By Scott Westerman
From the time I first saw Buddy Rich behind a trap set, I wanted to be a drummer. I paid my dues with the required piano lessons, God’s way of weeding out the un-worthy, and even did a year on the trumpet when my Eberwhite band director told me there could only be two drummers in the band (and I wasn’t gonna be one of them). Luckily, may parents recognized a passion that would not be denied. And that’s when Jerry Hartweg came into my life.
The percussive arts are all about coordination. You have to learn to be quadridextrous. Each of your four main appendages must develop an ability to act on their own, yet in an harmonious whole in an exact tempo that is the foundation of the large ensemble. Few of us are naturally gifted in this realm and to enter it’s ratified climes requires patience and practice. The best drum teachers have an abundance of the former as they model the latter, pounding away, side by side with the student on the rubberized drum pads that keep the noise to a minimum and the neighbors at bay.
The best things in life take time to mature. The work can be hard, but it’s well worth the effort. That’s was Jerry Hartweg’s priceless gift to me for nearly three intensive years.
Our bible was “Stick Control For the Snare Drummer”, page after page of every conceivable metric combination with a Rubic’s Cube of right and left hand markings beneath each note. I was still playing trumpet when we started work, an hour of drum practice every weekday and another hour with Jerry each Wednesday afternoon. It was, at times, a rough road and I was far from a natural.
Jerry had another quality that made all the difference. There was never any doubt in his mind that I was going to be very good. He expected it and when I hit the inevitable plateaus, he never lost his patience. Along the way, I discovered that the same wrist dexterity that could produce an explosive single stroke roll could also conjure miracles with a deck of cards. Jerry was a life long member of the International Brotherhood of Magicians and if we got through our lesson in record time, he would sometimes reward me with an impromptu bit of magic. But he never let me lose sight of the goal.
Jerry worked at my pace and as time went by, the pace quickened. When it came time for 6th grade band enrollment, I told the director that I was no longer a trumpet player, but a percussionist. He must have seen the determination in my eyes because he acquiesced. I was stunned to discover that Jerry had taken me way beyond the rudiments of our elementary band repertoire. His letter of recommendation got me into Interlochen, then as now a place where the best musicians in the world earn their stripes. Jerry was on the Interlochen faculty and more than once, I snuck off campus to watch him provide the back beat for the Dave Sporney big band from behind a drum set.
At Interlochen I also found out about another passion that Jerry and I shared: Flying. It was Jerry who first put a stick and rudder in my hands as we flew high above Grand Traverse Bay.
Being a really good drummer was a really cool thing at Slauson Junior High. I remember watching Rich Lugar at the drums with Rick Jacoby and Brian Thompson, memorizing every lick of their interpretation of Steve Winwood. By 9th grade, I was lucky enough to drive our band from behind my brand new Ludwigs. I don’t remember the solo but I will never forget the applause.
In the late 60s, Ann Arbor had come into its own as home to a music program that was second to none. As I entered Pioneer High, I met Jerry’s other protoges. Jim Harris, Dave Owens, Guy Crawford and Dave Rogers all were his beneficiaries. They taught me how surrounding yourself with really good people can make you even better.
Jerry’s fundamentals served us well as our percussive careers found their way to South America the summer before senior year. A band of energetic young kids were instant role models there. We enjoyed our 15 minutes of fame before effusive crowds in every kind of venue. It was a memory I carefully stored away for playback during many future moments when life’s twists and turns sometimes threatened to undo Jerry’s work.
By then, Jerry was on to other things. I stopped taking private lessons after several other teachers couldn’t live up to his high standards.
Bob Elliot was another classmate who balanced music with his gifts on the basketball court. His dad was a highly revered teacher at Pioneer, cautioning us both that it was ok to have a passion, but we also needed a profession. Bob pursued his passions at Arizona State and in the NBA before mining his profession as a CPA. I was blessed to discover a gig that fed my ADD desires for technology and leadership, but the musical passions that Jerry Hartweg fired in my imagination never left. Jerry inspired me to re-discover the keyboards (he himself was taking piano lessons during our time together) and even as I write this, my ivories are still warm from an impromptu jingle recording session.
As a cable TV gig took me far from Ann Arbor, my parents would occasionally run into Jerry. I learned that he combined education with his love for aviation, teaching classes in Aviation Science to pilots training at Saudia Airlines in Saudi Arabia. I wasn’t surprised to hear that he turned his unique attention to detail toward a career in the emergency unit at St. Joseph’s Mercy Hospital, working there until just last November. Whenever their paths would cross, he always asked mom and dad about me. That was another of Jerry’s wonderful talents. Whenever you were with him, you always felt like the most important person in the room.
The greatest gift the universe can give during our adolescent years is an ability to be good at something. It’s a time when self esteem is more fragile than a Christmas ornament and you’re surrounded by people who inadvertently (more often on purpose) do what they can to smash it. Our greatest terror is to be singled out for something embarrassing and our greatest desire is to be singled out for something cool.
If we’re lucky, we stumble across someone who fires our imagination and guides us carefully and consistently on a path toward achievemnt. If that nurtured talent turns out to be recognized as something cool another set of lessons ensue. You enjoy the thrill of being the best at something, learn that humility can amplify excellence, and in rare cases, understand that true talent involves bringing others along with you.
Jerry Hartweg taught me all of these things. When I learned that he had passed away at age 69, the news had that visceral sting our hearts reserve for our closet friends and family.
I pulled out a dusty LP tonight, a recording of the 1973 Pioneer Jazz Band. As I listened, it was sometimes hard to believe that the guy on the drums was actually me.
I felt a wave of gratitude, realizing that we truly gain immortality when we can help others chase their dreams.
That’s Jerry Hartweg’s essence. Even as he leaves us, his legacy lives on.
Scott Westerman graduated from Ann Arbor Pioneer High School in 1973.