For decades, Bill Wurtzel worked in advertising by day and moonlighted as a guitarist in big bands. In 1989, he retired from advertising and turned to music full time. Now 73, he plays with the Harlem Blues and Jazz Band, performing at Henry’s on the Upper West Side and the American Folk Art Museum, among other places. Mr. Wurtzel is a founding director of the Jazz Foundation of America, which helps jazz and blues musicians in need. He and his wife of 49 years, Claire, live on the Upper West Side.
Getting started: I was surrounded by country music living above my parents’ saloon in Forestburgh, N.Y. When I was 9, in 1947, a cowboy entertainer taught me a couple of chords. I haven’t put the guitar down since.
Musical genes? My dad had an ear for music, and encouraged me.
Studies: I learned to play by ear, which is an advantage. Since the age of 12, I played and sang at hotels, on radio and TV shows, along with Connie Francis. At 14, my parents realized that I was serious about the guitar and hired a violin/guitar teacher. After two lessons, he said I was unteachable but hired me to accompany him on gigs. As an adult, I studied with Skeeter Best, Barry Galbraith, Remo Palmier, Howard Morgen and classical guitarist Yasha Kofman.
Improvisation: I think the ability to improvise has to come naturally. There are teaching methods. But I learned on the stand, mainly with jazz legends that Phil Schaap booked at the West End Cafe.
Reading music: If I can do it, anyone can. Reading enabled me to play with precision. And it opened up the world of classical music.
Favorite appearances: Ten after-concert parties for Paul Simon with guitarist Howard Morgen. There was always an appreciative audience. Also Jack Kleinsinger’s “Highlights in Jazz” concert with Jimmy Witherspoon, David (Fathead) Newman, Harold Ashby, Arvell Shaw, Bross Townsend and Kenny Washington. And the Jazz Icons trio with Bob Cranshaw and the late Benny Powell.
Current gigs: Jazz club, concert, private affair, restaurant — as long as it’s fun.
Tastes: I love mainstream jazz and the American songbook. Albums I’ve played on range from gospel, mainstream and soul jazz to Christmas songs in Latin.
Favorite guitar: The Gibson L-4 I’ve had since 16.
Current project: My own CD is in the works.
Other interests: In addition to playing full time, I’m beginning a project for schools to help with childhood obesity. I make fun breakfasts for my wife spontaneously on weekends and have photos of over 400 of them. I plan to do a book called “Breakfast for Claire.”
Advice for beginners: Listen to the greats, follow tradition and keep learning — ideally from someone who’s paid their dues. I’m happy to share what I know with the younger generation, like my 16-year-old grandson, Ethan Glenn, who plays drums with my group.
Making a living: Players often supplement their income by teaching. But many older musicians are having a rough time. I tell kids, keep the flame alive, but find another way to pay the rent.