Oconomowoc, Wisconsin: population 16,319, give or take a few folks, and birthplace of one PT Gazell.
“It was a very small town,” says the harmonica man, “but a town that had a very vibrant music scene for as small as it was, and live music was a pretty big part of what went on there.” And as he talks, a picture emerges, as clear as a Norman Rockwell painting.
“My dad owned a restaurant in town” he says, “and it was – for lack of a better expression –like the local malt shop. We’re talking about the mid-50s, and the local merchants and police force would eat lunch there, and the kids would play the jukebox and dance, and go there at night after a movie ─ that kind of thing. And my father had a lot of Benny Goodman and Billie Holiday records, and they were my first influences, and stuck with me.”
By the time PT picked up his first harmonica, he had a virtual music catalog in his head that had grown to include everything from the big band hits of the 40s to the blues.
Oconomowoc may have been small, but it was just 25 miles from Milwaukee, which was just 90 miles from Chicago, a regular stop on the blues circuit. PT recalls sneaking into the city’s clubs as an underage teen, where he was exposed to some of the great harmonica players of the day.
“I was intrigued by the instrument,” he says. “It’s a magic trick to me in that you can’t see what the player is doing. And the players of that era always got this tremendously big sound, and could do some amazing things. You’d see it, [the harmonica], and it was small, and so it was, ‘Wow! How did they do that?’”
Intrigued enough to find out, PT picked up his first harp at the ripe old age of 19. It was a perfect fit.
To his great and happy surprise, he could play it almost immediately, and while Gazell acknowledges that, when it comes to the harmonica, that may not be unusual, he says that he could pretty much play actual tunes from the get-go.
And that goes back to grade school, he says, where his ability to play by ear didn’t sit well with his music teachers. He points to his fifth-grade report card, where he received a failing grade in music. “I didn’t know it at the time,” he explains, “but I have a very good ear. And the music teachers used to play stuff on the piano – and they would want us to read the notes. And I didn’t want to bother to read them, when I could sing them back to them right away.”
Fast-forward to his first year in college, where the question of what he wanted to be when he grew up loomed large. “It was an interesting period in my life,” he reflects, a time that culminated in his dropping out of the University of Wisconsin to pursue life as a full-time musician.
How did his parents feel about his decision? He says they were okay with it, probably because they thought of it more as a pause, a time to, as he put it, “step back and look at what you’re going to do.”
“As it turned out, I wound up playing the harmonica eight hours a day every day,” says Gazell, “and I got better quickly. But when I would see my father he’d say, ‘What are you doing?’ And I would say, ‘I’m practicing the harmonica eight hours a day.’ And he would say, ‘Yeah, but what are you doing?’”
PT laughs at the memory, though he admits that his dad had a hard time getting used to the idea ─ even when his son started seeing what he refers to as “positive results”.
Says Gazell, “In the music business you might have a month that’s great, and then one that isn’t so great, and that was difficult for him.”
But PT and the music scene would move on and by 1974, bluegrass music ─ which had seen a resurgence in much of country ─ was just coming into its own in the north. Anxious to be where the action was, the 23-year-old moved to Lexington, Kentucky, which, he says, was one of the places to be at the time.
Immersing himself in the sound, Gazell joined forces with another young musician to form a duo, playing gigs and getting to know the territory. After a while, he started doing some session work at a small studio called Lemco Sound.
When he wasn’t working, he was jamming with musicians like Tony Rice, Keith Whitley, Bela Fleck and David Grisman, a West Coast musician who, PT notes, would play a role in “revising bluegrass and making it mainstream”.
It was during this period that Gazell recorded Pace Yourself, his first solo album. Ricky Skaggs and Jerry Douglas were among the musicians who backed him on the Sugar Hill release.
In 1976, fate intervened, when PT was hired to backup J.D. Crowe on a local bluegrass TV show. One of the other musicians backing Crowe that day hailed from Nashville, where he was a member of Johnny Paycheck’s band. He liked Gazell’s sound and confided that Paycheck had just hired another harmonica player who wasn’t very good. “I’m going to suggest the he hire you,” he said, “– if you’re interested.”
Interested? Was he kidding?
“Sure, I’m interested” PT replied, though he secretly believed he would never hear from him again. But lo and behold, two days later, he got the phone call that changed his life. The job was his if he wanted it. The only catch: he had to be in Nashville in two days for a gig!
Gazell would spend the next two years commuting between Lexington and Nashville, with no need to relocate immediately, as the band spent most of its time on the road. But, by 1978, the commute had worn thin, and PT and his wife moved to “music city”, where they still reside.
However, eventually life on the road got to him, and by the time the Paycheck gig ended, his love affair with music in general and the diatonic in particular, had waned. He says he was frustrated by the limitations of the instrument. “I couldn’t play everything I wanted to play,” he says, “and so one day I said, ‘I think I’m done. I don’t want to compromise what I’m hearing’, and I walked away.”
Gazell, who has been married for 38 years, says his wife supported his decision. And so, in 1988 and well into his thirties, he switched gears, going into post-production TV and film sound design.
And that would have been that, save for a conversation he had with a young film editor some 15 years later. “He was doing a little independent film about a very famous venue here in Nashville called The Station Inn,” PT recalls. “It’s still in existence, but it’s a very famous venue known for bluegrass music. And I was kind of consulting the audio portion of the project. And he was asking me about different people he was interested in, not celebrities, but the people who ran the business back then. And I knew these people.
“After about the third person, he stopped and said, ‘How do you know these people?’ And I said, ‘Well. I used to play music for a living.’ And he asked me what instrument I played, and I told him. And he brings up a page on his computer that says ‘Google’. This was in 2003. And he types my name in there.
“At the time, I was only slightly aware of Google, but it never occurred to me that you could type in someone’s name and all of this stuff would appear.”
Now, as PT watched, the computer spit out questions posed and answered by other Googlers.
“What happened to PT Gazell?” asked one person.
“Well, I heard he died” wrote another.
“What ever happened to his Pace Yourself album?” asked a third.
It was a defining moment.
“All of this got me to thinking that maybe I still had an audience,” he says, “and might have something that they would be interested in.
“So, I contacted Jelly Roll Johnson, a great harmonica player and one of my oldest and dearest friends, and told him that I was considering playing music again. I had not played a note at that point for 15 years.
Johnson’s response? “I think that’s great, but if you’re going to do that, you need to come with me to SPAH’s annual convention in August.” ─ SPAH being the Society for the Preservation and Advancement of the Harmonica.
Gazell agreed, traveling to Dallas, Texas, for the organization’s 2003 convention. It was an eye-opening experience. “I couldn’t believe what had happened in the 15 years that I’d been away from the music scene,” he recalls. “Guys were doing stuff I didn’t think was possible, and I was nothing short of dumbstruck!”
The more PT listened, the more he became aware of a trend: an attempt by convention-goers to emulate Howard Levy’s sound. “I was vaguely aware of Howard Levy and his technique” says Gazell, “because when I dropped out, he was just becoming a household name.”
The more Gazell listened, the more he realized that if he was going to be relevant, he too was going to have to embrace Levy’s technique. But, after learning how it was done, PT found himself in a state of dismay.
“I just couldn’t get my head around it,” he explains. “Levy’s method was counterintuitive to everything I and the average harmonica player did, and it just seemed so wrong to me. So, I walked away from the convention saying to myself, ‘That’s not what I do. I don’t want to learn that technique. I don’t like it. I don’t think I can do it. And maybe I’m silly thinking I should start playing again.’”
Dejected, Gazelle felt as if the diatonic community had passed him by. “I guess I was a little disappointed when I found out how the overblow worked,” he says, “and the fact that it didn’t fit my style of playing.”
And then, a glimmer of hope. Stopping by the Hohner booth on the convention floor, PT met Hohner’s Rick Epping, who had come to the convention to debut the company’s new XB40. When Gazelle shared his frustration, Epping suggested that he try the company’s new instrument, which, while larger than Levy’s model, did everything Gazell thought a diatonic should do.
But for every plus, there was a minus. For starters, PT wasn’t crazy about the sound, and the size proved to be a bit unwieldy. And so, while he thought the XB40 was “cool”, he realized almost immediately that he was never going to be as fluid as he was on the regular diatonic. And yet, inspired by the possibilities, he returned to Nashville determined to build a better mousetrap.
Not long after he returned, an Australian friend and harmonica techie paid Gazell a visit, and offered to dismantle PT’s new harp and see what he could see. And what he could see were valves.
What, he wondered, would happen if he were to add valves to one of Gazell’s traditional (and far smaller) diatonic ─ one on the number five draw slot, the other, on the number six?
This promising solution was hindered by the harmonica’s plastic windsavers, which tended to rattle, pop and stick. The key, Gazell believed, lay in finding the right material. After a year’s-worth of sampling, he found the answer. A search for a better reed set-up followed.
Spurred on by the possibilities, PT returned to the studio, recording two albums on the self-valved diatonic: Swinging Easy and Hittin’ Hard, along with a third album Back to Back in 2007 with New Zealand artist Brendan Power.
That same year, Gazell was invited to perform at the Buckeye Harmonica Club’s annual convention in Ohio, where the Germany-based Seydel company had a booth. When Seydel’s rep gave PT one of their new models to try on for size, Gazell was impressed, and would later agree to endorse the instrument in exchange for the harp maker taking a serious look at the inroads he had made in his half-valved diatonic.
Three years later, Seydel introduced the signature Gazell method model, featuring the stainless steel reeds and set up he had worked on for so long. It was a gratifying culmination of years of hard work and perseverance.
Today, Seydel produces a series of the signature models, enabling traditional diatonic players to bend with the best of them, without sacrificing the sound or facility.
Which brings us back to PT Gazell, who is most definitely one of the best of them. In 2011 he recorded Two Days Out. The Grammy-nominated album featured the half-valved diatonic, flugelhorn and trombone, paving the way for 2016’s A Madness to the Method, which received three Grammy nominations.
Today, the man who once felt left behind, is far ahead of the curve, with music that both astounds and resounds.