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In Music

In Music

In Music

In Music

Pritchett's fretwork made lasting mark in Milwaukee


Milwaukee's jazz scene has been decimated over the years. For every great cat still playing, there's at least another who's been lost to time. One of the best jazz guitarists ever to grace Milwaukee stages, for example, was George Pritchett, who died in 1987 at age 56. According to some, his influence can still be felt here today.

The facile bop guitarist released a pair of LPs on Milwaukee's Kinnickinnic label and toured with Buddy Rich, but national success always eluded him.

Growing up poor on the South Side -- the son of a Milwaukee German girl and an alcoholic father, said to have fled his native Tennessee after beating a man to death -- Pritchett picked up the guitar at age 13, learning a few things from an elder brother.

Graduating from high school, he found work as an electrician's assistant but his desire to play jazz was all encompassing. Although he initially eschewed alcohol, Pritchett did fall prey to drugs and pot and spent some time in prison, according to his son Neal, who has created a Web page about his dad.

"Despite, or perhaps because of, the alcoholism rampant in his family, George did not start to drink until his mid to late 20s," Neal Pritchett writes. "Sadly, this was to change in latter years. One thing that young George did do, however, was smoke pot, and take drugs. As a very young man, George was convicted and sent to prison ... for breaking into a veterinarian's office in an attempt to steal drugs. To his credit, he cleaned things up, after being released, and was never in significant trouble again, until near the end of his life. Though he continued to smoke pot, he broke off his use of other drugs."

By 1957, when Pritchett married, he was already working Milwaukee's jazz clubs. This was after he refused a job offer reportedly made by local organized crime figures and had all of his fingers broken in an attack. He also played with the Milwaukee Symphony, in the pit at The Pabst and other theaters, did weddings and other events, according to his son.

"He ... had developed quite a following by the time he reached his early 30s. He knew, and was known by, everybody," writes Neal. "There was little indecisiveness on the part of those who knew him; you either really liked George, or you really hated him. He ... seemed to have a line on everything. ... If you needed anything from auto repair to dental repair, George had a friend who could help you out. Everywhere he went, and whatever he needed, there was always someone who knew him, or had seen him play. In nearly every bar that he walked into, on or off the job, someone would recognize him. 'George? Are you George Pritchett? Bartender, get George a drink.'"

Pritchett began teaching guitar at the Academy of Music, among other places, and working in music shops, like Crown in Bay View. He also did some recording for a local instructional music tape publisher. Among his students were Daryl Stuermer and Jack Grassel. He also inspired Bill Milkowski, who went on to become a respected music writer.

"I studied with George Pritchett when I was 18," says Grassel, who owns one of Pritchett's guitars. "I learned many essential, unique and groundbreaking concepts from him. I have built new ideas on George's basic concepts."

"Jazz didn't begin to filter into my vocabulary until the early 1970s, via two sources -- (one was) local guitar great George Pritchett, a Joe Pass-inspired player who gigged regularly with a swinging trio at a downstairs lounge adjacent to a bowling alley in the hippie part of town," Milkowski wrote in the introduction to his book "Rockers, Jazzbos & Visionaries."

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Talkbacks

norm1054 | May 4, 2009 at 10:24 a.m. (report)

My father grew up with Bob and George and being an avid bowler I got to hear George play. have his 2 records turn into CD,s and everybody who hears it enjoys it !!! his music has reached all the way to Arizona!!! norm thompson

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