AN INTERVIEW WITH JIMMY WEBER – HALL OF FAMER, BANDLEADER AND MUSICIAN
IPA INTERVIEW — JANUARY 2012
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 ~
Jimmy: I have the greatest family. I have been married to my lovely wife, Kim for 22 years. She has been involved in polkas since she was young and was a dancer in the High Boot Dancers which was a Polish dance group in New Jersey. My oldest daughter Chelsea is 20 and in her second year of college. Taylor is 15 and is very much into all types of dancing, from ballet to hip hop. Paige is 13 years old and following in Taylor’s dance shoes and is quite the dancer too. Both are in competitive dance groups and compete regularly in the Spring and Summer. They have even figured out how to polka! Last but not least is Austin, who is 10 and he is very creative but has not settled into anything specific yet. He enjoys sports, music and has recently started acting classes.
IPA: What age did you start playing instruments and what were they?
Jimmy: I started playing the tenor saxophone in the school bands in 7th grade and then moved onto clarinet. They are the only instruments I have formal training on. I picked up the trumpet in high school and just learned from the trumpet players I played with in various bands over the years. I can play a little bit of bass and concertina. Most people don’t know that it is me playing concertina on The Sounds song, All I Want for Christmas Is a Concertina.
IPA: What made you decide to play Polkas?
Jimmy: My family has always listened to polka music and would take us to dances. I remember the first dance I went to was at Fiedor’s Grove. It was the first time my family went there. My Dad went up and asked who was playing before we went in. He came back to the car and said there were two bands playing. One band was Little Ronnie and the Carousels which was Joe Fiedor’s son’s band and some other band named Eddie Blazonczyk and the Versatones which we had never heard of at the time. We went in and the crowd was huge and I brought home Eddie’s brand new album Polkas A Plenty. The first song I learned to play was Beautiful Castle Waltz, off of that album, and it has a special meaning to me when we play it with Full Circle. Little Wally recordings were king in our house with a little bit of Marion Lush thrown in for variety. I quickly added more Versatones and other more modern bands. I was fortunate because, while my Mother and Father did not play music, they enjoyed it very much and they both spoke Polish and were supportive of my playing. My brother Gary, played an excel-lent accordion and concertina and also helped me grow musically. The two of us really had a great time playing with the Trel Tones. It was really Andy and Steve Fenus that got me started playing polka music. It was fun to be playing music for an audience, my parents enjoyed seeing me play and it was a great way to pick up some extra money as a teen in high school.
IPA: What bands have/do you played in?
Jimmy: I got my playing start with the Trel Tones around late 1970. Andy and Steve Fenus were very good about teaching me the fundamentals about polkas and they also played a wide variety music which helped me learn and grow as a musician as well as appreciate many different songs and styles. I then played a summer with The Dynasticks in Detroit in 1976. That summer was like a crash course in all types of Chicago-style polkas. All we did was eat, sleep and practice/play polkas. Working Tony and Mitch Kempinski, Ron Marcissuk, Eddie Siwiec was great, for my polka horizon expanded to embrace the songs and arrangements of The Naturals, Tones, Dynatones as well as the fine things The Dynasticks were doing. I then returned to Pittsburgh and in 1977 formed The Sounds. The Sounds played for about five or six years and then we took a several year break. During that break, Vinnie Bozzarelli and I played with the Brass Connection. That was a really a fun time for I went back to being a sideman and enjoyed playing with Frank, Rich and Bobby. We had been friends for years and it was an easy band step into and create some new approaches to polkas with them. The Sounds then reformed in 1985 and we played together until work pulled me away from the band in 1990. I have been blessed and fortunate to play with some great and wonderful musicians and bands all of which I am proud and thankful to have been a part of.
IPA: Tell me, does it feel different playing with Full Circle than any other band you have played in?
Jimmy: Playing with Full Circle does feel a bit different. It only has a single box with a three-piece horn section. The Sounds and many other bands have a concertina and accordion and usually two horns. The bottom or the power in those bands is in the rhythm section. In Full Circle, the power shifts more to the three-piece horn section and the rhythm section accentuates what the horn section is doing. Both are great approaches to music but in a way, very different. It took a little while for me to get used to that switch with Full Circle. We tend to play classic songs as they were originally recorded which did not have a lot of push. But when we down wind up into a push, with Al and Roger in the rhythm section, it is like some sets off a stick of dynamite on the stage but that might only happen on the last eight bars of the song. Getting a chance to play some of the recordings I listened to growing up, in the same style and instrumentation is a real thrill for me. Many people, who heard the original bands that recorded those songs, come up to us and say we sound just like them. It is nice to expose the audience to those sounds once again or in some cases for the very first time. Again, I am fortunate to be a part of another band which truly has some of the best musicians that have played polkas. It is truly an honor to be a part of them.
IPA: Who did/do you admire musically?
Jimmy: This is a tough question for there have been many influences on me. When I was learning to play, I would say Eddie Noga and Jimmy Bagrowski really defined how I wanted to play clarinet and sax. As a youngster, I would go to sleep with a tape of Eddie Noga playing alto sax under my pillow. As I got older, my influence on trumpet as well as clarinet was Lenny Gomulka. To this day, I marvel at the way he plays and his creativity and use of harmonies. Whatever he thinks, he plays, which is truly remarkable! On vocals, I really liked Larry Trojak and Frank Liszka’s vocal styling. The duets of Eddie Blazonczyk and Chet Kowalkowski and Scrubby and Larry Trojak, really set the bar for me as to how, when two people sing together, the way a song should sung. There are so many others over the years including some of today’s musicians in Freeze Dried, Polka Family, The Knewz and Polka Country Musicians that I really admire the level of musicianship, creativity and talent they bring to polkas.
IPA: What was your most memorable moment on stage? What Year? What Town? And why?
Jimmy: There were many, many moments over the years. I remember playing Frankenmuth when our Up In the Attic Medley came out, around 1980, and the crowd in the small tent was standing room only. It really showed that The Sounds had moved on from being more of a musician’s band to one that had a large appeal to the broader polka crowd. I also remember when The Sounds reformed, we were still trying to re-establish ourselves in 1985 and we released Soundsational Polkas. We were playing in the back room at 7 Springs, the front room at that time was the main hall, and as we played our new material, the band just connected with the audience and the crowd kept growing and growing. I knew at that time we had a pretty special bunch of guys and the second Sounds band was going to be a fun ride. Finally, when we did the first live recording at Fiedor’s Grove, there were almost 1000 people there. They went through something like 24 kegs of beer that day. What a night!
IPA: What was the biggest job you ever played? What band was it? How many people do you think were there?
Jimmy: I think the biggest crowds I played for were at the IPA convention when it was held at the Red Carpet in Milwaukee, PolkaMotion at Ocean City Maryland and certainly 7 Springs. I would have to guess that on Saturday nights at those events, the crowd attendance was pushing several thousand. I just remember them being huge crowds and how great it was to play in front of that many people who really loved polka music.
IPA: How do you think we can keep the music we all love so much going for years to come?
Jimmy: I think this is a hard problem to solve and I am not sure it will be solved. I hope it will. I say this be-cause we are missing several generations of younger people to keep the music alive and the overall pool of people who support it today is getting smaller each year. Without those generations there are no replacements for the people that move on from polkas or are no longer with us. Most of the band members are 40 years old and many probably pushing 50 or more, so even the talent pool who play the music is diminishing. There is some young talent playing and some truly fine musicians but not enough of them, in a single city, to form their own band. If they could form a band, it would be hard for them to play polkas regularly because there are just not that many places to play. In my opinion, it is a young band playing regularly and coming up with fresh songs, honing their talents and material, and building a following is what is needed to re-store polkas. The crowds are also not that big anymore, so it is hard to make the financials work for the both the promoter and the band which is another problem. When I started playing in Pennsylvania there were the established bands like the Trel Tones, Invictas, Bell Hops, Polka Jets and then probably upwards of ten or fifteen younger bands trying to make a name for themselves. If you look at the Sounds, it was formed from 4 different young local bands. We could play 3 nights a week locally. Other cities like Buffalo, Cleveland, Detroit, Chicago, Baltimore were the same way. Now, you are hard pressed to find more than 4 bands total playing in an area and you could not find three days of gigs in the same area on a consistent basis. This really impedes new and younger bands from starting up. Why would they form a band to play a couple times a month? If they want to play more they have to play something other than polkas. If I look at my children, while they enjoy polkas, they could not and would not go every weekend like I did when I was young. They are so active in other things between their school activities, friends and activities outside of school; they simply could not swing it and stay active in those interests. Supporting them, limits the time my wife and I have to support polkas too. I have taken a philosophy of, enjoy polkas while we have it and hope for the best. We try to bring my children’s friends to dances to expose them to it when we can. I think it will take a younger band to solve the problem and grow the field. If it happens, it will come from some sort of song that catches on nationally, like an “Achey Breakey Heart,” “Chicken Dance” (ugh, did I say that?), “My Melody of Love” and so forth. It will also need to be an original song not a redo of some cover song. I think if that would happen, then there could be an opportunity for a renaissance of polkas, especially if it had young faces behind the music. I think Full Circle helps to a degree too, which is get some of those older songs and styles in front of the audience again to bring back memories but also to show that years ago there were many different instrumentation in a band and those orchestrations sounded really good. If you listen the original recordings some of the arrangements were pretty intricate. I am not sure I see that as much anymore in the music. But Full Circle is certainly geared to the existing or dormant polka crowd and not likely to pull in new faces. Perhaps there will be someone who takes some of those combinations of instruments and arrangements or even adds new instrumentation and forms something new that catches on.
IPA: If you were asked the question: ―Why should I join the IPA? What is in it for members? How would you answer them?
Jimmy: The answer for me is simple. It is a way to support an organization that is continuing its long standing history and mission to keep polkas alive and recognize those that have made contributions to it through its Hall of Fame. It is run professionally and provides the opportunity to network and become involved in the music through its many events that are run in several different areas of the country. It is also a way to meet old and new friends that share and common bond and to have a great time. When you compare the cost of being an IPA member with just about any other type of non-polka membership or activity, it is true bargain.
IPA: How do you think we can get more people interested in being a member of the IPA?
Jimmy: I think like anything, you have to market yourself and as we say at work, ―build your value proposition. Why should a person want to join? What value or self-satisfaction will they get out of it? New people won’t have the history as those that have been in polkas since childhood, so you have to create what is in it for them. Secondly, build a culture within the existing membership to enroll new members. If every member got one person to join every year, that would be a big boost. Finally, when there is a dance we have to really work the new people that come to become a member and to come again. There are all sorts of rewards you can put in place for members who sign up new members or attend for a first or second time. It sounds pretty simple but it is often quite difficult to accomplish. I would suggest an IPA Marketing Committee be formed and given a budget to work with and then trial and track results of membership initiatives. Perhaps create a cross polka organization, marketing committee to get alignment and greater push on marketing the field. You could also take this approach by sponsoring a young newly formed band(s) to ensure they have the opportunity to show their talents and new approach to polkas at regional jobs and the festivals. It is my experience that often the suggestions that break away from our typical ways of doing things or thinking often yield the best results but agreeing to them is hard because they are different. The focus needs to be on what is best for the industry and growing it, for what worked years ago or how things have always been done, may not work today. In business, you can never stay the same. You either have to move forward or you eventually move back. I think the same holds true for the polka field and the organizations that support it.
IPA: Do you have any final comments?
Jimmy: I am honored that the IPA thought enough of me to ask me to respond and proud to be a member of the IPA Hall of Fame. I hope my opinions did not offend anyone for they were meant to be thought provoking and portray my perspective on things. I will continue to support the IPA as well as other organizations and polkas to the best of my abilities. I wish all of the IPA officers and members the best of health, success and happiness in the future. Keep on doing what you are doing. It does make a difference.