GREEN BAY, Wis. (WFRV) – This is a story of 88 keys, 15,630 days and friends.
The 88 keys represent a piano player.
The 15,630 days represent the first time I wrote about piano player Peter Polzak.
The friends are the lifetime kind who will be performing with Peter Polzak in a club performance this week in Green Bay.
I’ll start with the friends, Lou Seiler and John Salerno.
They go back to when Peter Polzak was living in Green Bay, where he grew up. He has lived in the Chicago area since the 1970s.
“Lou and I have been friends since high school,” Peter Polzak said in a telephone interview. “He went to East High School, and I went to Southwest. We were in competing bands. He was in a band called The Ants. They were very popular. I was in a band called The Invaders, which were also very popular. It was unusual – you know, when you’re 16, 17, you’re really guarded and suspicious and paranoid when you’re in competition with all these other bands – but somehow Lou and his brother Jim and I became very close friends during that time. And it has lasted all this time.”
John Salerno was a student saxophonist in the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay Jazz Ensemble when it featured Peter Polzak. “We became friends and are friends to this day,” Peter Pozak said.
The three will perform Friday, July 23, in a show titled “Zoomie w/Peter Polzak in Keggers Beer Garden: A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” The show is from 6-9 p.m. Tickets are available at Keggers (231 N. Broadway, Green Bay), The Exclusive Company, at the door and online at keggersgreenbay.com.
A lot of musical bases are covered by the voice of Zoomie Hardtke, the piano of Peter Polzak, the saxophone of John Salerno and the guitar of Lou Seiler. Expect a great big collage of music.
Back in the day, Peter Polzak played in a whole bunch of places in town. The Keggers gig will be a first for him.
“I never played there, but grew up about five blocks away from there,” he said. “They advertise me as a jazz piano player from Chicago. I’m not so sure (laughing). I live here (Wilmette, a suburb of Chicago), but I’m from Green Bay.”
JustMusicChicago calls Peter Polzak “one of Chicago’s most in-demand jazz pianists,” with his playground being contemporary, sophisticated jazz along with jazz standards, American Songbook, Latin, modern and smooth jazz.
“I’m not a jazz snob,” Peter Polzak said. “I really found that I’m happiest when I’m playing all kinds of music. I enjoy ’70s R&B and good country. I’d rather play good country with guys that know how to play it than bad jazz with guys that don’t know how to play it. (Laughing hard). Each thing has its own identity and its own skill set.”
Peter Polzak said his performance path has crossed only once with Zoomie Hardtke.
“Lou has been working with Zoomie for a while. I met her at Lou’s brother’s funeral. I came up (to Green Bay) and played music for that, and she sat in and sang a couple songs. Lou and Zoomie have been working for quite a number of years, and they have worked this job at Keggers. So he asked me if I wanted to come play with them, so I said sure. Lou and I get together every summer and go see a Brewers game. That’s the way we stay in touch, and this is just another way to do it and this finally is going to happen.”
Shifting gears, I’ll explain the reference to 15,630 days. I first wrote about Peter Polzak in a column called “Night Beat” in the Green Bay Press-Gazette. He led a trio in a nightclub called The Pink Panther on Highway 41. The column ran 15,630 days ago, July 16, 1970.
A year later, I wrote about him when he led a band called Jazz 7 at a nightclub named The Pack and the Hounds. Along with Peter Polzak, the lineup included such notable musicians as Lovell Ives on trumpet, John Salerno on saxophone, Greg Sauve on trombone and David Charles on drums.
Holy cow, what a group!
“My goodness, yes. What a time that was,” Peter Polzak said.
Lovell Ives founded the jazz program at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay and Jazz Fest and inspired a multitude of young players with his teaching and his way with putting notes to paper.
John Salerno followed in Lovell Ives’ footsteps at UWGB and likewise has had major impact as a performing, originating teacher.
Greg Sauve many people know as a teacher and many more know for his leadership of the Green Bay City Band.
David Charles went on from UWGB to become a performing composer/arranger, etc., based in New York City, with appearances on scores of recordings.
In short, Peter Polzak performed amidst tons of talent. He was 21.
At the time – and this amazes people today – there were 30 clubs in the Green Bay area hosting six nights a week of live entertainment. People got out. It was a different world, before cable television and all the choices.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah,” Peter Polzak said. “Warren, I’ve been doing this since I was 15. I played in my brother’s band. They were all like 10 years older than me. I was a sophomore in high school, and I was playing beer bars (18 and older), and I’ve never stopped. It’s all I’ve ever done all this time. I feel very grateful.”
At the second UWGB Jazz Fest in 1972, Peter Polzak was a big attraction for the 1,200 people who caught the exciting concert. My review said, “Polzak was featured in nearly every number, and his talent delighted an appreciative audience.”
Peter Polzak said, “That was a lot of fun and new friends, and I’m being challenged, too. Playing with a big band is not an easy thing necessarily for a piano player. It just is. You have a kind of different job. But it was a good experience for me. I met John and a lot of other people. We had a good band. Lovell was really inspiring. And he told me before I went to Chicago – he didn’t know I was going to Chicago – ‘You can do this at a professional level’ essentially. And I really needed to hear that because no matter what face we’re putting on – artists, we always think that we’re fooling everybody, that we’re not very good. To this day, I know better, but there is a part of me that feels that way.”
The way he describes those days, there was a lot of churn going on in him. He talked about that when asked a simple question: “Why piano in the first place?”
He told of growing up with a piano in the house and how his oldest brother had amazing skills and played marvelously. He didn’t play jazz, but he had a gift.
“My sister brought home a Dave Brubeck album, and my brother was able to play some of the stuff that Dave Brubeck played. He wouldn’t improvise. But he loved harmony, and harmony is what drew me to this music. I remember hearing Paul Desmond (saxophonist in the Brubeck quartet) – he was such a huge influence. My biggest influences were Paul Desmond, Tony Bennett for phrasing and Bill Evans for harmony.
“I remember going to a piano – I must have been 10 or 11 years old – and I just started playing with two fingers. I didn’t know what I was doing, but I composed a blues, a very simple blues, but I followed the 12-bar sequence. I didn’t know what I was doing. And I couldn’t stop. And the older I got, I just said I’ve got to be able to figure this out because they have the same notes that I do. There’s not any secret notes, you know. So I just worked on it, and I became a big fish in a little pond.”
While Peter Polzak was in the thick of the busy nightlife scene, he was on the fringe of formal training.
He remembers a gig with his trio in Escanaba, Michigan. “We were behind the bar and raised up and it was noisy and all that stuff, and I was playing my stuff… I realized I couldn’t do what I was trying to do. I never forget the moment. It was really disheartening. I said, ‘I don’t even have the fingers to do this, and I’m playing a lot of b.s. I can’t really do what I’m trying to do.’
“I remember I went to the hotel room and I sat and, ‘All right, you have a choice right now. You can continue to do this because nobody’s on to you, you know, but you know now. So your choice is to just keep b.s.ing or to really start to work at all the stuff that you can’t do.’
“When I got back home to Green Bay – I was living with, I think, John Salerno and another guy who was a brilliant classical piano player – and asked for help… I had to practice. I knew I had to, and I sounded like a beginner. I couldn’t read. Even though I played four years of trumpet – bad trumpet – in high school, I really couldn’t read, and I had to get over my ego. I said, ‘You need to do this, and you have to forget that anybody might be walking by and giggling or whatever.
“It was very good for me, and I never stopped working since then. Never. To this day. I’ve already gotten two hours of practice in today. I love it. My passion has not decreased in the smallest amount. The more I practice, the more fun it is to play. I feel extremely grateful.”
Peter Polzak made his way to Chicago and caught attention. In 1980, the Chicago Tribune called him “one of the city’s better young pianists.”
He said of the time, “If you can play more than one style and you know how to get to a place on time and all that kind of stuff, there’s just tons of work. I mean, I did jobbing – weddings and bar mitzvahs when I first got here. I did anything because I wanted to work. And then I incorporated at a certain point, and I just didn’t want to do weddings anymore. And then in the mid ’90s I said, ‘I’m going to be the best jazz trio here and I going to want to do corporate work and get paid well and not work late at night.’ And I did it. I bought a house in 1984 in Evanston, a suburb just south of Wilmette, and got married and raised two kids. Playing piano.
“But I worked all the time. I had a really great job at the Chicago Hilton and Towers. I had a jazz trio there for years, and I could play my own material. It wasn’t polite music. I wasn’t in-your-face because my natural style wasn’t that way. I’m accessible. But it was without… I didn’t play much pablum, you know.
“By doing that, that was when I was able to buy a house – show income and that kind of stuff. I learned the business, too – how much to charge, what’s important, what’s not, all that kind of stuff. I was a band leader for a long time, and I still am, although there’s no work anymore.”
Or not much. “It’s dribbling in right now,” he said.
Like many artists, Peter Polzak turned the tough COVID-19 time into a plus.
“Because of the pandemic, a couple days ago I finished a two-album recording – a two-disc CD of all my own material. Most of it was from the ’70s that I wrote in Green Bay. Because of all this time off I had because of the pandemic, I just practiced more and then I had this music sitting on a shelf and I looked it over and said, ‘You know, some of this is still really good and it doesn’t sound dated or anything like that.’
“So I worked really hard on it and rewrote it to make it more legible. In spring, I got two different bands with players I’ve known for 30 years, and we recorded it. We just finished it. I’m really excited about it because otherwise no one would ever hear it. It would be on a shelf somewhere. I did it for my family and for my kids, and if anything else happens to it, fine. But it turned out really good.”
Finishing up – mixing, etc. – could take to November before the albums are available.
Peter Polzak said one group of tunes is funky and Latin and the other is of sophistication of the likes of Herby Hancock and Bill Evans. One was recorded with electric bass and guitar and the other with upright bass and saxophone. “They’re two pretty different things, but they’re both sides of me.”
For Friday’s show in Green Bay, he’ll be bringing a digital piano. He has tales to tell of in-house pianos he has encountered on gigs.
Back home, he plays “a real piano, but it’s also a digital piano. There are no speakers in it. I still don’t know exactly how that works. I can play with headphones. I live in an apartment. I can’t be practicing. People would shoot me. But it’s a gorgeous sound, and it gives back what I’m doing. The piano I was using before was my piano from childhood, and it had seen better days and it was uninspiring. When I got this piano, it would give back what I was playing, and that really propelled me into a different kind of practice and different kinds of detail.”
What does practice involve?
“The first hour is about 20 minutes of finger exercises and then 40 minutes or so of scales and arpeggios, all done very, very slowly. Then Bach for maybe 40 minutes and then maybe Chopin or John Field or something like that for another hour or so. That takes a while because I give myself breaks. And then I’ll maybe try to write something or if I’ve got a gig coming up, like now, I’ll take specific tunes and shed them. I do that six, sometimes seven days a week. I can’t get enough of it. That’s the part that I wasn’t particularly gifted at. My gift to me is more arranging and harmony and stuff like that – the physical part of playing the piano since I didn’t even learn what that was until I was 30. Then I found a wonderful teacher who changed my life. I need that. It makes everything else more fun.”
A lot of people might not understand that kind of discipline. Where is his mind going? Is it like a meditation?
“Yes, very good, exactly. I work out physically too, five days a week… If you practice slowly enough – this is the teacher I had in my 30s – she said there is no too slow. It doesn’t exist. Whatever tempo you can play this piece a proficiently – not most of it, all of it – that’s your tempo. I learned I could learn very difficult music that way, too. It’s the old tortoise and the hare. The fastest way to learn music is to not have to re-learn it, un-do a bunch of mistakes and slop over something that’s never going to get better until you look at it in the face.
“For instance, if I take a piece now – and I can usually play about 80 percent of it, sometimes higher, but there’s always a few measures that I can’t – I start there now. I take my left hand, and I do that part very slowly, and I take my right hand, and I do that part very slowly. Sometimes I’ll put it together and I’ll do it for 15 minutes. That doesn’t sound like a long time, but (deep voice) IT IS. And you do that for a week or so, and surprise, surprise, it gets better.
“That was a hard thing for me to learn, and I can’t do it every day. It’s kind of a cycle where you kind of get sloppy and you let things go and you stop yourself and say, No, this is not the way. You have to remind yourself what you know to be true.
“I always say there’s two kinds of discipline. One just to sit down at the piano to practice and (the other is) how you practice. I’m very good at it now (laughs) and highly motivated because it’s more fun to play if you’ve got fingers to back up what you’re playing. What good is your idea if you can’t get it out?”
I leave this piece by going back to that column from 1970 – time in a bottle – and note another player in Peter Polzak’s notable lineup, Tom Doran, and a story.
“He played bass for me when I opened for Dave Brubeck. I think that was in ’70 or ’71. Tom was playing bass for me, and Dave Charles was playing drums.”
The instrumental “Take Five” achieved a feat being a jazz tune that reached the popular charts and made pianist Dave Brubeck a household name. The tune was written by Paul Desmond of the Dave Brubeck Quartet.
“I shared a dressing room with them,” Peter Polzak said. “Those two guys were so nice to me. Paul Desmond was my hero at that point.
“We went back between shows and I said, ‘You sound great,’ and he went ‘ehhh.’ I said, ‘What about the Carnegie Hall album?’ and he brightened up. We sat there and talked for 10, 15 minutes like you and I are talking now.
“When Dave Brubeck came in – there were two pianos – he said, ‘Hey, Peter, which one do you like the best?’ He didn’t choose the one that I said (laughs), but he was super nice to me. “I ended my concert with a kind of ham-fisted ‘Hey Jude,’ and I played a whole kind of Brubeckian chords. He came up to me afterward and said, ‘You’ve got to show me what you were playing at the end there.’ He wasn’t being patronizing or anything, he was just genuine and really, really nice. It was a thrill for me. That was a real thrill, just to see them as human beings. Nice human beings.”