Homegrown harmonica player PT Gazell remembers as a small child listening to the jukebox at the Strand Annex, his father’s malt shop and the go-to place for teenagers emptying out of the downtown theater that inspired its namesake.
It was the era’s eclectic mix of music - rock, blues, folk and country - that motivated him to leave the City of Oconomowoc almost 35 years ago to make a name for himself in the resurgent bluegrass scene of the 1970s.
Gazell, now living in Nashville, will return to Oconomowoc in March to perform at the Oconomowoc Arts Center.
His most recent album, “2 Days Out,” is emblematic of his shift toward swinging, melodic jazz, though Gazell said he does not identify himself specifically as a jazz musician.
“I play whatever my audience and I would like,” he said. “I am very partial to melodic jazz; I am very partial to swing music, and I am very partial to the American Songbook stuff.”
Gazell said he got into the harmonica in the early 1970s, when the instrument was pervasive in the local music scene. He said Milwaukee’s proximity to Chicago made the Cream City a regular stop for performing blues artists and he remembered sneaking into Teddy’s (now Shank Hall) when he was underage and listening to the local acts.
“I was constantly bombarded with the instrument,” he said.
Playing for Paycheck
His father George Gazell worked as a tool and die machinist in Milwaukee and also co-owned the Annex Strand, a local malt shop named for the adjacent Strand Theater.
“It was a real small-town experience,” he reflected. “I remember being in there as a very young child, 4 or 5 years old, and watching the kids play the jukebox.”
He graduated from Oconomowoc High School in 1971. He said at the time he was a singer in a 1950s rock ‘n’ roll cover band called Wayne and the El Dorados.
At 25, he decided to make the move to the bluegrass hotbed of Lexington, Ky. and dug into the local scene. He released his first album “Pace Yourself” in 1978 on the fledgling Sugar Hill Records, an influential bluegrass and Americana record label.
He said he ended up moving to Nashville, Tenn. at the behest of Johnny Paycheck, an outlaw country singer best-known for the song “Take This Job and Shove It.”
“I got booked on a TV show to back up a bluegrass band in Lexington, on public access television,” he said. “They had hired a musician from Nashville to do the show as well and he wanted to know if I wanted to work with Johnny Paycheck. I took the job and a short while later I moved to Nashville. I’ve been here ever since.”
And all that jazz
Gazell became a sought-after sideman in Tennessee, performing with several musicians in Nashville and touring worldwide. He said he wanted to branch out on his own, but was limited by the simplicity of his instrument.
In 1988, he quit out of frustration.
“I put it away and didn’t play a note for 15 years,” he said.
He returned to the music scene in 2003 after discovering the unique valved diatonic harmonica and creating the “Gazell-method valve,” which allowed him to experiment with jazz on his 2005 album “Swingin’ Easy ... Hittin’ Hard.” In 2008, he teamed up with fellow harmonicist Brendan Power on the album “Back to Back.”
“2 Days Out” is his most recent album, which prominently features the harmonica accompanied by a trombone and fluegelhorn.
“It is something I am pretty proud of,” he said of the album. “It has the harmonica out in front, much like you would feature a saxophone, clarinet or trumpet.”
IF YOU GO
Who: PT Gazell and the Side Effects
When: March 21 and 22; dinner at 6:30 p.m., show at 7 p.m.
Where: Oconomowoc Arts Center is located at 641 east Forest St., Oconomowoc
Tickets: Dinner package, $33 adults, $23 students; show tickets, $23 adults, $12 students.
What’s more: Dinner features a Nashville BBQ platter including beef brisket or pulled pork. Traditional sides such as coleslaw and beans will compliment the entrée and pecan pie will be served for dessert. Dinner items can be purchased a la carte the night of the show.
Info/tickets: Online tickets are available at www.theoac.net. For more information on PT Gazell & The Side Effects go to www.ptgazell.com.