Perhaps best known for performing with Pat Metheny, drummer Paul Wertico has also been a prolific bandleader and educator in his native Chicago for many years. A frequent guest on radio shows and recording sessions, he is now moving to the other side of the glass, at least for two hours a week, when he hosts “Paul Wertico’s Wild World of Jazz,” on WLFM-LP in Chicago. The show, launched on February 14, airs on Sunday nights, starting at 9 pm. This is Wertico’s debut as a radio host.
Wertico, who like most drummers seems to have boundless energy and drive, said that the show wasn’t really his idea, at least initially. “I got an e-mail from Rick O’Dell [program director at the station] asking if I was interested in doing a radio show. I had always wanted to do something like this. I loved to play stuff for people – things that they probably hadn’t heard before. And I’ve got a big record collection.”
What Wertico didn’t know was that he wasn’t the only candidate for the gig. But his enthusiasm for the opportunity quickly made him the clear-cut choice for the slot. O’Dell explained: “Pat Kelley [GM of the station] and I were looking to add a traditional jazz show to our weekend lineup and didn’t want to consider the usual suspects in Chicago. I wanted to find somebody who was untried, somebody who could bring some knowledge, energy and passion for the music to a jazz show and avoid all the ‘jazz disc jockey’ stereotypes. At the same time, I thought it would be good to try prospecting for a jazz show host at area colleges that offered a serious jazz studies program, so there could be a chance for some student involvement (co-hosting the show or having students’ music featured on the show from time to time). I reached out to Northwestern, North Central, Roosevelt, and Elmhurst–all schools in the area. Paul responded to my email within one hour of when I sent it out. He was overflowing with enthusiasm for the project and hit me up with a whole host of show ideas. The three of us met one day at the station and decided he was worth giving a shot to. It’s not everyday that a seven-time Grammy winner walks through your door and says he’d like to host a radio show for you.” In short, the job opening had been filled, thank you.
Indeed, Wertico took to the gig so quickly and readily that one has to wonder if O’Dell had been reading his mail. “I approach putting together two good sets as if it’s my band. And I try to have way more music than talk. They [the station] didn’t want someone giving a history lesson.” Wertico feels that his background as both a professional musician and jazz educator brings something very different to the field of jazz radio programming. “As a teacher, you’re challenged to try to inspire kids and turn them on to new stuff.”
WLFM-LP, the station that hosts the show, is a smooth jazz radio station, but Wertico will not be playing any Kenny G. “No, I am doing my own thing here. I take it from Louis Armstrong to Karim Ziad.”
O’Dell said that he’s not expecting Wertico to transition from Trane to Koz in the last half hour. “It wasn’t a major issue for us,” explained O’Dell. “Following Ramsey Lewis’ ‘Legends of Jazz’ show gave Paul’s show the proper context. In my opinion, having Paul liven things up when Ramsey’s through is the perfect counterpoint to ‘Legends.’ Then, when Paul’s show is over, we move into a paid program (an infomercial) at 11 pm. The infomercial becomes a nice little buffer zone before we go back to regular smooth jazz programming at midnight.”
As a musician who has released numerous CDs of his own, including the most recent Impressions of a City by his band the Mid-East, Mid-West Alliance on the Chicago Sessions label, Wertico has experienced his share of rejection from media and broadcast types. But now as radio host and programmer, the shoe is on the other foot, the one that often kicks people and their projects out the door. “Yes, I’ve already been through this with people giving me stuff to play. Hey, but if I don’t like it, I’m not going to play it. And it has to work within the flow of the show.”
He’s only been doing the show for a few weeks, so he’s not entirely sure who his audience is, but he sounds stoked talking about the response he’s gotten thus far. “I had one guy who said to me, ‘Do you know what your show has that no one else’s has?’ I really didn’t know. He said, ‘Joy!’ And you know he was right. That’s what connects all the stuff I play. What do we hear in Louis Armstrong? What do we hear in John Coltrane? It’s joy.”
He’s hoping that the show connects not just with jazz and music aficionados, but also with high school and college students. After working as an adjunct professor of music at Northwestern University for many years, Wertico is now head of the jazz and contemporary music program at the Chicago College of Performing Arts at Roosevelt University, so he knows what kids like. “Yes, I am very hip to what they’re listening to. You have to be.” He’s even planning on including some of their music on the show.
What happens when a tour comes along? Record it from the road, put himself on tape, play the complete Bitches Brew? Actually that last suggestion is no joke; he might just do that, because he loves the early 70s and that crazy time when music crossed genres and radio programming was free form. “Man, I just played this amazing stuff from Manfred Mann. You know, he had this one record, Chapter Three, that’s really a jazz record.” But getting back to the logistics of balancing being a musician and DJ, Wertico said that he tapes the shows in the basement of his house with his engineer Brian Peters and thanks to the technology, he can do four shows in one afternoon. Problem solved.
When Wertico talks about “playing sides” for people, he really means it. Last week, he played a cut from an Ernie Watts LP, Planet Love that hasn’t been issued on CD. For Wertico, the cliché that it’s about the music is no cliché. “It’s a thrill to be doing this, sharing this great music with people.”