J Ryan Trio are a longstanding group that plays jazz standards as well as familiar blues tunes in and around the Milwaukee entertainment sphere. I sat down with two members, Alissa Weber and Ryan Janscha, only to learn that there’s a bit more to them than the word “trio” implies.
ME: So, to start – both of you can answer this. I’d love to hear how J Ryan Trio formed.
RYAN: That actually takes us back in time quite a bit. The first time we played out and about was back in April of 2012, which seems like a hundred years ago already. Nobody’s more amazed than me that it hasn’t collapsed under the weight of my own negligence within weeks or months of its founding…but here we are, almost a decade later, still making music. We’ve done easily over 500-600 appearances around town. Its inception was with myself and a couple folks I played music with at church and we loved playing together. What we didn’t have enough of through our church ministry music was old school Motown and jazz and blues, plus some soul and rock and roll. We were looking for an outlet in which we’d have an opportunity to play a wider variety of music and also get out and about and meet some new people. I don’t think you could pick a less qualified person to organize and keep a music project going, but I’ve learned as I go (laughs). All of the people that have participated – which has got to be twelve, fifteen people over the years – have had the patience of a monument putting up with me. I just love each and every one of them so much. Fast forward to 2014, I was introduced to our dear Alissa by the owner of a venue out in Brookfield…and Alissa, if I recall correctly, you were handling their account with advertising through your work with the paper, right?
ALISSA: Through the Shepherd Express, yup!
RYAN: And so, Phil said “Ryan, I’ve got somebody you have to meet. She is the Milwaukee native with the Detroit sound.” You can’t ask for a better introduction than that.
ALISSA: I can’t believe it goes back to 2014…that’s crazy. It’s been a lot of fun being out and about. You may have heard this, but all our proceeds over the years go to nonprofits around the area so we don’t take a penny in. Some of our flagships are the Milwaukee Homeless Veterans Initiative, the Women’s Center of Waukesha, Relay for Life and Salute the Troops up in Fond Du Lac, and Feeding America Wisconsin.
RYAN: I took a look at our books in preparation for chatting, and – Alissa you probably don’t even know this – we’ve done over $90,000 in charity over the years.
ALISSA: Wow…that’s amazing.
ME: That’s very commendable. Good for you!
RYAN: It is good for us, because it means that we’re free to focus on the Fellowship and the music. We just can’t stop.
ALISSA: I know, it’s addicting.
ME: That’s how I am with interviewing people, so I get it (laughs). I was going to ask about the charity thing since I saw it from your Facebook page.
How did you guys find out about Wisconsin Music Ventures?
ALISSA: That was actually through me first. Allison and I met through networking but also she then rented out the Wauwatosa Historical Society for her launch of Wisconsin Music Ventures, and I am the Executive Director there. It just crossed paths real nicely and was great to have live music on the grounds by us. She just kept expanding and rocked it through the pandemic and it was amazing how she did that. She reached out to me and Ryan to see if we wanted to be members, and of course we were in.
ME: It doesn’t take much to convince once you really know what she’s doing.
So you guys are the J Ryan Trio – who’s the third one that’s not currently here?
RYAN: (laughs) We get this question quite a bit actually and it lifts my heart every time we hear it. We may have named the group prior to understanding what it would become; again, I didn’t anticipate the group would last longer than those initial few weeks. We did have an original trio but since then we now have four drummers working with us, three people on bass, two piano men, and we’ve even had a harmonica guy and occasionally saxophone. I think of it as a solar system, where the music is the center and the rest of us are in varying orbits around that core sharing music. It gives everyone the flexibility to plug in where they’re able to – it’s so important for a volunteer organization such as this.
ME: It’s like a collective, a creative family of sorts. That’s the best way to be. But J Ryan Trio retains the roots with how the project was originally envisioned and there’s nothing wrong with that.
Here’s a fun question for you – What do you think is the best burger in Milwaukee?
RYAN: I think it’s anything that’s served at George Webb. Not necessarily because it’s the most gourmet, it’s just a fantastic sandwich. But make no mistake, the experience of George Webb is kitschy, old school, and not to be missed. It’s kind of like Milwaukee’s version of a Waffle House. They also serve that trademark diner coffee, which is good for me, because the coffee here at the office is absolutely terrible.
ALISSA: I mean, Sobelman’s is always a good go-to. I haven’t been out in so long due to the shutdown so it’s hard to give an accurate answer. What’s yours, Ben?
ME: You know, this past year I did get a lot of UberEats and Grubhub, and one of the best burgers I tried all year was Club Charlie’s in the Third Ward. That is one of the finest burgers.
ALISSA: Yes! Ryan and I know that very well because the Shepherd Express would hire us for the food truck events and we’d park right outside Club Charlie’s. That was our little go-to, always.
ME: My next question is, so playing the kind of music you guys play, you’ve played a lot of coffeehouses and breweries. Do you feel there’s much of a difference in the dynamic between the two?
RYAN: Well, it’s an interesting question. They’re fairly close together for us, and I think it has to do with simply the breadth of venues that we play. For us it’s about the music; we’re willing to play anywhere, any time, for any reason as long as we get to play the music that’s so special to us. Some of the less orthodox place that we’ve played have been in churches, at libraries, at ice cream socials…things like that. We played for an Alcoholics Anonymous convention and that was kind of fun. We have played three times in a grocery store (Metro Market); we started in the frozen foods section and they bumped us up to deli on only our second song.
ALISSA: I think the best story about that, Ben, is that Ryan’s keyboard was set up in front of the chiller where the taco dip was for a Packers Sunday, and so there was this woman that we thought was just really getting into it and finally she was like “actually, could you just pass me the taco dip?” and we were like “oh, she’s not that into us” (laughs).
BEN: That’s hilarious!
So my last question for you guys is, what are your plans for the summer? What is J Ryan Trio currently focused on?
RYAN: Up to this point, we’re trying to add an air of legitimacy to the project that we’re doing here. For every year since 2012 we have been soldiering our equipment all by ourselves in a tricked-out, fantastic piece of automotive art that is a 1999 Chevy Prism. This car – that started off as salmon – has since faded to pink, and I took all of the seats out of it and put in a plywood contraption in the back so that I could load all of our stuff into this tiny car. It’s like Doctor Who’s phone booth inside. It’s been hauling us around, but this year I said we’re going to try to do something a little different, and I’m actually speaking to you right now from the backseat of our new Blues-mobile. It’s a 2004 Lincoln Town Car and we used it for the first time when we played for the wonderful people down at the Racine Zoo. It’s just as ridiculous in a completely different way. I’m over the moon that our schedule here in 2021 is filled out and we’ve got some wonderful opportunities to share music and laughs with a whole bunch of people. I’m very excited about it.