  Since he had been listening to his father’s “edict” for years, discouraging him from becoming a music teacher, Cliff thought an acceptable alternative would be to become a musician, not a teacher.  (His thinking:  “I’d just starve to death sooner.”)  Despite the scholarship, Cliff had three part-time jobs in college so he could “ have a little bit of money for shoes and an occasional cheeseburger away from campus.”  Freshman year, Gribble ended up continuing his band experience from high school, essentially leading the jazz band from the second trumpet chair.  Eventually he was president of the concert band and the choir, and as he recalls it was all “great fun.”  (There was a summer detour to UW-Milwaukee along the way.)  He also, with the encouragement of Carroll professor Bob Smith, managed to spend an eye-opening session at the Eastman School of Music one summer at their famed jazz arrangers’ workshop.

Living under the cloud of the Vietnam War in the ‘60s, he graduated from Carroll in 1966, and hoped he could go to grad school for as long as possible before he would be drafted, and “I didn’t expect to come back from Vietnam.”  Cliff did go to UW-Madison for graduate school, earning a degree in composition in just one year.

In 1967, with two music degrees, but no training in music education, Cliff took a job teaching music – kindergarten through high school, including four or five outlying schools, instrumental and choral, in Reedsville, Wisconsin.  After a year of teaching, the draft board did come calling, and Gribble entered the service.  However, in his short stay, his health was bad, and on top of chronic bronchitis (exacerbated by smoking), allergies and a couple of bouts of pneumonia, the doctors also found that he had high blood pressure.  After about three months, the army decided he was not fit to serve. 

Cliff moved to Milwaukee with his girlfriend, and walked into the Central Office of the school system to inquire about a teaching job.   He was about to walk out of the building when he was brought back with:  “There’s a job at Washington High School.  You can start on Monday if you want to.”  There was a very good band at Washington, but as people say, “the neighborhood was changing.”  According to Cliff, “It was so rough that at times the doors were closed; the police would tell us not to come out; nobody can go home; it’s a lockdown.  And during those times, the kids from my bands, and particularly my jazz bands, would flock, if they were anywhere near when they locked the school down . . . they’d come into my room.  So I’d get to have three, three and a half hour rehearsals with whoever showed up, and most of the time my jazz band was there, but maybe it was my quintet . . . But [whoever] showed up, we rehearsed, and I almost credit some of our success the fact that we had those lockdowns.  But it was the kind of thing where you didn’t send people to the bathroom alone.  You didn’t carry money with you.”  While teaching, he got the necessary credits at Carroll to get proper teacher certification.  The Washington jazz band made a splash at the UW-Eau Claire jazz festival, playing Cliff’s original work, and won the competition there and at the first two UW-Green Bay festivals as well.  Gribble was at Washington from 1969-72.

But he and his wife wanted to raise a family, and they wanted to do it in a safer place than Milwaukee seemed during that era.  Cliff next taught in Portage, from 1972-80.  He was hired as band director.  He had an aversion to marching band, however, which, as in many Wisconsin small towns, was a big deal.  So when the choir teacher decided to leave, Cliff wangled things so that he could be choir director, but continue to do jazz band.  The school hired Kerry Dull, who was to go on to be a distinguished educator as well, to take over the band.  In order to go to competitions, “We played everything we could get our hands on.  I played for the opening of Hardee’s, restaurants and things like that to make money so we could go places.  And if we’d win, I’d come back and write an article for the paper, and hope that they would print it.”  Following in the footsteps of his Washington band, the Portage band had great success at the Eau Claire festival.  One year, the school’s combo was asked to play on the evening concert at Eau Claire, as a special “demonstration” group; and then the big band won the competition, “so at night both the big band and the combo played.”  UW-Eau Claire’s Dominic Spera, the most prominent jazz educator in the state at the time, told Cliff, “’Wow, you just put the, that town on the map!’ [Cliff goes on] So I went back and dutifully wrote my little article and tried to get [the local paper] to publish it.  And they didn’t, because they covered a girls’ volleyball practice session, with pictures, instead.”  Eventually, Cliff would take all three of Portage’s jazz bands to Eau Claire and enter them in different divisions.  The band also won a contest in Milwaukee, part of the Woody Herman Sister Fabian scholarship situation.  He later brought the Herman band to Portage for a concert. 

Cliff also got to know Lawrence University’s Fred Sturm, and along with others, such as UW-Eau Claire’s Ron Keezer, they spearheaded the very successful Wisconsin chapter of the National Association of Jazz Educators.  Gribble served a term as president of the group. 

Gribble’s success at Portage came at a price.  Eventually he was told by an administrator that the music program needed to “tone it down,” as it was overshadowing the athletic program.  Given the other limitations of the small town situation, Cliff decided to move on.  He took a job at the private Wayland Academy, in Beaver Dam.  But Cliff was not ready for the situation at Wayland, where his choir never met all together at the same time until the first performance on a tour to the Chicago suburbs.  To fulfill some of his ambitions Cliff branched out and started a music publishing business, which mostly published his own educational charts (both big band and combo).  He decided he couldn’t deal with the situation at Wayland, so left his position there and tried to make a go of it with the publishing, teaching some lessons, and a small retail business selling music.  For a year he led a vocal jazz group at UW-Oshkosh, which ended unceremoniously.  It was 1985.  “So we’re starvin’ to death.  And I’m thinking, ‘So you’ve done all this, Cliff, and now you’re just going to go down the tubes with your wife and kids.  Boy, are you great.’ And I’m just getting really desperate. I’m trying to find a job, you know, a full-time job in a high school.  But of course there’s nothing available now.”

Through a convoluted series of events, Gribble was contacted about, and then hired for, a position at the new Milwaukee High School of the Arts.  The program was only a year old, and Cliff had five students in his first jazz class.  Although he was teaching a girls’ chorus as well, Cliff made it clear to the administration that what he wanted to create at MHSA was a jazz program like the storied programs at arts high schools in Houston and Dallas.  By his second semester at the school he had “a pretty healthy group of like thirty or forty. And, I think by the second year, it seems to me we had five classes.”  “So the number of jazz classes would depend on how much help they would give me.  And at the height of it I was teaching five, and there were two others, so we had seven.  And I guess at the height of it, mostly we had seventy or eighty kids in the program.  And I don’t know, almost always at least ten combos.”  There was never a big band, which was a source of irritation for some, but not for Cliff.  Combo and improvisation were the emphases, but he did what he needed to in order to accommodate other students – like having a synthesizer ensemble.  But for the combos:  “Well, we just got as many as we could and piled them all in, and I explained to them that I can only be in one room at once.  And sometimes they had to divide rooms, so they competed with each other, you know, with just a screen there.  But most of the time we could come up with a separate cranny somewhere.  And I would have three combos rehearsing at once and would just rotate between them, so that sometimes I couldn’t even hear a whole tune through before I’d hear it performed.”

The program grew and had tremendous success.  Here is a partial listing of the accomplishments of the MHSA student groups:  “Outstanding Performance” awards in the annual Down Beat student awards national competitions in 1992, 1994, 1996 and 2000.  A Silver Plaque at Jazzfest USA in Orlando, Florida in 1997.  A performance with the Milwaukee Symphony in 1998.  Chosen to perform at the North Sea Jazz Festival in The Hague, Holland, 2000.  Chosen to perform at the 2001 International Association of Jazz Educators conference in New York, including at the IAJE Gala Dinner that honored film maker Ken Burns.  Finalist or winner at the 2000 and 2001 Monterey (CA) Jazz Festival High School Jazz Competition and Berklee College of Music Festival.  The first high school group to play at New York’s JVC Jazz Festival, in 1999.  In 2001, a MHSA combo performed at the Montreux (Switzerland) Jazz Festival, the Vienna (Austria) Jazz Festival and Jazz à Vienne (France).

Whenever prominent jazz musicians came through town, Gribble (sometimes with the help of arts consultant Lynn Lucius) managed to get them to come visit the students at MHSA.  Among those who visited were Wynton Marsalis and Joshua Redman.  Many outstanding students went through the program during Gribble’s tenure; the best known were award winners Tobias Kaemmerer (trumpet) and Joe Sanders (bass).  Sanders is enjoying an outstanding jazz career. [and is profiled in Wisconsin Riffs; KD]

Personally, Gribble won a prestigious Down Beat Achievement Award for Jazz Education in 1998.  On the heels of that accomplishment, he received recognition by Milwaukee mayor John Norquist, Senator Herb Kohl, the Milwaukee Common Council, and Milwaukee Magazine (a person of the year) and a profile in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.  He also received a Distinguished Service Award from the Wisconsin IAJE chapter.

But all good things come to an end, and Gribble left MHSA after the 2000-2001 school year.  “I mean I quit because I couldn’t get through another year of that job doing it the way I was doing it, and I couldn’t back off, because I’d created a monster.”  One might have thought that he was done in jazz education, but that was not the case.  At first, he formed, with limited success, Jazz Studies Outreach, with the idea “to continue to develop and coordinate jazz education opportunities for more students across the Milwaukee Public Schools school district, the metropolitan Milwaukee area and beyond.”  A generous donation from a prominent local lawyer and a partnership with Alverno College were not enough to guarantee success. 

Shortly thereafter, however, the Milwaukee Youth Symphony Orchestra, spurred by a big grant from the Trek bicycle company, started a Jazz Studies program at their new Youth Arts Center on Walnut Street between Martin Luther King Drive and 4th Street, right in the historical Bronzeville neighborhood, hotbed of Milwaukee jazz in the 1930s through ‘50s.  Who was the logical choice to lead the program?  Cliff Gribble, of course.  Planning started in February 2004; classes started in October.  Soon a combo from the MYSO program was enjoying a success similar to Gribble’s MHSA groups, going to the North Sea Jazz Festival.

Gribble finally retired in 2007, but maintains an intense interest in the jazz scene, locally and nationally.


[i] Most of what follows comes from a long conversation with Cliff on January 3, 2012.  Cliff also supplied me with some printed materials at that time that helped fill out the details of his story and that of the jazz program at the Milwaukee High School of the Arts, in particular.

One thought on “Cliff Gribble

  1. Thank you so much for writing this!! Cliff was my instructor from 72-75 at Portage High School and I still have so many fond memories of band at that time. (I also remember Kerry Dull so well and miss him.) I have continued to love music, play piano, and encourage my own sons to play during their school years. I never was in his jazz ensembles but had one son who did jazz band for 8-9 years during high school and college and loved it all. I am so glad I was able to reconnect with Cliff a few years back, noticing we share the same birthday, and that I am able to tell him again how much he influenced me and so many, many other students throughout his teaching career. I was so glad to read this, and so disappointed in Portage for not encouraging the arts or realizing what a true gem that they had in Cliff when he was there.

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