Bruce ‘Bill’ Sweet (1968) Drums
I appreciated attending New Trier High School more than college! I periodically ponder whether my life would be different without my experiences as a member of the New Trier West Jazz Ensemble? Of course it would! The lessons I learned in managing time, playing time, having a good time, and developing lifelong friendships, would have never happened. Without the jazz ensemble, I would not appreciate jazz and fusion to the extent I do. Cooperating and rehearsing, with others, to produce a great sound encouraged me to strive for other great goals. Being associated with the jazz ensemble has been invaluable. And meeting Roger Mills, the director, proved to be one of the great experiences I was fortunate to have.
One of the best decisions ever made by my father was for my sister Cody, my brother Chuck, and I to attend New Trier High School. My parent’s foresight to move to Wilmette, so their children could attend New Trier, paid social dividends for all three of us children. I enjoy showing-off and watching the reactions when I tell people I went to New Trier.
In sixth grade and during junior high, I played drums in the school concert bands. In seventh grade, a neighborhood band I formed was called The Midnight Sons. Then I substituted in a couple of jazz-like bands one being a Dixieland band. On a riverboat restaurant, anchored in the Chicago River, near downtown Chicago, Wednesday noon lunch had a Dixieland band play where musicians could sit-in, which I did. Then nearby was the popular and famous Frank’s Drum Shop which you just had to visit when in the Chicago downtown Loop.
I had another avocation, radio. In the sixth grade, I built an AM radio station in my bedroom. I called it WGBS, the Wilmette General Broadcasting System, 870 on the AM dial. My dad helped me wire an antenna outside the window by my desk. I would broadcast talk and music to the nearest neighborhood. I also became a ham radio operator with the call signature, WA9VNR, Whiskey Able 9 Very Normal Radio.
In 2001, I passed several FCC tests and became an Extra Class ham operator which requires understanding twenty words a minute in Morse Code.
In the seventh grade, my cousin, a professional musician who owned a music store in Denver, got me my first drum set (at a discount). It turned out to be the same model Ludwig drum set that Ringo Star played.
When I was in the eighth grade, my sister had me see the talent show at New Trier East called Lagniappe. One act was six drummers playing a coordinated drum solo called Fifty-Four Heads. It was written by New Trier’s percussion teacher, Jake Jerger. What a show! Jake produced great students.
When I was a freshman at New Trier, I became a student of Jake Jerger. Mr. Jerger was a Navy and military style teacher. His discipline worked well with students. However, with more rebellious rock and roll music affecting teenagers and the Vietnam War looming, “times were a changing.” Teaching with using too much discipline was unappreciated. During the 1960s students wanted less formality. Jake Jerger’s style and reputation, which was so effective and respected, became an anachronism. He did not like what was happening with what had worked well until the mid-1960’s.
My class became the first students to attend the brand- new New Trier West campus in Northfield.
At the beginning of the year, NTW did not have a gymnasium or a completed music building. The music students for orchestra and concert band had to play in classrooms. Sam Mages was the conductor.
For the first year, our gym classes were held in a large room which in the future became a greeting hall and lounge. When waiting around to start a gym class, I was playing drum sticks on a bench. Classmate Gerry Grossman saw it and invited me to join his rock ‘n roll band he called The Maniacs. Gerry was the leader, David Epstein was the second guitar player, and tall John Gordon was on a tall bass.
Years later, Gerry became popular as a one-man act, The Human Jukebox. He opened for many famous acts like Bruce Springsteen and Lead Zeppelin. Dave became an M.D. John became a respected expert in artificial intelligence.
Aside from the band gigs Gerry landed, for the first year of NTW, the Maniacs played eleven times for the new school. One time was for a battle of the bands which the Maniacs won. I also won the drum portion of the drum battle. Jake Jerger helped me organize how my drum solo would unfold.
During the second year of West’s existence, I was getting itchy to follow jazz as well as rock ‘n roll. Roger Mills was pulling together students interested in playing in a stage band and jazz combos. We were having the greatest time with what Mr. Mills was teaching us about jazz.
From so much involvement with playing jazz and big band music, my rock and roll playing began to suffer. The Maniacs noticed it. The Maniacs told me they had a different drummer joining them. I agreed. They had to do a change because I had too much distraction. I was still a substitute.
In 1966, Mr. Mills coined a phrase that spilled over to other schools and across state lines. Instead of calling a jazz band a stage band, Roger Mills came up with the name Jazz Ensemble. The two words jazz ensemble stuck and spread!
One exciting element of jazz that opened-up a whole new world for me was learning about improvisation. We all learned from Mr. Mills how a random set of sounds need not be chaotic sounds. Improvisation could create actual pleasing sounds and subtle patterns which were spontaneously random, but somehow the sounds began to make musical sense.
I believe it was trumpet players Bill Kroeger, Robert Preston, saxophonist Bob Giles, and trombonist Steven Loewy who began calling Mr. Mills Coach. Roger Mills became known as Coach to his jazz players.
There is quite a story as to how Coach was hired to be a fulltime teacher at NTW.
(You can read about the story of Roger’s hiring elsewhere on the website.) Suffice it to say, many of us, music students, and a few parents campaigned for Roger to be hired full-time. Fortunately, our enthusiasm worked!
A friend of mine, Ron Friedman, was a sixth-grade student of my mothers. I became very good friends with him during our grade school years. Ron would come over to New Trier West and listen to our rehearsals. He really wanted to play trumpet in our jazz ensemble. I told Mr. Mills about him and subsequently Ron introduced himself to Mr. Mills. Coach could not turn down such a nice kid and did allow him to sit in occasionally. Ron went on to be a premier touring professional and a member of top singers’ bands in the music business for decades.
Two other drummers who played in the NTW jazz groups were Tom Laney and Isidro Perez. Isidro’s father was an M.D. and had played guitar in a swinging jazz band in Cuba until he escaped his country. His father played guitar in a rehearsal band that met on Thursday’s evenings at the Cubby Bear Inn Bar across from Wrigley Field in Chicago. Dr. Perez used to take Isidro and me to the rehearsals. We got to sit-in. Also, Ron Friedman drove to these rehearsals. One time we arrived late for a rehearsal because Dr. Perez had to stop off at a hospital to check on a newborn baby.
On January 26th and 27th, 1967, the entire Chicago area experienced the worst snowstorm since records were kept. Twenty-three inches accumulated. NTW was shut down for a week. I missed my friends and especially playing in the bands. We did not have iPhones, but we used regular phones to keep in touch with friends.
In the summer of ‘67, seven of us, along with Mr. Mills, traveled by Greyhound bus to South Bend, Indiana for a week of jazz camp. Attending jazz camp was an incredible experience. Alan Dawson was the drum instructor.
In early December 1967, Sam Mages had to quickly put together members of the concert band to play outdoors on the bleachers of New Trier East. West’s football team was in the Illinois state semi-finals. West lost the football game, but it was a fun opportunity to play that loud and motivational music for the parents and sports fans.
A fond memory was International Religious Day, the last week of October 1967. Mr. Mills managed to get combo members out of their regular academic classes for the entire day. Coach had trained us on playing one song, a slow New Orleans Dixieland song which elicited emotions about the fight for religious freedom in the United States. At ten o’clock in the morning, we performed the song at Loyola Academy, a private Jesuit high school down the block from New Trier West. In the afternoon, we performed the song in honor of the day for an assembly held at the West campus.
In November 1967, Coach informed us about a jazz festival at Elmhurst College in mid-November. A small group of us, along with Ron Friedman, traveled to Elmhurst to hear great college bands from around the country.
Two of the judges were David Baker, jazz celloist, and Phil Wilson, trombonist. In the evening of day two, we were walking with Phil and heard jazz music coming from the student union building. Mr. Wilson had his trombone.
We all went inside and jumped on stage and improvised a couple of tunes.
In mid-March 1968, Phil Wilson came to NTW to put on a jazz clinic. He had a cast on his leg from a fall and joked about it. He coached the jazz ensemble for its upcoming competition in Mundelein, Illinois.
The next week of March was New Trier’s spring break. To show our commitment, with no one else on campus, the jazz ensemble held several rehearsals. These vacation day rehearsals were in preparation for Mundelein on April 6th. (You can read about the Mundelein competition elsewhere on the website.)
After graduating high school, many band members referred to their good memories and how special it was to be part of the NTW jazz experience. For example, Robert Preston told me that being in Coach’s jazz ensemble was extraordinary for him. Playing in the ensemble positively affected his outlook on most everything he did. I would call my experiences at NTW a preparation for life’s experiences.
My best friend at New Trier was Marjorie Black. Marji got me involved with Soundtracks. Soundtracks recorded the major events during the year which were excerpted on a LP record. The LP was available to students and faculty to buy every June. Drummer Tom Laney also joined Soundtracks. Of all the teachers at New Trier, Sam Mages happened to be our faculty advisor for Soundtracks.
As a brand-new school, New Trier had a contest for a name for the annual talent show. Marji Black’s name won. The show is called Potpourri. A number of jazz musicians were in the pit band for the shows. Ron Friedman also played in the pit band and Bill Kroeger was the conductor. Kroeger became New Trier West’s first student musical conductor.
During 1967 and 1968, I built a closed-circuit television station in my Wilmette basement. I had four houses hooked up by cable wires. Classmate Doug Bourer was an expert at climbing trees. Doug strung the cables between the houses.
Now anyone can have his or her own television station by using his iPhone or having a YouTube Channel. My homebuilt station was a big deal at the time. I received press attention. I was on a Chicago TV news show, a show called It’s Academic, and I was interviewed on the Today Show on NBC from my basement in Wilmette.
These were busy times, and music was strewn throughout it. In the spring of ‘68, rock and roll radio station WCFL sponsored a drum competition. A roster of four hundred drummers were pared down to twenty drummers. I met with Jake Jerger to organize a twelve-minute drum solo. I asked my friends Tom Weislow and Ron Friedman to drive me to the drum battle which was held at Chicago’s Aragon Ballroom. Tom Laney let me borrow his gorgeous Camco drum set (the predecessor of DW Drums) for the occasion. I came in fifth place in the contest.
At the end of the school year, the jazz ensemble played for Parents Night in the cafeteria. Soon after that performance, all the jazz ensembles and combos played a concert together on the stage of the theatre and music building. We were relaxed and had a wonderful time. Ernest Passoja, the trombone teacher, had his students play a jazz tune written for trombones. Bassist, Scott Rosenthal and drummer, Tom Laney accompanied them.
During the summers of 1967 and 1968, Sam Mages oversaw the concerts in Gilson Park on the Wilmette lakefront. He asked me to be the master of ceremonies. Both East and West had their choirs, concert bands, chamber musicians, jazz ensembles, and combos play at these outdoor performances.
By then, I had wished high school were five years instead of four.
I did have to start getting my mind wrapped around college which began in August. I majored in radio, television, and speech at Illinois State University. Soon after the fall semester began, I got a call from the music director of the concert bands. He said Roger Mills told him to get on Bruce Sweet’s case to join the college band. The director tried hard, but I told him I went home about twice a month to play a band gig. Also, I was doing announcing for the radio and television stations on campus. My decision was a good one because I was tied up with enough activities.
I was one of three drummers who played for the University talent show held at the end of second semester.
What Jake Jerger, Roger Mills, Sam Mages, and jazz camp taught me was, playing an instrument will always be with you. It’s true. I put myself through college playing drums.
Toward the end of second semester, I got a phone call from Ron Friedman. He landed a summer job for the two of us at the fabulous Grand Hotel on Mackinaw Island in upper Michigan. The hotel has the longest porch in the world. It was the length of three football fields. I played in the Grand Hotel’s ten-piece dance band for two summers. The hotel band played for six hours a night. The hard part was keeping my white and black tuxedos clean.
Ron practiced his trumpet in the afternoon every day. There was a flagpole near the hotel. When the Michigan flag was displayed, it meant the governor and often someone important was on the island and would be visiting the hotel.
After college, I was hired as a recruiter for workers in the computer field. I traveled to the Loop every day on the L Train. There were no small computers then. Programmers were in demand.
A nightclub act asked me to be their drummer. What appeared to be an unwise move, I joined the act and quit my day job. You get this show business music addiction in you and cannot shake it sometimes.
My sister, Cody Sweet, was the first person to speak about body language to the general public and on television. She earned a Ph.D. in social psychology at Northwestern University which our great grandfather, Eli Lewis, was a founder.
Doing well in her career touring, writing, making television appearances on body language such as What’s My Line, Phil Donahue, and Mike Douglas. She also developed The Body Language Board Game for Milton Bradley. It has been made into Body Language, the TV show on the BUZZR network. She wrote Nonverbal Nuggets: A Garden of Body Language Musings during the covid.
Cody bought me a one-of-a-kind drum set in 1978. Ludwig built a set with primary colors — red, blue, yellow — in transparent plexiglass with tiny lights. I used this drum set for special gigs especially extended stays at nightclubs. The drum set doubles as my Christmas tree. Cody also gave me the name for my booking agency — Bands R Us.
I booked seven bands, some comedians, and magicians. I became involved in investing. The training at New Trier prepared me for this step.
My band played 275 weddings and three divorce parties. (The later always gets a reaction!)
Arriving home from band jobs, I was displeased with what I heard on my stereo system. My stereo music did not sound anything close to a real live band playing. So, derivative from working on Soundtracks at New Trier, I found myself becoming an audiophile.
Audiophiles are ear-fanatics who search for the Holy Grail in sound reproduction in music. Over years I have put together an advanced stereo system that is a Rube Goldberg. If you look up Rube Goldberg, it is a complex device which is so delicate, change one detail and it does not work properly.
I am a showoff. With my delicate stereo system, I enjoy sharing realistic music with visitors. If there was one good thing about the coronavirus shutdown, it was some people were so bored staying at home that they relented and came over to hear my audiophile system.
A momentous lesson for a musician and audiophile to learn involves protecting one’s hearing. My hearing is outstanding. I wear earplugs when playing with loud bands. I have earplugs when listening to live bands, going to concerts, and don’t forget your earplugs in movie theatres! Movie theatres are killers.
At the beginning of the coronavirus crisis, a drummer friend, and a member of the rock group, The Millionaires, hurt his rotator cup. The six-piece rock ‘n roll band asked me to sub. These rockers have ruined their hearing. I wore earplugs and the loud music did not bother me. One musician poked fun at me for wearing plugs.
The funniest names for Chicago area bands are Pete Moss and the Fertilizers and The Acousticholics.
My main band was called Spectrum. Spectrum could stretch from two to fourteen musicians.
Another band I organized was called The Odd Company. We played a couple odd jobs. For example, we played a party for a gathering of professional race car drivers. A race car was in the middle of the dance floor. All the men and women were dressed in race car outfits.
My sister, Cody, was engaged to Rodney Dangerfield. One weekend, Rodney came into O’Hare to entertain at the Italian American International Day. I needed a ride to a Friday night gig, and they drove me to it. When we arrived, I got out of the car and then Rodney got out of the car. You should have seen the wide-eyed expressions on my band members’ faces and one set of parents who came along when they saw Rodney Dangerfield lugging my tom-tom into the hall. Priceless.
My sister and I joined the Board of Directors for the Northwest Suburban Community Concert Association in Arlington Heights. For the NSCCA, we helped chose and hire the talent, often celebrities, for the concerts. Cody was the talent booker. I was the stage manager. The coronavirus pandemic put our NSCCA out of-business.
An interest of mine is consciousness related research. The words paranormal phenomena bring up bad associations and assumptions for people. Better words for it are transrational phenomena, extranormal phenomena, and extraordinary phenomena.
I belong to a group of amateur scientists called Spindrift Research. Spindrift has done scientific research of human consciousness and prayer. Spindrift Research began in Schaumburg near my home in Mount Prospect. See www.SpindriftResearch.org.
I have written two books on Spindrift, extraordinary phenomena, and some unusual discoveries by consciousness science. One book is A Journey into Prayer: Pioneers of Prayer in the Laboratory. The other book is Spiritual Dynamite: Secrets from the Spindrift Files. I have been interviewed on television and on over two hundred radio shows. The highlight was being interviewed in 2005 by Art Bell on Coast-to-Coast AM Radio. In three hours with Art Bell, I sold five thousand copies of A Journey into Prayer. I was so fortunate to be a guest on Coast seven times so far.
So, there is an overview of my life before, during, and after New Trier. I am very grateful to Roger Mills and Sam Mages for being in my experience.