he was around 12, John Stropes, director of guitar studies at
UW-Milwaukee, started playing his favorite instrument. He began his
life’s work learning on his grandmother’s venerable old guitar,
one dating from around 1900. Then, when he was in middle school, his
maternal grandfather, a music teacher, gave him a Martin 00-18. His
paternal granddad was also a guitar and banjo player.
stringed instruments were long a part of Stropes’ formative years.
Now a critically acclaimed finger-style specialist and teacher, he
likes to say that The Fates from those long-ago growing up years set
in motion his latest UWM project, an in-depth study of Milwaukee’s
late, lamented Avant Garde coffeehouse. The musical mecca at 2111 N.
Prospect Ave. was a fixture on the city’s blues and folk scene
places like this in other geographic areas, but in Wisconsin, none as
important as the Avant Garde," Stropes says. "It presented
local performers and nationally known folk and blues artists, poetry
readings, and experimental and underground films. Patrons regarded the
music with the same seriousness and respect given to classical
music," he points out.
The Avant Garde
was also a laid-back classroom, so tyro musicians flocked there to
learn and converse with the performers. "Without the Avant Garde,
there would have been no centrality for these older traditions or the
recasting of these traditions by revivalists," says Stropes, who
naturally became a regular visitor there.
All of this
input, and the open-mindedness of the 1960s, provided the fertile
ground for the development of finger-style guitar as art music,
according to Stropes, who later set up a company to publish printed
music for finger-style guitar in addition to his teaching.
For the UWM
project, Stropes and his students are interviewing those whom he calls
"the dramatis personae," plus discovering recordings,
establishing a list of performers, cataloging concert ephemera,
creating a diachronic study of the historic building which the
coffeehouse occupied and compiling biographies and discographies of
performers. Much of this is featured on www.avantgardecoffeehouse.com
and through a social networking presence. "All this work
contributes to the understanding more about both the cultural context
and sociological milieu of the club," Stropes says.
many of the artifacts from the Avant Garde were showcased this past
April in the Fourth Annual UWM Undergraduate Research Symposium in the
UWM Union attended by numerous musicians and fans of the club.
With 50 years
having passed since the Avant Garde opened its doors, Stropes says
that music lovers can begin to understand the impact that the facility
had on culture in Milwaukee. "We can see a direct path from the
Avant Garde Coffeehouse to UWM’s Peck School of the Arts," he
is the only university in the world that offers bachelor and
master degrees in Finger-Style Guitar Performance. The program
is located in Kenilworth Square East, a rehabilitated Model T
Ford vertical assembly plant overlooking the French Moorish
building once occupied by the Avant Garde coffeehouse, a feature
on the city’s music scene in the 1960s.
program director John Stropes is offering a class on the Avant
Garde and its role in the folk/blues revival. Next spring, his
research on the club will culminate in a gallery show, concert
and theatrical production at Kenilworth Square East.