By Brian Ojanpa
Free Press Staff Writer
MANKATO — Jerry Udelhofen made his musical debut when he was 6.
He was playing a drum in a marching band led by his father when the strap broke on his instrument, and people gathered around to help.
That may have been the last performance mishap in the career of a percussionist who became the Mankato area’s gold standard for drummers.
“He was considered to be the top of the heap. A lot of drummers would just come to watch Jerry play,” said Jim McGuire of Mankato, who played in bands off and on with Udelhofen for 40 years.
Udelhofen, who died Wednesday at 91, made a living as a drummer his entire adult life, his vaunted technique earning him widespread respect and opportunities to perform with jazz greats such as Dave Brubeck and Charlie Byrd.
Udelhofen, whose family operated a Mankato music store, was in the U.S. Army band during World War II and later played with hotel bands in Denver, Kansas City and elsewhere.
“Basically, music was his whole life,” McGuire said of the never-married Udelhofen, who continued to drum until 2008, when health issues silenced his sticks.
McGuire said he’d drive to the care facility where Udelhofen lived, pack up his drums in the car and McGuire would take him to perform somewhere.
McGuire said he and a buddy formed a jazz band in high school in the early ’60s and took the bold step of asking Udelhofen to audition with them.
“He was reluctant because he was about twice our age, but we knew that if we could get Jerry, we had it made.”
Udelhofen eventually took them up on the offer.
“They kept asking me to play with them, and I felt kind of funny playing with two kids,” Udelhofen said in a 2006 Free Press article. “But I decided to give them a try, and they were pretty good.”
Mankato music store owner Rod Scheitel said Udelhofen drummed locally with a band into his old age, and just watching him doing so provided a window into his lifelong passion.
“He’d sit back there and you could just see that endorphin-release thing,” Scheitel said in comparing what Udelhofen felt when performing to the “runner’s high” distance runners experience.
“He became fluid, and he’d be smiling,” Scheitel said. “As he was playing his drums as an older man, he became a younger man.”