Some places come and go, while some places become icons. Mandatory Milwaukee is all about the latter. Join us as we revisit beloved and well-worn local staples with fresh eyes, and explore how they might figure in the city’s future.
Back in 2017 we included WMSE 91.7 FM in our then-new “Mandatory Milwaukee” feature. “WMSE continues to create community for left-of-the-dial listeners,” read the headline. The piece itself was more of a celebration of the idea of WMSE—a decades-old free-form independent radio station steeped in community involvement and support—and less a celebration of its individual shows. After all, how could you pick just one? There’s the Saturday Afternoon Boogie Bang. There’s the Chickenshack. There’s the Tom Wanderer Radio Experience. There’s Poundcake Punk. There’s the Von Munz Vinyl Variety Hour. There’s any three-hour block that Chris Schulist happens to be filling in for. There are many, many more. To focus on an individual show would be futile.
So let’s focus on an individual show: Dewey Gill’s Big Band Program.
Since the 1981 beginnings of WMSE, Gill has been taking listeners back to the era of big band swing and jazz, roughly covering the years between 1920 and 1950. Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Count Basie, Glenn Miller, and Cab Calloway are just a few of the legendary, long-gone players that Gill bestows with rare radio time. What’s more, he does it all via 78- and 33-rpm vinyl records.
“I grew up on that stuff,” Gill told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in 2014. “My parents liked it and we had a jukebox in the basement.”
But it’s the Big Band Program’s familiar, ritualistic nature that makes it “Mandatory Milwaukee” material. Airing Sundays from 9 a.m. until noon, it’s an essential part of the weekend, a necessary accompaniment to puttering around the house, a scratchy Sunday soundtrack for your morning coffee. Once the Big Band Program becomes part of your Sunday morning routine, it’s forever part of your Sunday morning routine.
That’s not to say the show is easy-listening background music. It can be used as that, of course, but it can also be used as a history lesson. Gill, unsurprisingly, is an expert on the genre, rattling off players and titles and obscure record labels with ease—all in an instantly recognizable voice that falls somewhere between “hoarse” and “soothing.” And even if you’re not taking notes on the bandleaders of the day, there’s something innately pleasurable about simply listening to someone sharing their expertise.
“There used to be other shows like this on the air in Milwaukee,” Gill says in a 2011 video. “But I’m kind of the last guy standing for this style of music.” May he stand for years to come. Gill is inextricably part of Milwaukee’s radio landscape. Sunday mornings wouldn’t be the same without him.
Find archived shows of Dewey Gill’s Big Band Program HERE.
Exclusive articles, podcasts, and more. Support Milwaukee Record on Patreon.