Bops for hops

Local jazz saxophonist Sam Stranz crafts tunes inspired by Wisconsin beers

By Rachel Sankey

Local jazz saxophonist Sam Stranz performs with his quartet at Stillmank Brewing Company. Stranz is working on a series of jazz songs inspired by Wisconsin-crafted beers. Photo courtesy of Sam Stranz


Sam Stranz, who co-runs the Green Bay Jazz Orchestra (GBJO) and the local ensemble Little Big Band, has a long-running love affair with jazz.

Born and raised in Wausau, Stranz’s love for music started in second grade when he started playing piano. When middle school band came into the picture and piano wasn’t an option, Stranz said he gravitated towards the saxophone, despite being pushed to play trumpet instead.

From there, he played in all the jazz and concert bands throughout middle and high school. Stranz took private lessons from John Greiner at the Wausau Conservatory of Music.

“When I heard the whole band behind me I kind of fell in love with that sound and that jazz style,” Stranz said. “That’s when I started really taking saxophone seriously.”

Stranz went on to receive a degree in Jazz Studies and Arts Management as well as a masters in Jazz Pedagogy at the University of Northern Iowa and works in events management in Green Bay.

When he’s not working with GBJO or the 10 piece ensemble Little Big Band, Stranz is crafting “Tunes on Tap,” an album inspired by Green Bay and Wisconsin beer.

“I’ve experimented with coming up with a melody or a chord progression that I like, and then working from there, starting with a name and trying to create a mood based on the title that I came up with, Stranz said.

In this case, it was Stranz drinking a Stillmank Brewing Company beer, Wisco Disco. The word “disco” inspired him to create a cool jazz tune with disco beats. After enjoying creating a song after the beer, he decided to try different beers from local breweries. Stranz said he has composed six tunes based on Wisconsin beers.

Stranz said the flavors are also part of the inspiration process when composing. For Wisco Disco, the flavor was light and crisp, Stranz said much like a summer backyard party kind of beer. He wanted to create a song with a peppy feel.

Stranz also drew inspiration from Stovepipe, a Hinterland Brewery (1001 Lombardi Access Rd) Imperial Stout released in the brewery’s Out of the Woods series. Stovepipe is a thick and dark beer, meant for slow drinking. Stranz said he wrote “Out of the Woods” in the middle of the pandemic.

“Out of the woods, to me, meant hope, getting out of this universal crisis,” Stranz said. “There’s an alternation between a major chord and a minor chord kind of back and forth. So that kind of represented the day to day. For me, the pandemic was a lot of good days, and then bad days and alternating back and forth. I wanted to make something that was relaxing but contemplative.”

Buzzy Badger, a Badger State Brewing Company (990 Tony Canadeo Run) creation, provided Stranz with a more punchy, chaotic composition that moves quickly, on par to the light, coffee-infused ale and the mean demeanor of a badger.

While Stranz continues to write hops-inspired bops, he said his ensemble, the Sam Stranz Quartet, has struggled to get into a studio to record because of the ongoing pandemic.

“My goal eventually is to have my own small studio to record things on my own,” Stranz said. “I’m really interested in recording technologies and doing research on microphones and different home setups.”

The Sam Stranz Quartet will be performing some holiday tunes along with some of the pieces from “Tunes on Tap” at Stillmank Brewing Company (215 N Henry St) at 6 pm on Friday, Dec. 17.


Rachel Sankey is an Arts and Entertainment Reporter for Green Bay City Pages. She can be reached via email at [email protected]

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