Jazz Institute of Chicago

A Conversation with Paul Wertico

By Alain Drouot

Chicago, July 30, 2000—This interview was conducted at Pizzeria Due between shows at the Jazz Showcase. Wertico was part of the Larry Novak trio which was backing Buddy DeFranco.

Drouot: Where and when were you born?

I was born in Chicago on January 5, 1953.

Drouot: Were there any musicians in your family?

None.

Drouot: Absolutely none?

That's right [laughs].

Drouot: So how did you pick up the drums?

I just loved music, jazz and rock. I loved drummers like Buddy Rich, Elvin Jones, Tony Williams, but also Ginger Baker with Cream or Mitch Mitchell with Jimi Hendrix. Then, in 6th grade my parents wanted me to pick an instrument to play, anything except the drums [laughs]! When I was 14, I got a drum set for my graduation present. The rest is history [laughs].

Drouot: I read that you started professionally at 15. That's a rather short period of time between getting your drum set and starting getting jobs?

Pretty much, but back then there were a lot of gigs available. You could play in clubs, hotels and so on. I started playing in clubs before I could drive.

Drouot: Did you put a band together?

I think my first band was called The Prisoners of War, the name coming from the fact that I had a PW logo (ala Buddy Rich) on my front bass drum head. It was just me and an organ player friend of mine and I think we played one gig. Next, I was in a group called The Lone Madres which played stuff like Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass. Then I played in various rock bands, my first being The Rudeberry Blues Effect, which played music by bands like Cream, The Who and Blue Cheer.

I also performed in the high school jazz ensembles and with different lounge-type bands that were playing standard tunes and hits of the day. By my sophomore year in high school though, just about everybody I was playing with was way older than me. The organ player and the singer in one group were about 25 or so.

Drouot: How did you get in touch with those musicians?

I don't know [laughs]. I really don't remember. I think just through word of mouth or getting heard somewhere. People hear you play on a gig or something, with some band, and then they call you.

Drouot: How did you get acquainted with jazz?

My Mom was listening to musicians like Sarah Vaughan and you must also understand that at that time there was music everywhere. Buddy Rich had his own show on TV!

Drouot: What role did school play in helping you become a musician?

Well, when I was both a junior and a senior my high school band toured around and we played other high schools. I remember, in my senior year I had long hair, a double bass drum set, and we toured around these different high schools and it was kinda cool for me because I was the featured soloist.

I remember this one high school where before we played, some guys from that school were pointing and making fun of me because I had long hair and everything. But after I soloed I got a standing ovation from the whole school, including them. So, that was kind of neat. It was almost like being a rock star, because there were young girls, you know... They all dug the energy, so it was pretty exciting. That's also how I got my scholarship at Western Illinois University. We played Western Illinois and I auditioned there and got the scholarship. So, that worked out nice.

Drouot: Did you have a mentor during those years?

A mentor? No... You mean as far as to what I was listening to?

Drouot: I meant someone who took you under his wing.

Well, I was fortunate to have two great band directors early on. Mr. Vern Pahde was my first band director in mid-school and he taught me how to read music and how to play snare drum, etc. And in high school I had Mr. Donald Ehrensperger, who really let me become my own version of "me". Neither one of them was a drummer, but I probably wouldn't be playing drums if it wasn't for them and their way of teaching.

Later, I heard about some jam sessions in downtown Chicago, like at Marina City. They used to have things like Jazz at Five and Jazz at Noon. I would go hear Barrett Deems play and he kinda took me under his wing, not that he gave me any lessons, but I'd go down and he'd let me sit in. Even though some of the other musicians would sometimes look at me and say "What are you doing here?", he would always let me play and be really encouraging to me. That meant a lot to me at that age and so we developed a lifelong friendship.

Drouot: And, as far as influences...

I always bought a lot of records. That's how I learned. I listened to jazz, rock and ethnic music at the same time. I listened to famous jazz drummers like Roy Haynes, Jack DeJohnette, Art Blakey and Max Roach and not so famous jazz drummers like Bob Morin, Eddie Marshall and J.C. Moses. I also listened to star rock drummers like Ginger Baker, Mitch Mitchell, John Bonham and Keith Moon, as well as more obscure rock players like Robert Wyatt, Michael Giles and John French. I liked any drummer, famous or not, that made the drums "talk".

Drouot: Any other musicians besides drummers?

Everybody. I mean Miles, Trane, from Ornette to the Beatles. In fact, I've always been more geared towards melody than rhythm. In high school, I was part of a marching band and I would always choose to play the bass drum and cymbals because I could accentuate the melody as opposed to playing a bunch of rudiments.

I like music that has a lot of melodic content and a lot of energy. Anybody that played music like that would be somebody I would be influenced by. When I'm playing the drums I always sing the melody—I'm not playing rudiments. I'm playing my own version of the song. It's a different way of approaching the drums, but I'm self-taught, so that's just how things came out. I'm sure that that's also how I came up with my style.

Drouot: Before starting touring with Pat Metheny, which was your major breakthrough, what were the different stages of your career?

My first big breakthrough happened while I was attending Western Illinois University. Cannonball Adderley's band came and did a rhythm clinic. I sat in after everyone else from the school had sat in and the place went nuts. So afterwards I talked to Cannonball's drummer, Roy McCurdy, and I told him I wanted to quit school and go back to Chicago and play. He said "You should!" and I quit school the next day!

After that, I made some friends around Chicago and I started to play in some rock and jazz bands. Then I met the great sax player, Joe Daley, and a great trombone player, Bill Porter. I was in both their bands. Then I started playing with a guitar player named Ross Traut. I was starting to break in the local scene and get busy. I also had this avant-garde, almost performance art band, Earwax Control, with two of my closest friends, Jeff Czech and Gordon James, who were also on the Chicago scene. Many times Jeff would get me on a gig and I then would get him on some other gig. I got Joe Daley's gig because of Jeff. That's really how things work.

Drouot: How did you meet Pat Metheny and how did your collaboration start?

Pat called me around 1977. He came into town and his drummer couldn't make it and he had heard about me. I don't know if that was through Steve Rodby or Ross Trout, but he called me. I was playing with Joe Daley at the Jazz Showcase that weekend and it was the biggest gig with Joe in the 2 years I had played with him, so I remained loyal to Joe and I turned Pat down, but then after that he was aware of me through the years, by records that I had done, etc.

Finally, I was playing with the Simon & Bard Group and Pat heard me in Portland, Oregon. We were playing some nightclub and Pat came in with Steve Rodby after their concert and we talked a little bit. After Nana Vasconcelos left the band he called me to play drums for some percussionist's audition because we had never played together. He told me "Why don't you fly out. We'll play and..." You know, I didn't think of it as my audition as well but it worked out that way. I got the gig [laughs].

Drouot: What did the experience of touring with Pat Metheny bring you most?

A lot of things. From touring a lot, I got a chance to see the world, to be exposed to a lot of different things, to meet a lot of musicians, to be heard by a lot of musicians, and then, musically, to play really great music every night with great musicians. It's a lot of work sometimes. It can be tough because we go out on tour for long periods of time, but it's also the greatest. Just playing that kind of music every night can be challenging, but it's also very rewarding because you're playing for thousands of people and it's a high standard that you have to achieve every night. It really makes you discipline yourself.

Drouot: What I find interesting is that you haven't lost touch with the local Chicago scene while touring all this time with Pat Metheny. So, what pushes you to go back to your roots and play with Chicago musicians?

Well, I love playing here. It's my hometown. There are a lot of great musicians here and I'm lucky to be friends with a lot of them. You know, they'll call me to play and I don't just want to stay at home and watch television. I love to play and it's an opportunity to bring back those life experiences and to give that to musicians who might not have the chance to play in front of thousands of people. You bring back that concert mentality, even if it's just in a club.
I love Chicago. That's part of the whole reason for staying here. I also get to play a lot of different music here, too. When you tour with one band, then it's just that band and that band's music, but when you get home you have the chance to play all kinds of styles with a variety of great players. I really enjoy that a lot.

Drouot: You just mentioned that you enjoy playing a lot of different styles. Don't you run the risk to confuse your audience?

I don't know... If they're confused, I don't know what to say. I just like to play...period. Music is music. I think that people can tell what I'm doing even if I'm playing music like tonight with Buddy DeFranco. I heard people say that they haven't heard me in that style, but I played with Buddy and Terry Gibbs years ago. I've played bebop for three decades now, but I still like to sound like myself.

As a musician, you have brought something of yourself to the table. Even in different musical situations I think that everyone should keep that special part of themselves which makes them unique. Hopefully by doing so, they'll bring newness to any different type of music. If people want to categorize me, then that's their problem. I'm just a musician. I am not just a jazz musician, I'm not just a rock musician. I'm also not just a drummer. I like to produce and I like to play percussion. To me, it's all just music.

Drouot: Among your various activities, you're also a teacher. What do you focus on with your students?

Just to play music. Playing and thinking just drums can be limiting. You can be like a trained monkey in a way. You learn a bunch of beats and you play them back, but to really play musically, you have to learn songs. You have to be able to phrase on the instrument. You have to make whatever rhythm you play sound musical and sound alive—have a flow. I try to teach them that.
Because sometimes guys would come over and they have a lot of technique, but they might not swing or they might not groove or the different parts of the drum set are out of balance. The top end is too loud for the low end, etc. You make them aware of the sound and the language of music and then, through that, they're able to grow and to develop into whoever they want to be.
I also don't have a strict method. Each student is different. In addition, I try to teach what they can expect if they want to become professional musicians. Music is an industry and a business and they need to be ready for that. For instance, you see people who start a label with good intentions but they are rather naïve about the market. They accumulate debts and when they go bankrupt, guess what? —the musicians are always at the bottom.

Drouot: Isn't it ironic that you are self-taught on the drum set and now you are an instructor?

Yeah, in a way, but I've probably made every mistake possible. Consequently, I'm able to see the mistakes they're making because chances are I made the same mistakes. It actually worked to my benefit, because sometimes when you learn from an instructor's "method", you just learn that method and that's it.
You're just sort of "taught" what they teach everyone else.

But we're all individuals. Besides learning the necessary basics, each student has different strengths and weaknesses. I like instructors who allow people to become themselves, not instructors who just tell you what to do and then you're on your own.

By being on my own from the get-go, I had to figure out the puzzle in a way. By doing that, I ended up going down a lot of roads, some of which went nowhere. So then, I was able to figure out why and now I'm able to pass that knowledge on to my students so that they can avoid making the same mistakes. However, I would never tell anybody they're right or wrong. I would never tell anyone that they "don't have it" and should quit. I do let them know what they could do to improve themselves in my eyes and ears.

Drouot: To talk about your most recent projects (Union Trio, Paul Wertico Trio), I think they are very democratic. Compositional duties are shared, no one tries to get the spotlight. Is this a well thought approach or does it come naturally?

I think it's natural because the musicians all respect each other. Union is a co-led band [with pianist Laurence Hobgood and bassist Brian Torff]. There's no one leader and the three of us really work well together. We're able to toss in all our ideas. Some might work, others might not, but nobody gets weird when their idea doesn't get used because someone else came up with a better one. It's definitely an "all for one and one for all" approach. It's a very interesting thing and it really works. We all like to write and contribute to the overall democracy of the whole concept.

In my trio however, I'm the leader. I make the final decisions concerning the set list, how the music is gonna sound and who's going to solo, but at the same time I love John and Eric as people and as musicians and I want them to be happy. I want them to "play". I love listening to them as much as I love listening to myself and plus, being a drummer I don't want to just go up there and play drum solos the whole time.

I like bands that sound like a democracy because all the different elements of each personality can play off each other and it becomes a stronger band. When one guy's leading, he might have the original idea but after a while... I think every sideman should contribute something. That's why bands split up. If you're just going to be the drummer or the piano player and you're not contributing, or getting the chance to contribute, what's the point? Especially in jazz, where the music is based on self expression—it's gotta be that way.

Regarding Pat's band, he's the leader. He and Lyle [Mays] write the songs. They're great songwriters, I don't think anybody would deny that, so that's a whole different ballgame. It's Pat's band and he runs it the way he wants to run it, but everyone's basically happy because it's a different mindset. We approach and play the compositions almost like a big band—arrangements and everything. We contribute stuff as players there too. Maybe not as much as in my band, but enough to keep us interested in still doing it.

Drouot: As far as your latest CD is concerned, with your trio, I think it plays as a nice summary of your experiences with the addition of your personal touch. What do you think?

Thank you. To me, this record is really a statement. I'm extremely proud of it from that standpoint. It's the way I hear music. There are a lot of different musical elements that I believe in that happened to be on this record. In a way it's a summary, and the next record will probably be more of a summary.
However, it's not like I was trying to do any one thing. I'm just trying to make music the way I like it and I was able to do that because of the circumstances with the studio, thanks to Reelsounds studio owner Mark Brunner. Having an open-ended timeframe to record, and having two other musicians who understand and accept what I do—that was the perfect opportunity, especially for musicians who play jazz. Usually with jazz recordings, you have a day or two to record and that's it. It's usually a live record made in the studio. This was actually "produced". It's really exciting!

Drouot: In the near future, are you going to concentrate on the trio or do you have any plans for your quintet also?

If I could concentrate on Union and my trio, it would be great because they're both trios and that's a format that's much easier to work with, as well as to tour and book gigs with. You also get more of a chance to play in a trio. As far as my quintet, I would love to record that in some future date, but right now I just want to see where my trio goes because it's sort of like launching a ship and then seeing where it ends up.

I'm very happy with Premonition Records because they know how to market a record. They've already created a buzz and, so far, the response has been fabulous—and the record is not even out yet. I've done a bunch of interviews and gotten a great response from promoters. If that happens... Great! But you never know.

That's the part of business that's interesting. You never know what's going to happen. It kind of keeps you hooked too, because you could be in your seventies and still think "I'm going to make a record that's finally going to get my music out there." And you might be right! That's the really interesting thing with music because it does keep you alive and looking forward all the time. So, I'm really hoping for this record to break.

John Moulder and Eric Hochberg like this band as much as I do and they're ready to involve themselves. I'd also like to think that we captured some of that "Chicago vibe" and that we'll be able to take it to other places. I also hope that the younger crowd will get into it and develop a bigger appreciation for musicians who solo and play burning music.

In much of today's music, there's not as much soloing like there used to be. They use drum machines or drummers who sound like a drum machine. And when you hear a solo, sometimes it lasts eight bars and that's it. Hopefully, the jam band scene will also change that and I'd love to get involved with that as well.

Drouot: Do you see your collaboration with Pat Metheny end at some point?

I don't even want to speculate on that.

Drouot: You've been very active on the Chicago scene in the seventies and now you seem to be once again pretty active. What are the main differences between then and now?

That's a good question. A long time ago, it seemed that there was a lot more music going on, a lot more clubs and a lot more of a scene. There was music in hotels, music in lounges and there were also a lot of really great jazz musicians who helped invent jazz that were still alive. Now, a lot of them are dead, and the scene is more about young people.

Barrett Deems is gone, Wilbur Campbell is gone, these guys helped build the language of the type of music we're playing, which is jazz. It's kinda weird from that aspect. I mean, now young people are looking at me and saying "Oh man, when I was growing up my grandparents took me to see you." I'm thinking, "Oh my god!" So, now I'm starting to feel that I'm like the older people that I used to look up to. That's definitely a change because I still think I'm a kid.

I also think, that in the sixties and seventies, there was a lot more new music and new sounding jazz. There were new unique sounding record labels like ECM and CTI, breakthrough recordings like the Tony Williams Lifetime's "Emergency!" and Miles' "Bitches Brew", and ground breaking bands like Weather Report and the Mahavishnu Orchestra. Jazz was really fresh and very experimental, then somehow it all got conservative. It got safe, predictable and boring.

Right now, I'm hoping it's going to get adventurous and explorative again. For me, it's nice to play bebop, swing and dixieland. I love all those kinds of music and the players that really know how to play those styles make the music sounds fresh and vibrant. However, when you're a young person, let's say 21 years old, although it's great and invaluable to play those styles and learn the language of jazz—you're still also 21! You should also be playing new music, going for something special, creating something new. Not just playing stuff that's historic, but also trying to make some history yourself.

When I grew up, I was lucky to do both. I was playing "out there" music, playing music that was just starting out as a genre and I was also learning from playing with older players, playing classic jazz music because I wanted to have a solid foundation in my playing. I just didn't want to be a jazz drummer who only played material recorded after 1968.

With my students, I found out that there are guys who want to study jazz but only know jazz music going back to Chick Corea's Elektric Band. I turn them on the older classic forms of jazz because that's the foundation for everything that comes afterwards. But I have to tell you, the best compliment I've received recently is that my trio's music had a sense of danger to it...man, that's what it's about too!

Drouot: In getting experienced, was there a special moment that you remember that was most challenging for you, playing with certain personalities or some kind of music that was especially difficult for you.

Not so much that... Most music came pretty easy to me. Pat's band was difficult because there are so many levels to get to in order to make that music really special. It's not just jamming the whole time. You have to learn a lot of nuances and every time you learn one nuance, there's ten more to learn—it's definitely like a Pandora's box.

But to me I was always kinda fearless. I don't get nervous. I've bungee jumped, I've skydived, I do a lot of crazy things. I would just go up and play. I wasn't worried about anything really. I do remember some funny moments though.
One time with Joe Daley, I was playing with him and the piano player who was playing with us that night was from another city. He had a drummer friend that he wanted to let sit in and I said "Sure!" They went up and I think they played "Doxy" and Joe Daley counted off the tempo and before they finished playing the in-head, the tempo had come down. Joe took the song out immediately, turned toward the drummer and said "You ain't making it baby." Then he looked at me and said "Come back up!"

That's the school of hard knocks right there. I'm sure it was embarrassing for the drummer, but I'm also sure he went home and practiced with a metronome after that. So a lot of these guys would be pretty rough on a young drummer. They'd turn around and say what they wanted, but the one thing I had always going for me, I think, was the fact that I had a lot of energy. I might not always be playing perfect time or exactly what the music called for. I might be playing too loud, but I had so much energy and they liked that because they knew that at least "someone was home" behind the drums.

Drouot: Your wife just arrived and the other day you talked about her role in your career, the fact that she's always been supportive. Can you develop on that?

During those times, in the seventies, when I could have been playing more in town and establishing myself in the studios, making more money, playing weddings and shows, my wife Barbara, would always tell me "No! Play music." If I had a hundred-dollar gig at a wedding or a ten-dollar jazz gig, she would always say "No. Take the ten dollar gig."

That's how I got the gig with Pat, too. With the Simon & Bard Group, we would be out on the road making 160 bucks a week, sleeping on people's floors and I think Pat heard and saw that I had the love for what I was doing. My wife was always very supportive of that. That's very important because she's a great musician herself and she understands my passion and the love for music and she would never want me to quit.

Visit Paul's website at: www.paulwertico.com

Copyright ©2000 Alain Drout

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