Questions for Paul Spencer
He’s been playing since the late 1950s and toured Southeast Asia. His veteran jazz band plays tomorrow at Cathedral Square.
Paul Spencer, 70, leader and drummer of the Paul Spencer Band, is no stranger to live performances. His musical experiences run five decades. Spencer got his start in the late 1950s, a time when Milwaukee’s music scene was flourishing. By the 60s, his group, The Walking Sticks, was opening for such acts as Little Richard, Dave Clark Five, and Jerry Lee Lewis. Spencer even played drums with The Four Seasons as they rose to the top of the charts in 1963.
In 1967, Spencer headed on a whirlwind Southeast Asian tour with rock and blues artist Jules Blattner, entertaining troops on military bases in Vietnam, Singapore, and Thailand. He joined The Better Ways in the ‘70s, entertaining Daytona Beach spring breakers.
After a brief musical hiatus, Spencer once again picked up his sticks to create the Paul Spencer Band in 1999. Band members include Jim Sodke, piano; Larry Tresp, bass; Andy Spadafora, tenor & alto sax; Chris Klinkhardt, trumpet; Dave “Smitty” Smith, trombone; Jim Schoberg, harmonica; with Adekola Adedapo and Oscar “Big O” Wheeler joining them on vocals. The band has been awarded the WAMI Award for best jazz group for six years running and has released 12 CDs, all of which have been recorded live in concert.
The Paul Spencer Band is set to play Thursday, June 26, at Cathedral Square, as part of the Jazz in the Park Summer Concert series. Spencer talked with Urban Milwaukee Dial about his approach to making music.
How would you describe your style of jazz?
We play jazz that rocks, jazz with a groove. Jazz that Rocks is actually the name of one of our albums.
I started in rock and roll. As a musician, you have to go through tons of jam sessions and lots of gigs developing your style. Some people like smooth jazz, others like Latin jazz, so you really have to find where you fit. I don’t really play smooth jazz, I play jazz that really grooves. It starts with the guys you work with. It’s kinda like The Beatles, the right time, at the right place, at the right time. That’s how we were.
Who are your main musical influences?
We draw lot from Horace Silver and Eddie Harris.
What do you hope the audience gets out of watching you perform?
Smiling faces. I also like people that are rocking with your music. It doesn’t matter how good you are, if you are not making people happy you’re not doing your job right.
What are some of your most memorable experiences performing on stage?
That’s a tough one. You can’t be on in every performance. Then some performances, when you’re really on, it’s a magical moment. We did all the Jazz Explosion shows at Potawatomi, our last performance we thought was the best performance we have ever done. There was also a Jazz in the Park performance a number of years ago which was very memorable.
What are some of your hopes and aspirations for the band?
Look, I’m 70, my hope is to just keep alive and keep playing. If you were talking to me at 25, I’d have all these goals. But now it’s all about the music; keep the band together and keep on playing.
What drew you to jazz music?
What drew me to jazz was that there weren’t any good rock and roll guys left that could play roll and roll. I guess you get more expression in jazz. You get to express yourself more. Playing rock is great, and playing jazz is great, but they’re both really about the music and making people happy.
What is your favorite song that you perform and why?
There are so many tunes that I love that we do. Sometimes there is just a great solo in it, like a bass or piano solo. On any given night those tunes will change, it’s the performance. It shouldn’t matter what song you play, although there are songs I really like, because it’s about the performance. Just listen to your band, just enjoy what you are doing.
Where are your favorite places to perform?
Different places mean different things. Potawatomi has great sound and lighting. Caroline’s Jazz Club has great seating, really made for listening to jazz. But I really love Jazz in the Park because of the happy party atmosphere.
How is performing jazz music different from playing other genres?
Well from a musical point of view; if they’re all played right, there is no difference. From a listener’s point of view, when you are playing jazz you are playing to people that are listening. Playing rock is people that want to party and have fun. The difference is the crowd. Not that rock people aren’t listening, but generally speaking, jazz is more of a listening crowd. If the music is happening though, a lot of people want to dance to it.