Suburban 'inspired madman' marches to beat of his own drum

Seven-time Grammy Award winner and Cary-Grove High School graduate Paul Wertico talks like a jazz musician.

No, wait. That's not quite accurate.

Wertico, an acclaimed jazz drummer, talks like jazz itself, soaring, looping and improvising on a melody, or just an idea that propels him into soaring, looping answers to questions.

Questions such as, "Why should we care if music is taught in our schools? Of what value is music anyway?"

And Wertico replies:

"Music is the universal language for one thing. When you start playing music, you suddenly share this common ground. It's like, Wow! This is incredible! The great drummer Art Blakey said that jazz blows away the dust of everyday life.

"Music makes people come alive. It's about releasing your spirit. You see the news and see what's going on and you think life is so hard, and it is. Still, there's this thing that wants you to keep moving."


"We want to stay alive. We're not killing ourselves. The spirit is what saves us. And music is the key - able to open that spirit, not just for the musicians, but for the audience.

"People come into a concert and they've had bad things happen that day. They hear the music and they feel better. It's not a placebo. It's not something that's masking something else in a fake way.

"Music reminds people of the passion of life, that life is great. It's not about, 'Look how fast I can play or how complicated I can play or how great I am.' It's not about showing people what you can do."

So what's it all about?

"It's about bringing them with you on a ride. Get in a car with me! I've got a full tank of gas and we're just going to go. I don't know where we're going, but it'll be interesting and I'll get you back safe."

See? Soaring and looping answers from a South Side Chicago-born kid who moved to Cary with his family when he was 12.

Nobody had a clue that little Paul Wertico would grow up to become an international music star who would tour with the Pat Metheny Group from 1983 to 2001, win a kazillion music awards and become an assistant professor of jazz at the Chicago College of Performing Arts at Roosevelt University.

Not bad for a guy who had to teach himself how to play the drums and never earned a college degree.

"My parents encouraged me to take up a musical instrument, but not the drums," Wertico said. "I got into sixth-grade band. Everyone else had been playing since they were 8 years old. So I came in kind of late. But I picked it up quickly. I heard the music and it all made sense to me."

Then came a pivotal time at Cary-Grove High School.

Wertico was heavily into sports and not thinking much about drums or music - until he met band director Donald Ehrensperger.

"He saw in me some sort of talent," Wertico said. "He let me do my own thing. When I tried out for the concert band, there were like five chairs available. I wasn't very disciplined at auditions and such, so I came in like at eight.

"So he expanded the pit to eight just so I could get in. Then I was head of the percussion section. And all the percussionists were cool with that. It was a 'meant to be' kind of thing."

Wertico pointed out that he wanted to take drum lessons as a child, but his mom wouldn't let him.

"My mom was like, 'No, don't do that! Teach yourself and become your own person.' That was an incredible thing. If I had studied with a local teacher, he might have said, 'This is the correct way to do it,' and in music, it's not really like that.

"By the time I got into band, I had already developed a technique. Everything just fell into place."

Wertico attended Western Illinois University on a scholarship, then went to McHenry County College for a while.

Eventually, his lifetime absorption of every jazz record he could play translated into a passion that expressed itself in pure rhythm. The international press went nuts trying to come up with superlatives for Wertico's heightened drumming style.

"An inspired madman!" one critic called him.

"A master of drumming insanity!" another one wrote.

"A genius of the sticks!" one wrote, and we presume he wasn't referring to Chicago's far Northwest suburbs.

"My wife loves the 'inspired madman' one," Wertico confessed. "And she should know."

His wife is Barbara, a performer he met during an audition in the mid-1970s. He remembered being stunned by how beautiful she was. "And she had perfect pitch," he added.

They have a 17-year-old daughter, Talia, a student at Evanston Township High School. The Werticos have lived in Skokie for 18 years.

In that time, the madman has certainly proven to be inspired.

He invented TUBZ, a plastic form of drum sticks manufactured by Pro-Mark for a unique percussive sound.

For two years, Wertico hosted his own weekly radio show "Paul Wertico's Wild World of Jazz" Sunday nights on WLFM. He is serving his fourth term on the Board of Governors of the Recording Academy Chicago Chapter. He also sits on the education committee of the Jazz Institute of Chicago.

And he still talks like a jazz set, riffing off a melody about the importance of music and the arts.

"Culturally, we really need the arts," he said. "Schools that stop their arts programs still keep their sports programs. Now, sports is important, but with music, you're playing with others and trying to raise the whole ensemble.

"In sports, you have two teams that oppose each other, so you always have one side losing. In music, it's not about beating somebody. It's about taking something, a composition or a song, and working to make it better. No one loses."

Music teaches cooperation, Wertico said.

"We need to work together to make a positive world," he said. "And music is a form of utopia when it's done correctly."

Wertico paused.

"And 'correctly' is in quotes," he added, "because there is no 'correct' in music. Just as long as it means something."

Dann Gire and Jamie Sotonoff are looking for suburbanites in showbiz for their column. If you know of someone who would make a good story, email them at and

A critic once called Cary native and jazz drummer Paul Wertico an “inspired madman.” Courtesy of Paul Wertico
Winner of seven Grammy Awards, Cary native and jazz drummer Paul Wertico still performs as well as teaches. Courtesy of Paul Wertico

See Paul Wertico

• You can see and hear Grammy-winning drummer and Cary native Paul Wertico talk about Broadway musicals at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Poplar Creek Public Library, 1405 S. Park St., Streamwood. Free admission. It's part of a six-week course he's teaching on “America's Music: A Film History of our Popular Music.” Last week he spoke about blues and gospel. Next week, he'll tackle jazz. Go to or call (630) 837-6800 for more information.Ÿ Wertico and Frank Catalano will also celebrate the release of their CD “Topics of Conversation” by playing sets at 9:30 p.m., 11 p.m. and 12:30 a.m. on Friday and Saturday, May 31 and June 1, at Andy's Jazz Club, 11 E. Hubbard St. Chicago, Go to or call (312) 642-6805.

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