Chuck Oettel’s eyes light up as he talks about his late wife, Debbie.
She was a beloved nurse, Oettel remembers, devoting countless hours to the care and well-being of others. She was a faithful wife who could be spotted in the crowd at almost every one of Oettel’s concerts. And she was a music lover herself, especially of the soulful sounds of Motown.
In 2017, Debbie Oettel was tending to her garden when she suffered a stroke that took her life. She was 61.
Oettel, a man of faith, says he is neither bitter at God, nor is he angry. But, he wanted to honor his late wife in the best way he knows how: through his music.
Earlier this year, Oettel’s jazz quartet, Swing Street, released its debut album, “I’ll Remember April.” The title serves two purposes: it’s the name of an old standard, which Swing Street covers on the album, and it’s also the month Oettel wed his bride in 1976.
Swing Street will perform songs from “I’ll Remember April” at three shows in the week ahead: Friday at Per Diem in Lititz, Saturday at the Conestoga Restaurant, and Wednesday at the Greenfield Restaurant.
Oettel, a Lancaster native, has been an active musician since his childhood. His first major performance was at Long’s Park with his band Chuck and the Woodchucks when he was just 12. He’s played in rock groups, big bands and jazz ensembles. He’s also been a wedding singer with the group Sounds of Saint George and served as worship leader at Grace Church at Willow Valley.
He met Swing Street’s bass player, Pete Bainbridge, when the two performed at the same big band gig.
“He is just an incredible bass player,” Oettel says.
Oettel connected with Swing Street keyboardist Mike Truitt while working at a wedding reception.
“Mike is extremely talented,” Oettel says. “He’s a monster. He can sit down and direct a whole show, work everything out on his keyboard, and then turn around and do a jazz job and come up with some of the best ideas I’ve ever heard of.”
Then, Bainbridge played a gig where Olivia Daugherty was singing. He loved her voice so much that he asked if she’d be interested in joining a band with him. The timing wasn’t quite right, though; Daugherty was in college and had two years until her degree was complete. So, the two exchanged numbers, and Daugherty said she would get in touch once her scheduled cleared. Bainbridge filled Oettel in about the interaction.
“I said, ‘Yeah right, this is going to happen,’ ” Oettel says. “'We’re never going to see her again.'”
In the meantime, Oettel, Bainbridge and Truitt started solidifying as a trio, inviting select horn players or vocalists to join. Then, they got an unexpected phone call. It was Daugherty, who wanted to know if Bainbridge and his friends were still looking for a vocalist. After one rehearsal, she was a permanent member of the band.
After playing frequently for years —six years since the three men joined forces, and five since Daugherty joined — Swing Street finally released its debut album in August.
The recordings are true to the band’s live sound — tasteful, soft jazz topped with Daugherty’s smooth vocals, devoid of drums.
“We did not add any extra tracks, like dub tracks,” Oettel says. “Olivia can make her voice sound like five or six people if she wants to. You can do anything in the studio. You can create another person or two if you want. We didn’t do any of that. What you hear on this CD is what you hear live.”
Once the band started the “I’ll Remember April” project, Oettel asked his bandmates if they would be OK with dedicating the album to his late wife. The answer was a unanimous yes.
A photo of Debbie Oettel from her nursing school days is inside of the CD’s case, under the disc. To thank his bandmates for allowing him to dedicate the album to her, he also purchased a plaque that now hangs inside of Sound Design Studios in Manor Township, where Swing Street recorded the album with John Levasseur.
“I just can’t ask to be working with any better people, from a human being standpoint, as my friends, as musicians,” Oettel says. “I’ve been blessed.”
While tragedy made him realize the fragility of life, he’s determined to approach the rest of his performing days with positivity.
“I went to hear one of my musician friends play one time. ... He said, do every show like it’s your last one, because he said someday it will be,” Oettel says. “And that’s what I try to do.”