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 – he made it look easy – 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, and at 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, Paul Cebar 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."
In 1970, legendary drummer Buddy Rich walked into a Milwaukee club and, stunned by Pritchett's playing, offered him a job on the spot. Consequently, Pritchett got on a bus with Rich's big band and toured the country.
"Many people who knew music were shocked to see him playing in little bars, and clubs around town. 'You should get out of Milwaukee, and go to New York, or Los Angeles,' was a comment he often heard," writes Neal Pritchett.
"All though the '60s, people were telling him that he was too good to stay in Milwaukee ... this was a mantra that he had heard all of his life. Still, for whatever reason, he stayed."
After a year with Buddy Rich, it was to Milwaukee that Pritchett decided to return. Around the same time, his brothers bought the building that houses the Oriental Theater and also Oriental Drugs, Landmark Lanes and the apartments above. Pritchett lived in one of those small apartments.
Removing the old bowling lanes behind the bar, Pritchett's brothers built him a club, called Pritchett's, where he would play gigs, host visiting musicians and lead jam sessions. For a time, it was one of Milwaukee's most happening scenes, according to his son.
"Pritchett's actually had a very special place in Milwaukee's cultural and nightlife, for a time. Everyone showed up: local politicians, celebrities, entertainers and money people all made this their spot. This was the premier place to go and hear music played by Milwaukee's own star, to meet friends, to hang out, or to be seen. If you wanted to impress someone from out of town, you took them to George's place. If you were visiting, and wanted to know where the hot spot was, you were told to go to George's. If anyone famous was in town, from baseball players, to actors, to musicians, they would inevitably show up at Pritchett's. While it lasted, it was a great time and place to be George. This little piece of paradise actually lasted for several years."
But times changed and the scene moved on, due, in part, it seems to quarrels with his brothers and Pritchett's drinking.
"He could be very funny, and had a sharp, sometimes cutting sense of humor, but he also rubbed many people the wrong way," Neal writes.
"I remember one particular incident where a family had brought their son out on his birthday, to see George. The boy looked to be 12 or so, and he had a song request. I don't recall the song, but it wasn't one that George liked, and he asked the boy if he was sure he wanted to hear that song. When the boy nodded his head, George said 'OK little bonehead, in the next set.' The family got up and left. He may not have meant anything by it, but he alienated a large number of people by such unthinking antics."
During this time Pritchett recorded two LPs for a local label run by Pete Stocke, whose connections created the opportunity for Pritchett to record a session in Chicago for RCA Records. But after twice oversleeping and missing scheduled sessions, the project was scrapped.
When his club closed, Pritchett found it difficult to get work in a town where jazz was passé and rock was the game and he took a factory job and continued teaching. But his mood swings became legendary.
"GP was a drill sergeant," remembers Grassel. "He would eat a hot dog and read Downbeat magazine during the lesson. If I made a mistake he would yell at me very loud with vulgar language. Sometimes he would have two lessons going on at the same time to make double money."
"I studied with George for a few years and can still feel the sting of his drum stick on my thigh every time I hit a note he didn't' like ... ouch!," says guitarist and former student Johnny Mayer. "George was unpredictable, you never knew when his mood would change, but when he got mad, it only lasted for a few minutes and it was over. He had a sense of humor and told funny stories about being a jazz musician."
His son Neal agrees: "He did have a couple of serious flaws ... the first was an all encompassing self indulgence and impulsiveness. The second was his bad temper, and a sporadic mean streak. He could be a very kind, and amazingly generous person, who had a great deal of affection for the people he valued, but he could turn suddenly, and unpredictably hostile and mean, particularly when he was drinking, which was to become a bigger and bigger part of his life."
But Pritchett seemed unflappable in the end. In 1984, he moved briefly to Florida where he hooked up with guitarist Don Momblow and they worked resorts as "Two Guitars." Upon returning to Milwaukee and his Oriental Drugs apartment (#211 for jazz trainspotters), he assembled a new band and opened a club on the South Side called The Guitar. He also played some gigs at other venues, like The Spruce Goose on Humboldt and North.
By this time, however, Pritchett's health problems were back, his family life troubled, he had financial woes and his reputation had suffered. His club was busted because cocaine was being sold there, although whether or not Pritchett was implicated is unknown.
After undergoing a kidney transplant and suffering from liver disease and cancer, George Pritchett died on Aug. 24, 1987.
His friends came out in force for his funeral, says his son.
"The procession to the grave site looked like a parade. There was a line of cars as far as the eye could see. An observer commented that it looked like a mobster had died. Hundreds came, and hundreds more would have, if George's death had been less sudden, and more widely known. Letters and phone calls came in from around the country, for weeks. The affection and regard which he had sought so intensely all of his life, had finally been expressed, but he was unable to see it."
Even now, nearly 20 years later, Pritchett is remembered fondly for his antics:
"One time, I was playing a gig at that place on the corner of North and Humboldt," says Grassel. "During the first song, George crawled out from under the stage with his guitar. He had played there the night before and just slept under the stage. He had slept all day until 9 p.m. the next night when we awakened him with our band. That was November 1972. He took his guitar from under the stage and walked out without saying anything.
"Another time, George and Don (Momblow) paid a big blond woman to sneak into the radio station while Ron Cuzner was doing his show. When Ron started to do the news, she came into view and started removing all her clothes and rubbing her body on the glass in front of Ron. I studied with both those guys and learned a lot from them and not just about guitar playing.
"I've got lots more George stories. He was legendary. It was like, 'did you hear what George did last week?'"
He's, of course, also remembered for his unmatchable skills as a guitarist:
"He was an exciting performer and legend in his own time," says Mayer.
"He played with great feeling and had incredible picking technique that he taught his students. We practiced from a clarinet book playing scales and etudes. George could sight read anything and play it perfectly."
"He had very advanced ideas regarding guitar technique that I haven't seen anywhere else," says Grassel. "I have developed many of my guitar instruction materials based on George's concepts ... minus the yelling. His advanced ideas have been passed down from me to two generations of guitarists who are now some of the top guitarists in the city: Kirk Tatnall, Steve Peplin, Don Linke, Roger Brotherhood, Jeff Schroedl. There are more great guitarists per musical square inch in Milwaukee now compared to other cities like Chicago because of George's presence. When he wasn't drinking he was absolutely amazing and without equal."
You can read Neal Pritchett's tribute to his father here.
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.
He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.
With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.
He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.
In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area.
He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.