AN INTERVIEW WITH JACKIE LIBERA – HALL OF FAMER, BANDLEADER, MUSICIAN AND COMPOSER
IPA INTERVIEW — NOVEMBER 2011
by Christy Krawisz, Editor of the IPA Newsletter
Reprinted from the IPA Newsletter with the Editor’s Permission
IPA: Please tell me about your family ~ Parents, Siblings, Wife and Children.
Jackie: My family begins with my mom, Stasia. As you know, my dad, Johnny, left us a little more than three years ago. I have one sister, Janice, who is married to Ed Bajgier, formally of the New Brass. My wife, Linda, and I will be celebrating our 28th anniversary next May. We have one daughter, Jenna, who is fifteen and destined to be a music star in her own right someday soon. Either that or a psychologist….I’m not really sure where we are as of now.
IPA: What age did you start playing instruments and what were they?
Jackie: I began playing an instrument in school during the fifth grade. My first instrument was the drum, however, in those days, we weren’t given a drum to practice on. Instead, we had a block of wood with a rubber pad on top; a practice pad. That didn’t work with me very well as I didn’t sign up to play a piece of lumber! After a couple of months, I switched to clarinet, but because I was behind the other students, I took private lessons on the side which really helped a lot. A couple of years later, I took on the saxophone so that I could play in the school jazz band. Senior year of high school is when I taught myself to play the trumpet.
IPA: What made you decide to play Polkas?
Jackie: When your father is Johnny Libera, what else are you going to play? We were surrounded with polka music almost constantly. It was probably the first type of music I ever knew, so it was only natural that it would be a major influence on me.
IPA: Of all the songs you wrote, which one is your favorite?
Jackie: That’s an easy one … it would have to be “It Doesn’t Matter” by the Bay State IV. I wrote that for Linda, my wife … years before we got married.
IPA: What bands have you performed with?
Jackie: Full time bands included the Dick Pillar Orchestra, Heavy Chicago, Bay State IV and the Maestro’s Men. I had my own band, Jackie Libera and the Classix, for a few years. Over my career, I also appeared with Marion Lush, Eddie Blazonczyk’s Versatones, Jimmy Sturr and his Orchestra, Lenny Gomulka and Chicago Push, Ray Jay and the Carousels, Ray Henry and his Orchestra, the Dynatrons, Happy Richie, Li’l Wally, Polka Family, the Dynasticks, Eddie Forman and EFO, the Sounds, TBC , the Brass Works and others.
IPA: Who did/do you admire musically?
Jackie: There are several in the polka field, including my mentor, Richie Midura. He was about as acrobatic a clarinetist as you could find and his polka work, especially with the Connecticut Twins is legendary. Lenny Gomulka is recognized by many as a musician’s musician. He is equally talented on a number of instruments and is the standard by which many polka musicians hold themselves to. Hank Guzevich is a very unique writer of original polka material. He seems to have found the formula that makes his music enjoyable to a wide range of ages and tastes. Of course his brilliant trumpet work also needs a bit of a mention, too. Gary Brueggen, Wisconsin’s Concertina Kid, is not only a master concertina performer in the Dutchman style, but he can very easily switch to Slovenian or Polish style, and that is something I really admire. Naturally, I must include my bro, Dennis Polisky. He not only is about as dazzling a clarinetist as there is, but he is a true student of the genre. He has archives and photographs of many polka performers of the past and can talk at great length about the bands of yesteryear. Outside of polkas, Billy Joel is one artist I would love to meet and talk with for a while. His music never fit a particular pattern, and that was evident from hit to hit. His songs never really sounded alike. His classical works were very surprising as well, as evidenced from his piano etude recording. Finally, I admire many jazz performers from the past and present, too many to mention, but I also am a big fan of George Gershwin’s music.
IPA: What was your most memorable moment on stage? What Year? What Town? And why?
Jackie: I would probably say working with Eddie Blazonczyk’s Versatones for a few weekends, especially at Polkamotion By the Ocean back in September of 1994 ranks right up there with anything else I did in my career. Eddie has always been an inspiration for me, and I’m sure I would include him in my list of musicians I admire, too. When the opportunity to fill in with the Versatones came, I literally jumped at it. Whenever I filled in with any band, I always tried to maintain the integrity of the group; their sound, phrasing and such. I considered this one of my biggest challenges because I knew the book was one of the most challenging in the business. I only know that I’ve never been so focused on stage as much as that weekend. I really hope I lived up to Eddie’s expectations.
IPA: What was the biggest job you ever played? How many people do you think were there?
Jackie: Back in 1988 with the Bay State IV, we were privileged to perform in Washington D.C. at the Smithsonian Institute’s annual American Folk Life Festival. We appeared with other artists and artisans from our native state of Massachusetts along with our counterparts from the then Soviet Union . Also included in that year’s festival were the participants in the World Folk Life Festival which included a Cajun band from Louisiana , Eddie Lejeun, who I must say was the spitting image of Marion Lush! Over the course of one week, we played concerts and dance parties, did interviews and round table discussions, and jammed with musical artists of various ethnic backgrounds. I would say all told, we played for nearly a half a million people over the one week period. I will never forget that experience
IPA: If you could go back in time, what would you change?
Jackie: Change anything? Nah, I don’t believe there’s anything I would change at this point, except I wish I learned a bit more piano in college than I did.
IPA: How do you think we can keep the music we all love so much going for years to come?
Jackie: I believe, and have always believed, that we need to make our music more inclusive. We need to seek out opportunities to perform our music for the general public. We need to package and present our music in a way that would encourage interest from the general public. There have been instances when I have performed in a different venue than what I am accustomed to, like a summer concert series, or political rally or street fair. What we hear from many in attendance is that this is not what they expected to hear from a polka band. They would go on asking about future performances, recordings and such. In many instances, we would start seeing some of these people at future performances. That’s how you build an audience and hopefully future fans.
IPA: If you were asked the question: “Why should I join the IPA? What is in it for members?” How would you answer them?
Jackie: If you love this genre and want to see it thrive, join with others who have the same mission. The IPA has always been about promoting our beloved polka music, but it needs help. It needs fresh ideas. It needs professionals who are experienced in marketing and promotion. It needs professionals who have connections to the larger genres and producers. Maybe I’m getting a little ahead of myself, but I believe there is power in numbers, and it’s going to take that to keep our music going. Why should I join IPA? Because it’s the right thing to do.
IPA: How do you think we can get more people interested in being a member of the IPA?
Jackie: I think the best way to answer this question is the same way as the question about how we can keep the music we love going for years to come: be more inclusive. The more visible the IPA is at various events and performances, the better the chance of getting more to buy into it. I have believed for a while now, that we need to get at least a portion of the Polka Hall of Fame out of storage and out to the public for viewing at various festivals and events. I’m sure there are many polka fans not familiar with or know anything about the hall. I believe this could be one way of building interest in the IPA and what it is about. I realize that this likely would cost serious money to do, but if there is someone well versed in grant writing, an arts endowment might be one way of defraying costs.
IPA: Is there anything you would like to add?
Jackie: Just keep on supporting the dances and the bands. We have a few promoters who have finally hung it up and retired. We really need some new promoters to take the reins with new, fresh ideas to attract new faces. The internet is a big plus for our music, but it is rapidly becoming the only media source we have as land-based radio stations opt to eliminate ethnic programming of all sorts. Please support the sponsors of those polka programs still in existence, and let the sponsor know where you heard about their business. It does help.
This may be a bit early, but on behalf of my family, we would like to wish all of our members and lovers of polka music a very happy, healthful and polka-filled new year!