Published on 1/21/2007
Jazz performer Richard Wetmore grew up during the Great Depression, but lived a life of great joy. Friends and family remember him as a man rich with humor and compassion, who saw himself as an instrument to entertain and encourage others. When he died on Jan. 4, a few days short of his 80th birthday, the personal legacy he left was as impressive as his place in jazz history.
"Dick was such a youthful spirit, and we just had a heck of a lot of fun, which is really what music is all about -- or can be, if given a chance," said Tom Tracy, a Cape Cod-based musician who was Wetmore's performing partner during much of the 1980s and '90s.
"I have seen him get up and play and other musicians would just quit playing, their jaws hanging open," remembered Mary Lu Wetmore, who is married to the late violinist's nephew, French.
Wetmore was born and raised in Glens Falls, the youngest child of Louis, an architect, and Laura (Bemis), the daughter of a prominent local doctor. His mother, an amateur musician, had high hopes that one of her children would become a professional classical performer, and Wetmore seemed to be on his way for awhile. He started playing music at 6 -- on a toy violin from the local Woolworth's -- and studied with regionally renowned violinist Virginia DeBlasiis throughout his childhood.
He was drafted into the Army in 1945, at age 17, marking the end of his time in Glens Falls and the beginning of his jazz career. Since the Army band had no violins, he taught himself to play the cornet (a type of horn), and got a part in the Hattiesburg, Miss.-based 391 ASF Band.
"That's really where he learned to improvise; learned jazz and Dixieland and bebop," said his great-nephew, Jameson Wetmore, who has studied his uncle's career and collected all his recordings. "From there, it just took off."
His mother wasn't thrilled, but the public was, according to family members. The violin was an unusual vehicle for jazz at the time, and Wetmore's knack for improvisation and unique style of playing -- he sometimes plucked the strings like a guitar -- quickly earned him a measure of fame.
After his year of service, Wetmore started playing in the Boston area, where his parents had moved during his absence. He played back-up gigs for the likes of Peggy Lee, Mel Torme and Rosemary Clooney, formed his own quartet, and eventually enrolled at the New England Conservatory of Music. At the conservatory, he met composer Bob Zieff, who wrote the music for Wetmore's self-titled album released in 1955.
Wetmore's career continued to blossom over the next few years. He became a frequent guest on radio and television programs, including The Tonight Show. He was featured on several more recordings as part of a string jazz quartet led by Vinnie Burke, and played gigs all over New York City with jazz legends like Billie Holliday, Sarah Vaughn, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie.
But as Wetmore's professional successes piled up, so did his personal problems. He drank so much that he did not even remember some of the gigs he played, and later told his family that "the only reason he was alive was because he was scared of needles" at a time when heroin use was common among jazz musicians, his great-nephew said.
"He was lucky in a number of ways, but the alcohol certainly did stunt his career. He couldn't quite jump up to the next big level, although he did put out some very great albums," Jameson said.
Wetmore's life changed when a friend convinced him to join an Alcoholics Anonymous support group. He stopped drinking in 1972 and stayed sober for the rest of his life, using his experience to mentor others through addiction problems.
Joyce Getty of Salem, Wetmore's niece, said her uncle seemed to have "found himself" in his later years.
"He told me that he was an instrument -- that he had a purpose, and that was to make music, guided by a higher power," she said.
He moved to Cape Cod and stayed away from the music scene for several years because it was so connected to the bar scene. One summer night in 1978, he went to a Brewster bar called The Woodshed to hear the popular local jazz duo of Tom Tracy and Pete Buscemi.
Tracy was skeptical when Wetmore, who was 20 years his senior, approached the duo after the show and suggested playing together. But when they gave him a chance, both men were "blown away" by Wetmore's skill and creativity.
"He was the real deal," Tracy said. "My only relationship with the violin before that was hearing it played classically, so that was a real eye-opener." The next night, Wetmore joined the duo at the Wood Shed, and "he just knocked the socks off the crowd," Tracy said.
By 1980, Tracy and Wetmore had forged a musical partnership called "Where's Harry," playing off their first names -- Tom and Dick. They played all over the Cape for most of the next 14 years.
Wetmore moved to Florida in 1996, but their friendship remained strong, Tracy said. "One of the things he used to say was, 'Just keep showing up.' That was his motto in the world -- just be there, 100 percent," Tracy remembered. "He always did that as a player, and as a human being, and brought a lot of love to people. I'm going to miss him a great deal."
In the early 1990s, Wetmore joined his nephew French's family in Indiana for Thanksgiving. Marjorie Bach, French's mother-in-law, impulsively switched the placecards at the table so she could sit next to Wetmore, "since we were the only two single people there," she said. They hit it off, sparking a long-distance romance, and married a few years later.
"I just thought Dick was a pretty neat guy to spend the rest of my life with," Marjorie said. "I feel very privileged, especially now that so many people are showing how much they adored this man. I had one over them -- I adored him, and I had him."
Some of her favorite moments were simple day-to-day routines, like drinking coffee together in bed each morning. In recent years, as Dick's emphysema sapped his strength, that ritual could last several hours before he felt able to get up, she said. They passed the time with jokes and songs, competing to see who could remember the most words to old tunes.
"I tried my darndest not to let him get sad," Marjorie said. "We found that we could entertain ourselves, and survive the trauma that we were going through."
The couple moved from Florida to Indiana last May to be closer to family members.
"It was going to be an adventure," Marjorie said. "Of course, we didn't know it would be such a short one."
The hardest part of everything, she said, was the day she realized her husband would never again play the violin.
"He could make that violin talk. I don't really think there's anyone else that has been that versatile and marvelous," she said.
And if Wetmore's mother had lived to see it, she might have been proud that her son did eventually perform with a professional orchestra. In 1996, the Cape Cod Symphony Orchestra featured Wetmore as a jazz violin soloist, improvising on the tunes of George Gershwin and Jerome Kern.--