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An Improvised Life
Warren Wiegratz has become one of Wisconsin’s most successful musicians. And it started with a saxophone.

Photos by Sean Drews

As Warren Wiegratz steps up to home plate at Miller Park, he wets a reliable reed on his alto saxophone, practices a few fingerings and reminds himself what he needs to do. After all, playing the “The Star-Spangled Banner” before Brewers games is akin to negotiating a musical tightrope walk through a most difficult aria.

His horn plaintively wonders, “Oh say, can you see?”

His mind wanders to the people who have died to make this country what it is. “I start the Anthem pretty straight, even reverently, and I try to let listeners hear the melody all the way through,” he says. “But, I’m an improvising jazz musician. We take liberties, and liberties were what this country was founded on. I take my time with it, trying to get deep into the Anthem’s emotion, and my own.”

After one recent Miller Park appearance, Wiegratz made a quick change from Brewer colors into an all-black outfit for his next booking. Then, alto case under one arm, he dashed off full speed down a stadium ramp en route to his car.

Dodging him, an observer shouted: “What’s the rush?”

“I’m due in Green Bay in two hours to play keyboard and acoustic piano in a Roy Orbison tribute band,” he shouted back. With a flash of his boyish grin, he was gone.

Over nearly 50 years in the forefront of Milwaukee music making, 65-year-old Wiegratz has become one of Wisconsin’s most successful non-symphonic, non-teaching musicians. He’s led Streetlife, the official band of the Milwaukee Bucks for decades, and frequently appears with some of the state’s most popular jazz bands. And he’s done it without much long-distance travel – that killer of musical careers – or multiple marriages.

In a bright and airy Elm Grove home, Wiegratz sits with his wife of 32 years, Phyllis. The home is a cedar shake “beach cottage” far from any water, and the interior reflects Phyllis’s decorating acumen. In the living room, guests are welcomed to sit on an overstuffed couch. A Persian rug almost entirely covers a hardwood floor in front of the fireplace.

The home’s cozy office, a basement studio and colorful garden are Wiegratz’ domain. Dominating the front yard, and guarded by two giant sugar maples, the well-tended garden blooms most of the summer. “My life is buried in music,” he says. “Gardening and family are the nonmusical parts.”

When he was 32, Wiegratz was on stage performing in an inner city jazz club when Phyllis walked into his life and – immediately – his heart. “As soon as I spotted her,” he says, “I thought, she looks like the kind of woman I could marry.”

But Phyllis had other ideas. She loved mainstream jazz, which Wiegratz played well. Knowing most jazz musicians had to expand their horizons to make a living, he also played and liked the more popular genres which weren’t her thing.

“And I was afraid of the life of a musician’s wife,” she says. She doesn’t need to specify the late hours, night club temptations and irregular income among other threats to domesticity. Relatively few jazz-only players these days can support a family, fewer yet retire in comfort. They’re usually a mordant lot, full of self-deprecating humor.

Phyllis kept dropping in on Wiegratz’s jazz gigs, but by the time a set, or the evening, ended, she’d have disappeared. Making a living in Milwaukee music teaches persistence, so Wiegratz’s pursuit of Phyllis continued. Finally, the proposal came, surely one of the least-romantic in courtship history: “Will you marry me, knowing that you’ll always rank second to my music?”

Fortunately for Wiegratz, she was hooked. On him. And his music. She has spent much of the last three decades talking up mainstream jazz to him and helping with business and promotional matters.

Before the Bucks hired Wiegratz’s combo, they employed a Dixieland group struggling to cover pop hits by Madonna, Michael Jackson and Prince. It wasn’t working. So Bucks owner Herb Kohl asked to meet with Wiegratz. Team executive John Steinmiller had told Kohl that he was looking for a band like Paul Shaffer’s. 

“Who’s Paul Shaffer?” Kohl wondered.

“You know,” Steinmiller responded, “he leads the band on David Letterman’s show.”

That didn’t help.

“And who,” responded Kohl, “is David Letterman?”

Once that got straightened out, Wiegratz’s longest-running band Streetlife got the gig.

During his first season with the team, Wiegratz was taken so ill one night that he couldn’t perform and hired a replacement, Reed Kailing, to sing the Anthem. Watching TV from his sickbed, Wiegratz experienced great trepidation. This was a relatively well-paying job that could be a longtime boost for him and his band.

To Wiegratz’s horror, the singer started fumbling the lyrics and it became clear he’d either forgotten them or, worse, was putting on an act to get attention. Wiegratz saw his career disappearing before his eyes. Sick and stunned, he jumped out of bed, ran into his closet and shut the door, shouting “Oh no!”

Fortunately, Bucks management saw enough in Wiegratz and his band to forgive him. And the tenure – in a transitory business – has lasted far longer than most. As Streetlife has gone through various permutations, Wiegratz rarely takes nights off.

But the economy and an alteration in the Bucks’ entertainment direction has reduced Streetlife’s annual appearances from the mid 40s to half that number. The fans, team marketers have divined, would prefer catching frozen pizzas or T-shirts fired from a cannon-like device. Or ogle the Energee! dance team rather than listening to Streetlife’s fusion of jazz and rhythm and blues.

But the Bucks job has led to bigger gigs. He’s booked Anthem dates at NBA All-Star games in other cities, including one in New York for a $2,000 fee for about two minutes work. (He divided the take with his band – which stayed home – because it missed a night’s work.)

Before garnering applause from basketball fans in arenas across the country, Wiegratz worked his way up through the local rock, pop and jazz scene. Since the 1960s, he’s played with – and led – highly popular Milwaukee bands and composed and arranged in every genre of American music, including symphonic, largely in Wisconsin. He plays a wide range of woodwind instruments – alto, soprano and tenor sax and flute – plus electronic and acoustic pianos and melodica, a harmonica-like wind instrument with a three-octave keyboard.

But his first musical job, in his freshman year in high school, was playing big band music from the 1940s at Catholic Youth Organization dances. But his young listeners preferred the hits of the day. “We started playing the five rock songs we knew over and over, added a guitar and bass and became The Mustard Men,” he says.

The band cut the mustard and started playing at other area high schools, on a Channel 12 show called “What’s Happening” and won a WRIT radio “Battle of the Bands.” Many years after The Mustard Men, as high school juniors, recorded a tune on a vinyl single, an Australian record company included it on an album Garage Bands From the ’60s. “Five years ago,” Wiegratz says proudly, “that Mustard Men single sold on E-Bay to an Italian buyer for $65.”

Since then, Wiegratz has won the Wisconsin Area Music Industry Award (WAMI) as the area’s outstanding horn player 11 times. He is, almost certainly, the only person who has played at every Summerfest since its start, four-plus decades ago, in every genre, including jazz. He’s appeared on NBC’s “Today Show” and ABC’s “Good Morning America,” composed, arranged and performed two works with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra and scored the films Dream Weaver and Lady Mary. Among the modest quarterly residual checks he receives for his copyrighted material are checks for “Felicia” a tune from the major 1990 film I Love You to Death co-starring Tracey Ullman, Kevin Klein and River Phoenix.

Among the name artists he’s performed and recorded with are: Phil Collins, George Duke, Al Di Meola, The Temptations, Gladys Knight and the Pips, The Supremes and Eric Benet.

Backing Knight at Summerfest was a real eye-opener. “She was sweet as peaches and cream to the audience,” Wiegratz recalls. “But then she’d turn around and swear a blue streak at her guitar player. When his group backed the Supremes at County Stadium, the Supremes were expecting a local piano player. “But we didn’t know that,” he says. To salvage the booking, one of the members of the Beach Boys band filled in. It was Daryl Dragon, who later became the Captain of the Captain & Tennille,” Wiegratz says.

One of his wife’s challenges has been helping this dedicated artist move beyond the details of each show or studio session, into audience relations. Women always have found Wiegratz attractive and interesting. As his stage persona opened up, that caused occasional difficulties.

For instance, the time a woman followed him home and cornered him outside their front door. Wiegratz had misplaced his house key so he hunted up a phone booth and called Phyllis,

“I’m trapped out here. Let me in!”

After closing the front door behind him he explained to his bemused wife: “But, you told me to be friendly.”

To be fair, a life in music isn’t always harmonious. Seven of Wiegratz’s eight bands have broken up and every one of those has been painful. As Milwaukee lost major corporations and the big advertising agencies that supported them, much of Wiegratz’s commercial work melted away.

The demise of Sweetbottom in 1980 may have been the hardest blow. “We had a national recording contract with Elektra/Asylum,” Wiegratz says, “but the jazz fusion era was ending and, the week before our heavily promoted album came out, the company closed their fusion division and fired 26 people. We had to sell 20,000 albums out of our basement during the day while playing every night. After a gall bladder attack and five hours of surgery I went out of commission for weeks. It was a killer.”

The band broke up. “I wasn’t working and suddenly I realized I was having a nervous breakdown,” he says. “In constant panic mode, I was afraid to get out of bed. When I got a job playing, I was afraid to walk on stage. Adrenalin allowed me to play but, after the set, I panicked about getting off stage.”

After starting to exercise, taking vitamins, eating better and moving in with his parents, Wiegratz got his life back. “Finally, as my life lost its stressors, the feeling of being normal again came back, a little bit at a time,” he says.

Two years ago, Wiegratz had another health scare when he took his mother to the doctor for a regular exam.

“And how are you doing?” the physician asked Wiegratz.

“Well, I sometimes have congestion in my chest and trouble breathing.”

Out came the stethoscope, an alarmed look and an urgent demand: “Get to the emergency room. Now.”

The diagnosis: congestive heart failure, an enlarged heart, a blockage and off-the-chart high blood pressure. After a stent was inserted, Wiegratz went back to a restricted diet, exercise program and stress-relievers. Today, beyond the age when many of his friends have retired, he’s almost as busy as ever.

Wiegratz performs several nights a week at clubs, in concerts and at private parties. He also maintains a lucrative composing, arranging and recording career for BeatHouse Music and the world’s largest music publishing firm, Milwaukee-based Hal Leonard.         

Wiegratz is paid for bandleading, performing and, often, for composing and arranging commercials and Hal Leonard music lesson programs. This Wiegratz looks far more serious than the on-stage entertainer.

In a Hal Leonard session this summer, Wiegratz and veteran bassist Tom McGirr spent five intense hours laying down rhythm section parts, minus guitar, for 14 tracks of music. They will accompany a play-along music lesson for a student guitarist.

Wearing a headset and bending over a keyboard at BeatHouse, Wiegratz is soundproofed from the outdoors by two-foot-thick walls of the old Blatz brewery. McGirr is glassed in but visible in a separate studio, communicating with Wiegratz via a phone hookup. They’re recording a bluesy “bed track.”

One track has the full band sound; the other provides space for the student to play along. Through the magic of electronics, Wiegratz fakes the music’s horn parts on his keyboard. “I wish I had this teaching program back in my student days,” Wiegratz says. “It’s a great way to learn.”

Jim Reith, BeatHouse’s owner and Wiegratz’s longtime composing collaborator, is one of his biggest admirers. “[Wiegratz] performed with major national acts but Milwaukee got him and he stayed here,” he says. “He’s been my go-to arranger, composer, session leader, keyboardist and sax player on scores of commercials on the national, regional and local levels and two movies. What a treasure! What a friend!”

Wiegratz is now featured with two of the state’s best jazz groups. Most often, it’s Vivo, a small Latin/mainstream combo backing superb singer Pam Duronio. Wiegratz perches on a stool next to Duronio, switching on each tune between tenor sax, flute and melodica. He follows her closely, both visually and aurally. If he and her husband, guitarist Tim Stemper, weren’t longtime pals, that careful attention might worry Stemper, standing on Duronio’s other side.

Wiegratz also plays with Milwaukee’s All-Star Superband when he can make the Thursday night performance date, sometimes leading the saxophone section. Wiegratz was featured when drummer Paul Spencer’s band played to one of the state’s largest jazz audiences this summer – several thousand people on a gorgeous night in Whitnall Park.

This year, he’s paying his deep respects to Milwaukee jazz legends Joe Aaron and Chuck Hedges, now deceased jazz woodwind players who had a big influence on his career. Wiegratz is now composing a piece honoring Chuck to be played at the annual Hedges tribute concert at Serb Hall on Dec. 1. Wiegratz will perform that afternoon with both the All-Star Superband and Vivo.

As he grew as an improviser, the young Wiegratz had preceded many of his late evening gigs with a stop to hear the first set of world-class clarinetist Hedges. “Then, at my session,” Wiegratz recalls, “I’d repeat the ‘licks’ I’d just swiped from Chuck. I still play them and he’s probably my biggest jazz influence.”

For a time, Hedges had supported his family by repairing instruments, including an ugly, feeble saxophone he found for Wiegratz. Despite Hedges’s ministrations, it never looked like much. But they got it making magic.

Hedges’s notoriously high standards rarely allowed musicians to “sit in” or guest perform with his groups. But in his last engagement, at Elm Grove’s late and lamented “The Grove,” he made exceptions for Wiegratz. Later, Vivo would sharpen its own sound at that club – with Wiegratz on the saxophone.

In June, jazz flutist, Rick Aaron, asked Wiegratz to get together some long-ago students of his father, Joe, who’d just died. They’d musically celebrate Joe’s musical career at the funeral.

On two day’s notice, Warren composed and rehearsed an original arrangement of  “Amazing Grace” for six saxophones. As Joe’s casket was leaving Congregation Sinai in Fox Point, the saxes harmonized and improvised on the beloved melody. The standing throng packing the temple witnessed a singular event: one of history’s most honored Christian hymns played in a synagogue.

But the 600-plus attendees shouldn’t have been surprised. Milwaukee’s Warren Wiegratz is an old hand at arranging, conducting and playing melodies that are both amazing and graceful.

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Al un un Posted: 10/30/2013 8:31:45 AM
 0   0    

What a great article about a great man! Totally enjoyed this! Love you!
Plymouth Arts Center Posted: 10/29/2013 11:49:16 AM
 1   135    

Great story about a fantastic musician! Congratulations Warren, everyone in Plymouth, WI loves you!
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