JEFFERSON — Generations of residents from throughout the greater Jefferson County area have grown up with the sounds of the Jimmy Hartwig Band, which in its 71st year is one of the longest continuously running bands in Wisconsin.
On Sunday, Jimmy Hartwig, now in his late 90s, was honored as the 2017 recipient of the Wisconsin Polka Hall of Fame Distinguished Lifetime Achievement Award.
Accepting the honor on his behalf was son Wayne Hartwig, a longtime member of the band who took over directing it two decades ago.
The presentation took place during the final hours of the 47th annual Gemuetlichkeit Days German-heritage festival at the Jefferson County Fair Park, where the Jimmy Hartwig Band has been a regular attraction for many years.
And even though Sunday afternoon after the parade tends to be comparatively quiet, for this occasion, the crowd filled the entireBlack Forest Garten in the Fair Park Activity Center. The dance floor was hopping and the tables were filled with attendees and supporters from throughout the whole area.
Presenting the award was Derek Indermuehle, president of the Wisconsin Polka Hall of Fame, who relayed the highlights of the honoree’s life and presented the plaque from the Polka Hall of Fame to Wayne Hartwig for his father.
The Wisconsin Polka Hall of Fame formed in 1995 to recognize and honor those individuals who have excelled in performance, preservation and promotion of polka music in the state of Wisconsin and thus to help maintain the history and various ethnic roots of this iconic music form for all generations.
Indermuehle recognized Hartwig as a major contributor to this tradition, and to music in general throughout the region.
“I don’t want to choke up here,” Wayne Hartwig said, with visible emotion, as he accepted the award on his father’s behalf. “It’s all quite emotional.
“I wish my father could be here,” he added. “He’s at a nursing home now. Some days are not so good, but he has some awfully good days too.”
Wayne noted that family members were taping the presentation Sunday so they could share it with Jimmy later.
Following the official presentation, Wayne asked whether any of the audience members had the Jimmy Hartwig Band play for their wedding receptions, and at least 15 hands raised.
“I had a lot of trouble getting out of playing at my own wedding,” Wayne said.
Almost entirely self-taught, with no formal music training, Jimmy Hartwig learned to play the accordion at a young age. The Johnson Creek native played his first paying job in 1935, earning $4, which Wayne noted was a lot of money during the Depression.
After Jimmy left high school in 1937, he joined an Oshkosh traveling band. He later toured the area and the state with various other bands.
“It was in the midst of the Depression, but he often played six nights a week,” Wayne said.
Jimmy Hartwig eventually formed his own band in 1947 — seven decades ago.
He started out with around a dozen arrangements and played those over and over until a gig was finished. Today, the band’s library has grown to some 600 arrangements, a great number of them arranged by Jimmy.
“He was a very fine arranger,” Wayne said. “In addition to writing for his own band, he has arranged for many other bands.”
The band grew over the years. It started as a seven-piece band, then swiftly added two members to become a nine-piece band. It expanded to 10 members in 1960 and has stabilized with 11 or 12 today.
The band started as an oldtime polka band, Wayne said, playing wedding dances, community dances and more. It also performed at many school proms, formals and other events.
The band switched to a “Big Band” sound when the Gobbler Supper Club opened in 1970, but still retained a lot of the oldtime favorites.
The Jimmy Hartwig Band served as The Gobbler’s house band for several years. As The Gobbler became a regional hotspot and a rising star on the entertainment scene, so the Jimmy Hartwig Band gained in reputation.
For a number of years, the band played at The Gobbler almost every weekend.
Wayne described his father as a fine musician and an excellent arranger.
“He had great musical skills,” Wayne said. “He wrote almost all of the arrangements for his own band and took frequent requests to write arrangements for other bands and musicians.
Jimmy played his last gig with the band in September of 2003. By that time, his son had taken over the directing, and Wayne has kept up the tradition for two decades.
The band has a very loyal following among fans, drawing big crowds at its annual performances at the Jefferson County Fair even in recent years, while some of the more modern bands have struggled to draw an audience for the afternoon shows.
But even more loyal are some of the band members themselves, who have stayed with the band for decade after decade, enjoying the music and camaraderie.
Jerry White, for example, started playing with the Jimmy Hartwig Band in 1952. He began on alto saxophone and now plays baritone sax and clarinet.
“Jimmy used to say I was too serious when I played — that I should smile at the girls more,” White said with a chuckle.
One girl at least drew his eye. White met his future wife while playing with the Jimmy Hartwig Band and they’ve been together ever since.
“Jimmy has a very important influence on me,” White said. “I appreciated him more and more as the years went on and I realized what an incredible amount of effort he put in to make everything work.”
This realization came as White started his own band and then his own business in later years.
Originally from Watertown, White now resides in Waukesha.
Although a stalwart with the local band, White probably is best known as the founder of the White House of Music. He opened his first music store in 1961, and it has grown into a chain of six music stores, with around 150 employees.
Doug Terhune, another longtime band member, started with the Jimmy Hartwig Band right out of college.
“It was a polka band at that time, and then it evolved into a dance band/big band.”
Terhune, an alto saxophone and clarinet player, said that he learned a lot from Jimmy, who had a terrific way with people, as well as evident musical talent.
“He was a great, gracious leader, very laid back and easygoing,” Terhune said. “There were never any issues. He was so easy to work for.”
Terhune said he has fond memories of a lot of his early jobs, such as the band’s weekly Gobbler performances and shows in Sun Prairie.
Another longtime band member, trumpet player Ken Lemke, regularly travels back to Wisconsin from California — where he lives several months out of the year — to make the band’s reunion concerts.
“I’ve been playing with the Jimmy Hartwig Band since 1973,” Lemke said.
He said his time with the band, under both Jimmy and Wayne Hartwig’s direction, has been an incredibly important part of his life.
Coming out of college, his musical training was strictly classical, but Jimmy swiftly schooled him in the swing, polka and Big Band sounds.
Since then, Lemke said, he has gone on to teach and perform all over the world, including stints performing in Broadway shows and with the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus.
His early experience with the Jimmy Hartwig Band stuck with him throughout, Lemke said, noting that while musical talent is important, even more important is the chemistry between players that is cultivated by a good director.
“Jimmy had that, and so does Wayne,” Lemke said. “He has kept that tradition alive.”
Lemke said his time with the Jimmy Hartwig Band, both of its directors and the multitude of players who have been part of the group over the years remains the best of his musical experience.
“When I started, I was sorely lacking in swing and jazz skills,” Lemke acknowledged. “It was a stroke of good luck for me to have the chance to play the Jimmy Hartwig library. It gave me the chance to grow in poise and confidence.”
So later, when big opportunities came his way, Lemke said, he was prepared due to the experience he had gained with the Jimmy Hartwig Band, through performing at countless dances at the Gobbler, Marchese’s, The Ponderosa and more.
The trumpet player said he didn’t know it then, but he was performing with a world-class group.
“I had the world with a fence around it,” he said. “I was playing twice a month, never having to travel more than 40 minutes from my front door.”
He said that the Hartwigs, father and son, have set the high-water mark for band leaders, calling them honest, professional and musical.
Lemke added that he considers it a treat to return for the group’s annual reunion. And while he’s here in Jefferson, he said, he’ll make it a point to see Jimmy at the nursing home to offer his congratulations in person.
Although the band has performed less in recent years, it still draws crowds, its shows at the fair and Gemuetlichkeit Days bringing back the faithful to dance and share great music with the next generation.