J17: The unreleased Howie Jefferson session

In his 18 years at Long View Farm recording studios in North Brookfield, MA, owner and founder Gil Markle amassed a recorded library of music that has become literally the sound of the generation. Between the years of 1973 and 1991, he hosted such seminal artists and acts as Aerosmith, the J. Geils Band, Arlo Guthrie, The Rolling Stones, Stevie Wonder, numerous jazz fusion artists and a cast of thousands more.

For the past seven years, Markle has been painstakingly preserving these recordings, rescuing them from oxidation in hopes of maintaining the integrity of their original quality. If you missed them the first time around, in the vinyl format maybe, he has recently reissued the material on his web site, www.studiowner.com. Once there, click on “Media Library,” enter your email address, log in and enjoy the music.

In addition to the stars, Markle also captured hundreds of local and regional bands that also worked at Long View during his tenure. Among the jazz sides in the collection is a never-before-released 1980 session led by Howie Jefferson, which is quite possibly the last recording of the saxophonist. He died the following year.

The date featured Jefferson on tenor with pianist Jeff Lass, guitarist Jay Conte, bassist Paul Sokolow (overdubs) and drummer Grover Mooney. Bassist Bob Conte played bass during the original recording but his performance had to be scrapped after it was discovered that his track was damaged. Lass has since gone on to make a name for himself nationally in the film industry, scoring for such films as Dick Tracy, Iron Jawed Angels and The Killing Zone. The New York-based Sokolow has appeared in a variety of settings, including with Leni Stern, Dar Williams and Herbie Mann. Grover Mooney is no stranger to local audiences having performed in the city numerous times with Rebecca Parris. Bob Conte is still active throughout Worcester County.

The song list is basically standards and blues, including “Green Dolphin Street,” “I’ll Remember April,” “My Baby Just Cares for Me,” “One Note Samba,” “Secret Love,” “Summertime,” “There Will Never Be Another You,” and untitled blues and another untitled jam. They are listed on the Studiowner Media Library as “J. B. Railstop,” named after the Spencer restaurant, where Carmella’s on Rte. 9 sits today. It was then owned by the Conte brothers.

Markle says he was a big fan of Jefferson and a regular at the restaurant. “I had eyes for one of the young waitresses,” he says laughing. “So I found myself going there to get a bit closer to her, which never occurred. The residuals involved Howie Jefferson.”

Markle was uniquely qualified for such recordings. His father was an audio engineer for NBC and his mother was the big band singer, Connie Gates. The Media Library is actually a page on Markle’s web site, which is virtually an interactive memoir titled, Diary of a Studio Owner. Today, Markle is the owner of Passports Educational Travel, which sponsors the overseas travel for several thousand American students each year. He no longer has any involvement with the recording studio.

As a fan of Jefferson, Markle arranged the session in 1980 on his time and his dime. “I invited them back there for the hell of it,” he says. “I wanted Jefferson to meet Jeff Lass, the piano player, knowing they were playing the same material. They just sat down together and played, basically with no rehearsal. It was all one session.”

Reading from notes he took on the session, Markle says the songs were minimally rehearsed. “Structurally, they were all classical jazz renditions,” he says. “They all typically begin with an intro piano. Howie then jumps in and plays the melody once or twice. Then there’s a guitar solo which plays a couple of verses. Then it goes back to Jeff Lass on piano. Then bass solo. Then Howie jumps back in on the finale, which generally ends with a piano outro. They are all the same.”

Markle recalls how Jefferson liked to set up in front of a microphone. “He put one of our condenser mikes into the horn of his saxophone. He said he liked to record that way. It rattled. Instead, we positioned him between two very expensive Neumann condenser microphones.”

When asked why the bass was replaced, he says, “I forget what the reason was. It was technically defective. Wouldn’t work. So it was a couple of weeks later that we replaced the bass using Sokolow – one of Jeff Lass’ guys. Bob Conte may not even know about it, and it may not be apparent to him when he listens to it. Sokolow pretty much emulated his performance.”

The Media Library offers both audio and video files of exceptionally high quality. They can be played in real time (streamed) using Flash technology, encoded at uncommonly high bit-rates. Another exceptional feature about the site is that the archival files may be downloaded for personal (only) use, in iPod-ready format.

The amazing thing about the Jefferson material is that it was never mixed. “They were what we called board mixes,” he says. “I did it on the spot in order to check out the integrity of the Sokolow bass overdubs. I made a straight copy without any EQ, without any volume moves in order to focus the attention on the artist doing the solo. Just a flat, straight-across, board mix. It was a seven-and-a-half ips copy of that board mix that was
recovered quite by accident from a mis-labeled packing case, 25 years later, unplayed.”

Markle reports that the original 24-track tape may still exist at Long View Farm. “It should still be there, and someone competent should mix it. I’d love to do it. The fact is, that 24-track tape belongs to Howie Jefferson’s estate. I basically gifted the entire project to him. I’d involve myself with the mix project in a heartbeat. Maybe the studio will ask
me to do so.”

After the session ended, Howie wrote Markle a letter of thanks that he (Markle) still has in his possession. “It’s a wonderful letter. I saw it just a month ago. It’s in one of our red Pendaflex files in the basement. He raves on and on about the experience and thanks me for having done it for them,” Markle says.

He also reports that he had used Jefferson on other dates as well. Howie can be heard on Markle productions including three tunes sung by Joanne Barnard, “Carnival,” “Brahms’ Lullaby” and “Second Time Around,” all in the Studiowner Media Library. Click here to see Jo sing “Over the Rainbow.”

Continuing to read from his notes, Markle says, “Howie Jefferson was a consummate gentleman — no indication of any illness. His wife [actually girlfriend at the time, Joyce Burrell] however was always and painstakingly deferential to him.”

“Now that I think back on it,” Markle says. “She knew something that we didn’t, and was obviously taking care of him.”

For those who have heard Jefferson in his prime, clearly he was not on top of his game. Still, even a less-than-great rediscovered Howie Jefferson session is reason to celebrate.

Though some of his parts may have ended up on the cutting room floor, bassist Bob Conte fondly remembers Jefferson and the session.

“Gil used to come into the restaurant a lot,” he says. “He used to like listening to the music. He had also heard of Howie Jefferson. So he set up this session at Long View for Howie with brother Jay and myself and a drummer from Boston, who did a lot of work around town, Grover Mooney. He was a little bit high the day we recorded that.”

Now in his 70s and active, Conte lives in the Stiles Reservoir-area of Spencer. His real surname is Contestabile. Before Jay died 12 years ago, the Conte Brothers worked together for more than 40 years. In the early 50s they replaced the famous Soft Winds that featured Herb Ellis, Lou Carter and Johnny Frigo at the Darbry Room in Boston. In the mid-’50s they worked at the Maridor in Framingham and in the ’60s at the Sea & Surf. A list of those who sat in with the rhythm mates include such jazz stars as Errol Garner, Zoot Sims, Bobby Brookmeyer, Slam Stewart and Dave Bailey. In the two decades that they were active in Rte. 9 East clubs, young players such as Chick Corea, Steve Kuhn, Akira Tana and John Abercrombie had joined the brothers. Jay’s daughter is in the business. She is the jazz singer, Zephryn, who works in the Arizona area.

When asked how he hooked up with Jefferson, Bob says, “My brother and I were playing a duo thing at Spencer Seafood. It was Saturdays. One night Howie came in with Bill Fanning, a piano player. Howie was digging all the stuff my brother was doing. On the break, he says, ‘Yeah, I heard of you guys.’ My brother says, ‘Howie Jefferson. Yeah, I heard of you all these years.’ He heard of us but never heard us.

“So he and my brother struck up a warm relationship. He started going to my brother’s house with records. Then he started bringing his horn and sitting in down there. Before you know it, we were in the process of opening the restaurant out there. He used to come out all the time. He’s the one that suggested having jazz on Sundays.”

J. B. (Jay and Bob) Railstop was own by the Conte brothers. “We were there for four years,” Bob says. “We used to play nightly. We were there all day and we would play at night. Sunday was the jazz thing. We had various musicians — guys that we knew from Boston that would come in and sit in and play.

“One night this fellow came in and said, ‘I heard that you had jazz on Sundays. He was kind of bent-over, a skinny looking guy. He says, ‘My name is Bobby Sherwood. That name might not mean anything to you, but this guy had a band in the ’30s. He did this thing called, ‘Elks Parade,’ it was a famous song. He was married to Judy Garland’s sister, Dorothy Gumm.”

Sherwood, who was also a guitarist who replaced Eddie Lang in Bing Crosby’s band, was living in Auburn at the time of his illness. “He was staying with this woman. He was going to the Dana Farber Cancer place to get treatment,” Conte says.

Conte says playing and having guests sit-in was the best part of owning the restaurant. “The rest of it was a lot of headache,” he says. “See what happened was my brother got sick while we were there. He had congestive heart failure. He wound up in the hospital. Then I was running the place with my sister in-law and my wife. We were working our heads off. Eventually we sold the place.”

Conte says he certainly knew of Long View before recording the session.

“They used to get a lot of big names up there recording,” he says. “They’d stay over. They had the facilities. Gil had the Rolling Stones up there recording and they all came down to hear us play one night. I never got into rock stuff but they were all there sitting in the bar drinking. What’s his name, Keith Richards? He was diggin’ Jay’s playing.”

When asked if he recalled the Long View session with Jefferson, Conte says “I have a rough copy. It was all done in one session, everything was impromtu. We recorded in the house. Howie played very nicely. I enjoyed his work. Gil Markle enjoyed it too because he got it all on tape, smilin’ all the time. Jeff Lass was the piano player that Gil brought in. Excellent piano player. He was leaving to go to California right after that session.

“I actually didn’t know Howie was sick. He was going with Joyce. She used to come out with him all the time. She called me and said, ‘Howie is real sick. He’s got cancer.’

“A strange thing happened. My sister-in law had to rush my brother to the hospital one night. He couldn’t breathe. She took him to City Hospital. Howie was there at the same time. They were both being treated at the same time.”

Jay recovered. He died of a heart attack in 1995. He was 68. Howie did not, dying after being hospitalized in June of 1981. He was 67. “Howie was a real gentleman, a very nice person,” Bob says. “My brother was really sad about the whole thing.”

J16: The rediscovered radio days of Dol Brissette

A trumpeting brass section enters with great fanfare. After four bars they stop on count and an announcer’s voice bellows: “SYNCOPATION FOR THE NATION.” The orchestra then skates into its theme song. A couple of bars into it, the disembodied voice returns confidently to proclaim: “From deep in the heart of New England, that’s Worcester, Massachusetts, the National Broadcasting Company is happy to present from coast to coast music by Dol Brissette and his Orchestra with songs by Winnie Stone and Georgie Roy.”

With that, the tune approaches its cadenza. At song’s end, the broadcaster returns to introduce the first piece of the show saying, “Dol digs deep into the files for this first tune, a classic of the jazz era you’ll all remember as, ‘That’s My Weakness Now.”

The four bar intro is counted off by piano, bass and accordion before the full complement of the 12-piece ensemble joins in. The sound is archaic and ghostly. It instantly evokes the aural grist of radio’s glory days.

The tune is a happy-go-lucky little fox trot reeking of sentiment. It features a Bix-wannabe who takes a hot trumpet solo before handing it off to the trombonist who takes it for a spin a la Tommy Dorsey. The piano player also gets to shine and squeezes out a few nifty blues licks before stepping back into the fold.

The live session was recorded sometime around 1940 at WTAG AM 580, when the studios were still on the fourth floor of the Telegram & Gazette building on Franklin Street. Other syndicated shows heard on NBC at the time featured such bandleaders as Fred Waring, Guy Lombardo and Benny Goodman.

In the October 19, 1940 edition of Worcester Telegram & Gazette there is a photo of the band. The caption reads: “Dol Brissette and his WTAG-NBC orchestra which will be an entertainment feature evenings at the seventh annual Telegram and Gazette Progress Exposition in the Auditorium next week. Left to right: George Krikorian [piano], soloist Helen Dennison, violins, Elmer Johnson and Daniel Sylvester; saxophones, Frank Bicknell, Louis Alpert, Paul Rhode and Bernard Cormier; drums, Joseph Parks; trombone, George Robinson; trumpets, Lloyd Dinsdale and Frank O’Connor; director, Dol Brissette; bass violin, George Cove.”

Although it would certainly be a stretch to call him a jazz musician, Brissette was a territory bandleader of the 1930s and ’40s, who hired such players for his orchestra. Therefore he is an important figure in the development of the music locally. In his brilliant T&G article titled, Worcester Jazz: This being a requiem for the way it was when Al Hirt fell-in at the Saxtrum Club, Ev Skehan talked about the lost early days saying, “The territory bands were working the Worcester area then, playing ballroom and club dates. The Watson Brothers, Dol Brissette, Gene Broadman, Bob Pooley, and Phil Scott all had bands that featured a few good jazz men like [Ockie] Menard, [Emil] Haddad and [Paul] Kukonen.”

Adolphus J. “Dol” Brissette is originally from Haverill. He came to Worcester to study at Holy Cross. His intent was to become a lawyer, but after picking up the banjo – as a kind of a lark — and discovering a natural inclination for the instrument, the birds of music took over.

An early bio written by a WTAG writer with no byline said: “He became so good that he was able to take a part time job playing banjo with Hughie Connors and the Bancroft Hotel Orchestra. After graduation he found that the magic of music was greater than the lure of the law. He stayed with Hughie Connors.”

Brissette built a name for himself at the Bancroft, playing five years at the hotel in the late 1920s and early ’30s. By all accounts, he was a hum and strum banjo player – like that of Arthur Godfrey on ukulele. In the early ’30s, Brissette also played the Palace Theater where he met such stars of the day as Ted Lewis, Gilda Grey, Trixie Friganza, and Joe Penner. However, Brissette reported that the single most important event was the opportunity to play duets with the king of banjo, the great Eddie Peabody at the Theater.

Brissette viewed himself as an “entertainer.” “Give them not only what they want, but more than they expect. That’s showmanship,” he was quoted as saying. It was also reported that his favorite slogan was: “Don’t kick the doorman; he may be the manager tomorrow.”

The banjo player formed his own band in 1933 and before the year was out, The Dol Brissette Orchestra headlined the Holy Cross Fieldhouse. It was a prestigious gig on the national circuit. Two years later Benny Goodman performed there.

The Brissette bio states: “When WTAG decided to become that first station in Worcester to have its own live studio orchestra on call for daily performances and accompaniment, Dol Brissette and the studio orchestra was first intoned into a microphone in 1937 and repeated for the last time in 1945.”

Before joining WTAG, Brissette estimated that he had played more than 2000 dates including such places as the Totem Pole in Auburndale, Kimball’s Starlight in Lynn, and the Bai-a-l’Air in Shrewsbury.

Another T&G photo from Brissette’s glory days has a caption that reads: “Maestro Dol Brissette faces his orchestra, baton poised, ready to serve up at the downbeat for the show’s first chorde (sic). And look at the glint in his eye, wouldja! Dol is liable to do anything from sleep to handsprings while he’s directing. That coat comes off and his hair ‘goes native’ while working.”

Returning to the recording, the singing “soloist” is not the aforementioned Dennison. The NBC announcer introduces her on the next track. “Wini Stone uses a familiar satellite as a measure of affection as she sings the romantic ballad from Two for the Show, “How High the Moon.”

Written by Nancy Hamilton and Morgan Lewis, “How High” was also recorded by Benny Goodman with Helen Forrest supplying vocals in 1940. Stone no doubt heard the Forrest version, but gives her own competent, though somewhat affected, reading.

Another T&G clipping from the period states: “Each day, on ‘Noonday Revue,’ you hear Dol Brissette and his band serve out musical hits to New England. But each Saturday the nation is audience to Worcester’s Musical Ambassador when the National Broadcasting Company network carries this period of modern melody through the nation. This aggregation of 12 musicians and their dainty vocalist Wini Stone, are line up particularly for our reception – usually, for correct microphone balance on the broadcast, you will find the band in much more separated positions.”

Singling out the group in yet another photo from the era, there is a shot of Wini Stone standing in front of a huge microphone with the WTAG call letters mounted on top. The caption reads: “That position is no pose for Wini Stone, “singcopator” on our NBC program “Noonday Revue.” She always folds her arms while singing. So carried away is she by her songs that at times she will completely forget the mike.

Another little tidbit on Stone is an item that reads: “Wini is a native New Englander who hates being called ‘Toots,’ and collects ashtrays as a hobby. She plays piano, too and is unwed – to date.”

Track number four is introduced by the announcer as “From the mighty west, the stomping grounds of the Lone Ranger, Dol Brissette plays an upcoming melody titled, ‘Stagebrush Serenade.”

Brissette was quoted as describing his music as having “simple good taste,” the kind that “wears well.” The WTAG promotional bio material also noted that the orchestra was accorded national recognition by NBC when, “it was selected for network programming originating in Worcester.” It goes on to report that during 1939-40, Brissette was also the musical director on Sunday shows in the Worcester Auditorium, playing with such stars as Kay Kiser, Tommy Tucker, the Andrew Sisters and Betty Hutton.

The recording, which was transcribed from the original acetate recordings features 12 tracks, that includes, “Romance from Another World,” “Ain’t She Sweet” (with George Roy on vocals), “In the Silence of the Dawn,” “My, My,” “Tuxedo Junction,” “We Could Make Such Beautiful Music,” and “The Woodpecker Song.”

At the closing of the show the announcer says “From the radio theater of WTAG at Worcester, Massachusetts the National Broadcasting Company has presented from coast to coast music by one of America’s great young bands Dol Brissette and his orchestra with songs by Wini Stone and Georgie Roy. This program was heard in Canada through the facilities of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.”

Brissette is not heard on banjo on these recordings. Chances are that he shed the instrument for the baton. Documents of his playing may exist, but as of this writing none are known.

Being an NBC affiliate, WTAG was a major promotional outlet for touring groups at the time. Between 1941 and ’42, the station interviewed such jazz stars of the day as “jitterbug orchestra leader,” Ina Ray Hutton; Fats Waller, Ella Fitzgerald (who was appearing at the Plymouth Theater); Duke Ellington; Jimmy Lunceford and Charlie Barnet. Other entertainers who stopped by the station for conversation were Sigmond Romberg, the Mills Brothers and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson.

Local guitarist Peter Clemente, Sr., had a daily show where he was featured on his “electric guitar” and future movie and television actor, Tony Randall was a broadcaster at WTAG during those years.

Brissette kept various versions of the band together until 1945. A photograph of one of the last editions has the caption that reads: “A quintet made up of members of WTAG’s first own live studio orchestra conducted by Dol Brissette with drummer Jack Morrissey, clarinetist Paul Rhode, saxophonist Joe Ferrezano, trumpeter George Ray, pianist George Gregory and vocalist Mary Conlon.”

After breaking up the group altogether, Brissette became the program production manager at WTAG. It’s been said that if his music was in “simple good taste” the same has been said of his skill in his new role at that station.

Richard “Dick” Wright worked at WTAG for 37 years and was quite familiar with Dol Brissette, the program director. “He hired me,” Wright says. “I came from New York State. I applied for the job in 1952 and he hired me three years later. I’ll never forget the day he called. I was out of radio at that point. I had lost my job in Manchester. I had to earn a living so I had been doing private investigation work in Brooklyn. I had applied at virtually every radio station on the East Coast.”

Wright was hired in 1955; 10 years after Brissette quit the band business. “His band was long gone by that time,” Wright recalls. “That all took place in the 1940s. He gave up the band business, like so many of them did, at the period in history when big bands were going out.”

Wright doesn’t know exactly when Brissette became the program director, but says he definitely knew how to manage a radio station. “Dol was the one who hired and fired, scheduled and taught people,” he says. “He knew what he was doing. Extremely intelligent. Very well read. He kept his finger on what was going on. We started in the morning doing news at five o’clock. He had already read the three additions of the Telegram to make sure you got it all. If you missed something he’d just call up and say, ‘Did you happen to notice there was another story?’”

In his tenure, Wright worked for Brissette as an announcer and newscaster. “Jim Little was the news director at the time. He left and they gave me the job,” Wright recalls. “Then after Dol left us, I became news and program director and eventually station manager and eventually vice president and general manager.”

Brissette died in 1970. In his radio tribute Wright said, “As far as he was concerned, the radio station, its programs, its success depended on people who worked here and [Brissette's] first concern always was for his people.”

Commenting further about his former boss, friend and mentor, Wright today adds, “I tell you he was one of the greatest men I have ever known. He taught me a lot of things about people and the way to live your life. He was always gracious. He always could see the other guy’s position. He was firm and played it by the book. If you performed you were great. If you didn’t you heard from him.”

Tony Guida was a freshman at Holy Cross in 1959 when he first met Brissette. Today he works for WCBS in New York City. His online bio opens with this statement: “It began after the Great War but before Woodstock at WTAG in Worcester, Mass. Mr. Guida prospered under the wise tutelage of Adolph J. “Dol” Brissette who whispered the secret to radio success: ‘Always write down your ad-libs.’ It is advice that Mr. Guida has tattooed to his left forearm.”

When contacted to comment further, Guida, speaking by phone from the NYC studio says, “I looked at him and I didn’t know what it meant – an ad lib is an ad lib. I thought this guy is losing it. I’m 20 years old, what the hell do I know. When I think back on it, I didn’t know a microphone from a fishing rod. It took me years to realize the wisdom, the Zen.

“He had such a remarkable way of saying things. He was a very quiet man. He was a minimalist. Very present in his role as program director. He was always soft and gentle. He was like a cat. He was just a remarkable man.”

J15: Tending jazz at the Kitty Kat

As mentioned in installment five, when I first started writing The Jazz Worcester Real Book, I had hoped to include a collection of interviews with musicians talking about some of the places they had played. Unfortunately, with profiles of 100 people and just as many accompanying published compositions, I simply ran out of room. I still have all of the conversations and from time to time I’ll post them.

Here’s one on the Kitty Kat as recalled by bassist and trumpeter Bunny Price. Owned by a one-time tap dancer, vocalist and drummer Reggie Walley, the Kitty Kat Lounge was the place to play. Located at 252 Main Street, in what is now a parking lot, the Lounge was upstairs from the dance studio that Walley and his wife Mary ran from 1947 to 1967. The club opened in 1969 and closed in 1976. In its short life, the Kat proved to be the incubator for many of today’s local players of that generation, including Jim and Dick Odgren, Al Arsenault, Ken and Babe Pino, Rob Marona, Gene Wolocz, Jim Arnot, Tom Herbert and many others who cut their teeth at the Kat.

Local musician Bunny Price not only played in the house band, but he was also the regular bartender and a silent partner.

Hey, Bunny, tell me about the Kitty Kat?

The club came along in 1969. We had sessions right away. We started with our group that I brought in from the Peacock Club. It was Al Mueller on piano, myself on bass, Bill Myers on trumpet, Larry Monroe on alto and Reggie Walley on drums. Bobby Gould played with us for a while. We were the house band. We might have been using the name of the Soul Jazz Quintet because that’s what it stemmed from. My dad [trumpeter Barney Price] and Howie [Jefferson] would also come down. Reggie was the house drummer. Reggie was all over the place. He was Mr. Personality. Hey, “Bunny, give these guys a drink.” That was Reggie.

We would alternate with Al Arsenault and Jackie Stevens. We used to take my organ out of my house. I had like a spinet-type organ, a Lowrey with a Leslie speaker. We used that to get Al the gig. He was an attraction, you know. The club eventually bought a Hammond B-3.

What nights did you present jazz?

We started making Thursday a “pioneer” [jam session] jazz night. Jackie Stevens was probably our biggest feature. He was a good friend with Al Arsenault. Jackie was a good solid modern player. He was like a bebop player. He swung hard. He played that horn. He wasn’t a Getz player, no laid back player. Jackie blew that horn. There’s no doubt about it. He got tied up with Al Arsenault a lot. They jammed around. Also, with Gene Wolocz. Jackie was an exception.

The next big person to come through there would be Dick Odgren. My dad worked down at the bank and his wife worked at the bank. She was telling my dad that her husband was coming home from the Navy and he was playing piano in the Navy Band. So I guess my dad told him to come on down. That’s how we all got to know him. Right after that, a year or so later, his brother Jimmy started to come down. He was a young skinny kid. I heard him and I said this kid is going to be good. You know what I’m saying. [The club later added Sunday afternoons as well.]

How was the club laid out? I remember you’d walk up the stairs, turn right into the music room and the bar was in the back to the left.

We played in front of the window. Reggie built the stage. I think there were four or five booths. If you have six people in the booth you have 25-30 people on that side. I would say roughly – I forget what the license called for – you did have a count for safety purposes. I think that lounge sat anywhere from 70 to 75 people.

On the other side there was like an empty area for people to dance. On the left-hand side of this big room, where the stage was, there was a small bar. It probably sat six people. Then the bar sat 12 to 15 people. For a while we had a little kitchen. We sold like open steak sandwiches and salad for a few bucks. It was also a social hall. We had a lot of wedding receptions there. Back in those days they paid you $35 bucks for the use of the hall.

I remember you were the bartender as well.

I started as a barkeep. My thing was taking care of the bar. That was my responsibility. If you know this business, you know the thieves. The sound wasn’t too bad. I spent an awful lot of time in the bar area but I could hear everything. That’s how I first heard Nat Simpkins when he came in with some of those Soul bands from Boston. He was the tenorman backing up some of the black singers. I don’t even remember their names. They came in from Providence and Boston. We had a lot of good people. [Nat Simpkins would later be a regular at Walley's next club, the Hottentotte, which will be featured in a future article.]

Who actually owned the club?

The club was the involvement of three couples, three partners. Reggie was the frontman, in name and everything. Reggie had been paying rent at the dance studio downstairs. Then there was Dr. Goldsberry and his wife, me and my wife [Betty Price, a former City Councilor], Reggie and [his wife] Mary [a former dancer in Lou Leslie’s Blackbirds and the daughter of famed civil rights activist Mary McLeod Bethune.

Dr. Goldsberry bought the license. We got the place as a tavern license from a place down on Water Street that was going out of business. Now with a tavern license you could go to City Hall and you could apply for an all pourers license. It’s a transfer. That’s what got us off the ground.

What happened to it?

It went under. Mr. [Barry] Krock [local property owner] bought the building. We were supposed to have preference to buy the building. The long-range plan was to buy it from Commerce Bank. It lasted a good five, six years. Everybody was welcome. Anybody could come and play. It was really open.

In a 1971 article in the Worcester Telegram, writer Jack Tubert reviewed one of the sessions. “Wall-to-wall music,” he writes, “that’s the attraction any Sunday afternoon when you want to stop moaning about nothing to do in the city and make it upstairs to the Kitty Kat Lounge in downtown Worcester.”

Howie Jefferson played host. Tubert describes him as, “the cool cat with 41-years of blowing well-rounded jazz notes on his tenor sax, shows the way in Sunday jam sessions that draw the best musicians – and crow of appreciative buffs.”

Visiting the week before, Tubert again chronicles the proceedings by saying, “Last Sunday, Barney Price was on trumpet. Reggie Walley, David Laine, Don LaRue and Roger Larson all took a turn at the drums, while Al Arsenault played jazz organ and Everett Freeman handled the cool bass. Al Moore sat in for a set on flute, and young rocker Babe Pino took a turn at blowing harmonica and handling vocals. Man, they made music.”

Taking a breather, Jefferson tells Tubert that the musicians love to play old classics like “When the Saints go Marching In.” “This is what we love to do, but,” says Howie, “I still love the pretty tunes. Things like ‘Body and Soul.’ ‘Soon it’s Going to Rain.’ There’s a pretty tune.”

In describing the third floor lounge at 252 Main Street Tubert writes, “With the mirrored wall reflecting every angle of the musicians in action (Arsenault’s artistic hands caught on the double-tiered organ keyboard by a mirror behind his head), the group broke fast with Benny Goodman’s ‘The Angel’s Sing,’ a 10-minute joy.”

As the band takes the tune through the paces, Tubert says, “After Jefferson introduced the theme with a big, fat, and moving chorus, the other musicians took turns leading the tune around, each to his own liking, then back to Howie for a couple more bats. Just beautiful. It was the same with ‘Blues in the Night,’ Arsenault showing the way with his wild right hand.

Tubert then reports that club owner Reggie Walley sat in the drummer- driver’s seat and took the band for a spin through “The Preacher,” and the group’s signature tune, “Organ Grinder Swing.” “Thirty-nine minutes of beautiful, unrestrained music,” Tubert says. “The audience gave ‘m a heavy hand.”

Trumpeter Barney Price is next up. Tubert describes him as a player with a warm, rich tone that has marked his playing for more than 30 years. He says Barney never sounded better providing the trumpet backdrop for Walley’s singing of “Summertime.”

“Livin’ was easy,” Tubert notes, “just listening.”

J14: Worcester’s Lil’ Darlin’ Wendell Culley

Some time just before he died in 1988, I had the good fortune to interview trumpeter Elwood “Barney” Price. In addition to being a fine player, consummate professional, exciting entertainer, he was quite the storyteller. In our conversation, he told me this cool little story about how, at 13, he had received his first trumpet for Christmas. Guess who broke it in?

“My mother bought that trumpet for me,” Price recalled. “The best thing about it is Wendell Culley, one of the best trumpet players around, playing with the Count Basie Band, a black cat who came from Worcester, came home for the holiday and came to my house on Christmas night wanting to borrow that horn of mine and I’m glad he did, cause I’ve been playing one ever since.”

Price was born in Worcester on February 17, 1913. Wendell Phillips Culley was Price’s senior by seven years. He was born in the same Laurel/Clayton neighborhood on January 8, 1906. He died in June 1983.

Culley is responsible for some of the most memorable solos in all of jazz. His best known offering is the brilliantly rendered muted solo on Neal Hefti’s Lil’ Darlin’ recorded with Basie in the 1950s. He can also be heard soloing on such seminal recordings as Lionel Hampton’s “Airmail Special” and “Midnight Sun” and Dinah Washington’s 1944 classic reading of Leonard Feather’s “Evil Gal Blues.”

Culley came from a family of two sisters and a brother. One of his sisters, Zora or better known as Zara Cully (sic) Brown was a character actress who played a variety of TV shows in her long career, such as “Days of Our Lives,” “The Mod Squad,” and “Night Gallery.” She also played the voodoo queen in the film, Sugar Hill. She will always be remembered however for her role as Mother Olivia in the “Jeffersons.” Wendell’s brother Ray was a noteable drummer around town.

Wendell went to Commerce High School. He graduated in 1925. There’s a picture of him in the 1924 yearbook playing cornet in Orchestra A. He is also pictured in the 1925 class playing in the Concert Band, where he is dressed in full uniform. Barney Price’s younger brother, Milton, remembers the Culley family from the neighborhood.

“I knew the whole family,” he says. “They were Worcesterites. They were a very musical family. He had another sister who sang. You’re talking a few years ago. It kind of gets by you. Yeah, in those days they taught themselves and made their own entertainment. A black family in those days, the first thing you have is piano in the house. That’s the way you were brought up – to learn the art of music. ”

Now a month shy of 87, Milton says he remembers Wendell in the school bands. He also says Wendell played in Boots Ward’s Nitehawks, a band that also featured Jaki Byard’s father John Sr.

“That’s where they all started out,” Milton says. “Then my brother took over. My brother kind of idolized him as a trumpeter. I played a little too. I didn’t make it a profession, but still I have the love of music.”

According to the 1930 Worcester Directory, where Culley is listed as a musician, it says he moved that year to New York City. His last known address was at 31 Laurel Street, which is now Plumley Village. It may be interesting to note that the Byard family is listed at 39 Laurel Street. Reggie Walley lived on nearby Carroll Street. Howie Jefferson resided at 87 Clayton Street and the Price family lived at 53 Clayton.

“We had our own black community back then,” Milton Price recalls. “When I was a kid, I remember seeing Major Taylor up George Street Hill. You can’t fool me cause I was there,” he adds, referring to champion cyclist.”

Price says after high school, Culley branched out and hooked up with Noble Sissle. “He finally settled in California,” he says. “You know the last time I saw Wendell, he played the Auditorium with Count Basie. I must have been 16-17 at the time. Knowing the family, his mother told me that Wendell was going to be playing. So we went down there. They stopped at Al and Martha’s Chicken Coop on Summer Street. They were the Moffits.”

The Moffits were descendants of Miriam “Mamie” Moffit, a pianist and bandleader of one of Worcester’s first bands. According to WPI Jazz Studies Director Rich Falco, sometime before 1922, Moffitt “assembled the very first professional jazz ensemble in Worcester, Mamie Moffitt and Her Five Jazz Hounds. Members of this group included Mamie Moffitt on piano, her husband Wallace Moffitt on cornet, Wallace’s brother Alfred Moffitt on saxophone, Alfred’s nephew Harold Black on violin and banjo, John Byard on trombone (father of Jaki Byard) and “Boots” Ward on drums. Occasionally Wendell Culley (trumpet) played with this group. Unfortunately, no recordings exist of this earliest of Central MA jazz groups.”

Falco says it is assumed that through Moffitt’s New York connections, where she lived and worked before coming to Worcester, “opened some opportunities for nationally acclaimed Worcester natives, including Wendell Culley (trumpet) with whom she maintained a lifelong friendship. In fact, Wendell Culley visited Mamie Moffitt shortly before her death in 1954. Miriam Seals Moffitt died October 17, 1954.”

Milton’s nephew, Elwood “Bunny” Price Jr., remembers Wendell as well. “He was before my dad’s time,” he says. “Milton Price is ten years older than I am. He’s the only one left of my Dad’s family. He’s the baby. I met Wendell at the Newport Jazz Festival. It was ’55 or 1956. He was with Basie at the time. Me and my dad and my uncle Billy went down to see him. Uncle Billy knew him. I drove down. There was also Judy Wade and Danny Hampton. We went down in one of my big ol’ Buicks. I had a 1949 Buick at the time.

“It was a great night. When the band took a break – I can’t remember all the details – but we went over to talk to Wendell. My dad wanted to see him. You know how hectic them festivals are. They were taking a break. There must have been thousands of people there.”

Price says his dad in many ways followed in Culley’s footsteps. “He played in church. My dad played in church. Then I was the next one to play in church. The black churches always had somebody playing. AME Zion on Belmont Street. If I’m not mistaken, I think Wendell was a relative of Grace Brown. She taught piano lessons to everybody in the neighborhood.”

According to John Chilton’s article on Culley in Who’s Who of Jazz (1998), he played with local Worcester bands, before moving to New York where he hooked up with Bill Brown’s Brownies, Horace Henderson, then joined Cab Calloway.

In his book The Swing Era: The Development of Jazz 1930-1945 by Gunther Schuller mentions Culley with Calloway. “Wendell Culley was at this time the band’s “straight” player. His almost classical concert band style and his clean trills can be heard on the intro and coda of “St. Louis Blues” and “Doin the Rumba,” respectively.”

Chilton says Culley left Calloway in the summer of 1931. He then joined the Noble Sissle Orchestra and remained with that outfit for 11 years. You can see Culley with the band in the 1933 film That’s the Spirit. Originally released by Vitaphone Corp., this fictional short features Noble Sissle and his great band that also consisted of Buster Bailey, Clarence Brereton, Edward “Jelly” Coles, Wilbur De Paris, Cora La Redd and the Washboard Serenaders. The tunes played in the film include “St. Louis Blues,” “A Shanty in Old Shanty Town” and “Tiger Rag.” Here’s a picture of the band.

Here are a few other snippets from That’s The Spirit. For more on the film, clip here.

According to Eugune Chadbourne in All Music Guide , Culley actually appeared on close to 200 records between 1932 and 1959. He says on one song title in particular is brought up when jazz buffs are trying to make a point about his playing. “That little number is “Li’l Darlin’”, a melodically simple ballad in which Culley is allowed to linger over an especially sweet improvised passage utilizing his mute. Ironically, this was one of the few solo spots the trumpeter was given during his lengthy tenure with the Count Basie band, an event that both leader and soloist seem to have gotten their money’s worth from.

“The piece began life as a medium-tempo bounce and it was Basie’s decision to change it that is held up as an example of this bandleader’s great genius: letting someone else write the arrangement, then creating something priceless from that via a few simple but musically astute decisions. As for the fine art of swinging at a ballad tempo, the Culley solo is regarded as something of a testament. Perhaps the trumpeter’s ease with all tempos was developed early on through his relationship with his brother Ray Culley, a drummer. Both were members of various local bands in Worcester, Massachusetts in the second half of the ‘20s.”

Chadbourne continues his piece chronicling Culley’s musical career with aforementioned Brown, Henderson, Calloway, Lionel Hampton and Basie, et al. In summation he says, “Culley spent most of the ‘50s in the Basie organization, “Lil’ Darlin’” becoming one of the group’s biggest hits during its years with the Roulette label. It is possible the trumpeter felt he had hit a peak, as after counting himself out of the Basie band he moved to the west coast and got into the insurance business.”

Obviously, there is so much more research to do for a more detailed picture of Mr. Culley. He was somewhat an illusive character. For instance, other than the high school photos, I’ve yet to find a picture of him. If you have any information about him to share, please contact me through the comment page on this site. I would appreciate it.


J13: Worcester/West Coast connection of Bill Tannebring

On the Worcester Telegram & Gazette’s Website there is a new feature called Gone but not forgotten, in which you can submit your memories of growing up in the area. One recent submission was by pianist Bill Tannebring who reminisced about playing music in town back in the early 1960s with Howie Jefferson, Barney Price and Reggie Walley.

Though jazz piano has been a major part of his life since his teen years, Tannebring spent most of his career in television, working as a producer and broadcaster here in Worcester, then Boston, New York and L.A. At 70, Tannebring can be found these days gigging around Huntington, Beach, California where he now hangs his hat. In fact, he recently worked at the Lighthouse in Hermosa Beach with flutist Sam Most.

Tannebring grew up in Worcester, but he was actually born in Bermuda. “My dad was a musician playing in a band. My mother and father lived in Bermuda. I was born there. We settled in Worcester when I was four or five.”

His dad was the highly regarded saxophonist, Roland “Rollie” Tannebring. “He was more of a legitimate musician,” Bill says. “He played big band, but he also played concert bands and theaters when they had pit orchestras at Loew’s Poli and the Plymouth Theater. They used to have shows in the afternoon, like stage shows, he’d be there in the pit.”

Bill was born in 1937. He grew up in Greendale around Norton’s. Then at 12, the family moved to Park Ave. and Maywood Street. He went to South High.

Here’s one of Tannebring’s postings on the T&G site: “I worked at Denholm’s in the ’50s while I was in High School. And what a job I had… helping create the window displays that looked out over Main Street. I remember the wonderful stores and activities that surrounded City Hall; Richard Healy, getting the bus in front of McGinnis’s Department store, the smell of the Planters Peanut’s Store on S. Main Street; catching a movie at the Loew’s Poli.

“I took piano lessons in the Day Building and had a dentist in the Park Building. It wasn’t until I traveled throughout the country that the experience of growing up in Worcester impacted me. It was a truly wonderful city and the memories it inspires continue to enrich my life.”

Bill says he started playing professionally when he was 15 or 16. “There were steakhouses downtown, the Polish and Italian American Clubs. The Speedway Club on the Lake. I had a band in high school.”

Tannebring was introduced to the world of television in high school. He worked in the prop department doing sets at WWOR-TV. “That was like the first local TV station in Worcester,” he says. “They opened sometime in the ‘50s. One of the kids I went to school with was a Steve Allen wannabe named Dick Volker. He talked them into giving him a teenage show five nights a week. It was called ‘Teen Style.’

“They hired me to do the music. So we had a little jazz trio on TV in Worcester. I was 16 and that was my introduction to TV production. When the show went off the air after a year or so, I decided I wanted to be in television. That’s how I started my TV career. It was great fun.”

The teenage trio consisted of Tannebring, bassist Nick Peroni and drummer Paul Westerback. Tannebring says the Worcester jazz scene in the 1940s and 1950s was quite memorable and he was well aware of the tradition. He mentions the names of pianist Don Asher, trumpeter Don Fagerquist and drummer Frankie Capp.

“When I was a kid, the pianist I remember was Jaki Byard,” Tannebring says. “He was a hero of mine. He wasn’t living there then. He would come back and forth. Tony Zano was around when I was there. The Holovnia brothers Fred and Joe. Fred had a big band. Joe played bass. There was like 16 of us. George Thurman on drum. Larry Monroe on alto. He and I were best friends. I was the best man at his wedding. Emil Haddad, of course. He was working on Park Ave. with Johnny Rhines and those guys. He and my dad were friends.”

Tannebring was a member of the local 143 musician’s union and worked a parade of jobs with and for the Conte Brothers. “I worked with Perry and his brother Jerry. They owned a tuxedo rental business and had the commercial scene sewed up,” he says. “I remember Perry would say, ‘$14 a night, plus $1 for gas.’ He was the big booking guy at that time. He used to have all these bands play at proms and clubs.

“He put together a Herb Alpert copy band. I was in that band for about a year. We traveled all over Worcester, Millbury and Westboro.”

There was another guy that I played with as well, his name was ‘Oakie’ Menard. He was a funny guy. His neck was always bent, cocked to one side. It was like the saxophone, the head and the neck were all one unit. He was the nicest guy. I remember Ray Starr, the tenor player as well.”

Tannebring also worked with a slew of singers. He recalls Gretchen Morrow. He says he played in a score of places up and down Rte. 9 all the way out to Framingham and Natick — “The Driftwood, the Meadows, Monticellos, the Maridor, Bonfire — all those places.”

He says his gigs with Reggie Walley, Howie Jefferson, Barney Price, and the bassist Judy Wade were especially memorable. “I played with Reggie a lot. He and his wife [Mary] were like the dynamic duo. They always had something going. They were a great couple. That was the jazz scene in the ‘60s and ‘70s. I can’t remember the names of these clubs, but there were so many. The Elks – there were just so many clubs on Summer Street and Water Street.”

Though Worcester had its share of notable pianists, Tannebring says most of his influences were coming out of Boston at the time. “I was a big fan of Dave McKenna,” he says. “My favorite pianist was a guy from Natick named Danny Camacho. He used to play with Boots Mussulli. He was about 10 years older than me. We ended up being in a band together for about three or four years. I played vibes and he played piano. It was one of the highlights of my life. He had been my childhood piano hero. To play in a band with him when I was 19 was really a big kick for me.”

Occasionally, Tannebring would get to work with some of the emerging players on the Boston scene. “I was in a band that played the Bonfire, a little club on Rte. 9. It was with John Abercrombie on guitar, George Mraz on bass and Peter Donald on drums. These guys were like 19 years old. Now they are world famous,” he says.

Tannebring left Worcester in the late ‘50s to go into the Air Force. He came back in the early ’60s, worked the clubs before heading to Boston in 1966. According to the bio notes on his Website, Tannebring moved to Beantown with the intent of making his career as a jazz musician. He says, Boston was a musical Mecca at the time, “the Berklee School made Boston one of the most exiting jazz environments in the country attracting talented musical artists from all over the world.”

As mentioned he got to perform with the likes of John Abercrombie as well as bassist Miroslav Vitous. For years, he was one of the house pianists at Paul’s Mall. He says it wasn’t unusual to find him in the club working with his trio, while John Coltrane or Mongo Santamaria performed next door at The Jazz Workshop. He also notes that Boston was the home of other great pianists at that time including McKenna, Chick Corea, Alan Broadbent, Hal Galper and Jan Hammer, among others.

Utilizing his TV production talents, Tannebring became the force behind the first ever weekly jazz television program in the nation. It was called “JAZZ on WGBH” and hosted by the great trumpeter and band leader Herb Pomeroy. For three seasons, Tannebring, as the program’s producer, attracted some of the worlds greatest jazz musicians including Oscar Peterson, Wes Montgomery, Cannonball Adderly, Sonny Rollins, Gary Burton, Hampton Hawes, Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, Thelonious Monk, Herbie Mann, Wynton Kelly. The show aired every Wednesday night and the performers appeared live, Tannebring said. Critics have hailed the show for its visual style, unique feel and musical excellence. Tannebring is said to have also produced the first ever television broadcast of the Newport Jazz Festival.

Tannebring stayed in Boston until 1973 before moving to New York City. “I was working for ABC television and I was doing gigs as well,” he says. “I was always doing both. I didn’t really book work for myself. I usually got hired to work with somebody. I was not part of the New York jazz scene but I would play some cool gigs in lounges and hotel lobbies.”

Tannebring says he spent three years in New York City producing a television series with Lloyd Bridges but still found time to join a band led by Lou Levy, backing singer Peggy Lee that toured the East coast, and work jazz gigs around the city.

After leaving New York, he relocated to Dallas Texas where he became the Executive Producer of KERA TV. Still working as a musician, he found time to perform regularly with saxophonists James Clay and Marshall Ivory. He says he spent an exciting year playing piano and vibes in a quintet led by David “Fathead” Newman.

As mentioned, Tannebring currently resides in Southern California where he continues to work as a television producer/writer, teacher. (See his online reviews here.) However, his lifetime love affair with jazz is what really drives him. “There are a lot of great players out here,” he says. “I’m out once or twice a week doing something. I love it.”

Tannebring says although there have been a lot of notes played across the bridge between the east and west coast, his developing years spent in Worcester are never far from memory. “I have great memories of Worcester,” he says. “My sister lives on Martha’s Vineyard and my other two sisters live in Worcester. So I’ll be back.”

Let’s hope he gets a gig next time he’s here.

J12: I remember Al Arsenault – April 6, 1938 — May 15, 2007

He was a sweet man with a smoky voice who died on Tuesday night after a long battle with emphysema. Al was an institution on the local music scene. He was known as the “Jimmy Smith of Worcester.” In his more than 50 years of playing, he brought joy to countless people and mentored many, including me, Babe and Kenny Pino, Rob Marona, Ron Sloan and Joanna Connor.

Arsenault was one of those guys born to play music. He started playing at the age of 3, teaching himself how to play the piano. He later added the guitar and organ to his arsenal. By the time he was 12 he appeared on “Miss Lace’s Talent Show,” stomping out a version of “The 12th Street Rag.” He started working professionally soon after. He recalls hammering a “beat-up old upright” piano in a local joint called Johnny’s Dugout. At 16, he hooked up with The Phaetons, a rock ‘n’ roll act that recorded a couple of hit singles. While still a teen, he backed many of the great 1950s acts at White City Park, including Bobby Darin, Jimmy Clanton and Jack Scott. He also toured with the New England version of The Drifters.

Al didn’t read a lick of music. He played from his heart. In the late ’50s and ’60s, the organ became his instrument of choice. “I used to buy Jimmy Smith records and lay on the couch and listen,” he once told me. “I would close my eyes and study the keyboard and I could almost picture every note he was playing.”

As an organ grinder is how Arsenault made is mark. He is the man most responsible for bridging the gap between local jazz and blues players.

I first met Al at The Kitty Kat, a nightclub that used to be on Main Street owned by drummer Reggie Walley. Al was standing outside the club looking sharp. He was cool and aloof but friendly. I told him I was there to hear some blues. Drawing on a smoke, he said, “You’ve come to the right place.” Walley liked Arsenault’s playing so much he bought a B3 Hammond organ just so Al would play it. The gig that day was a Sunday blues session with tenor saxophonist Howie Jefferson. The first tune-up after the break was Charlie Parker’s “Au Privave,” and Al dug in. Always a clean and smart player, he unwound soulful lines of just the right pitch and tone. His solos rendered the finished product delivered by a master storyteller.

In the early ’70s, Arsenault led a smack little quartet, featuring ex-Woody Herman saxophonist Jackie Stevens, guitarist Bat Johnson and drummer Ray Trent. The group had a regular stint at The Jag Piper, which is now The Sole Proprietor on Highland Street. Man, I hope someone recorded those sessions.

A family man who chose to stay home rather than live a life on the road, Arsenault certainly had his chances. Saxophonist Lou Donaldson auditioned him at The Jazz Workshop. Al made the gig and played New York, New Jersey and Ohio, but when Donaldson got booked in Japan, Al decided to stay home and take care of business.

Two of Al’s children are well known local musicians. His son Duncan is the drummer in The Curtain Society and his daughter, Charlene, plays guitar and keyboards with Pet Rock. She is also the Events Editor of Worcester Magazine, and author of the popular music column, “Cookie.”

Al Arsenault was one of the area’s most active musicians. In the last few years, he was seen working at casinos, hotels, restaurants, clubs and private parties throughout the area. A musician’s musician, he played right up until the time he got sick. For me, his legacy will be qualified and quantified in the lessons he taught others. In my early days of learning how to negotiate the ways of performance, Al was always welcoming and supportive. I know I speak for many when I say the local music scene owes him a sincere debt of gratitude. I remember Al.

This article was first published in Worcester Magazine and reprinted by permission.

J11: Good morning Irene, part 2

In part one I mentioned that jazz radio host David Brent Johnson presented a show called “Ghosts of Yesterday: Billie Holiday and the Two Irenes (a Jazz Mystery)” that dealt with the confusion about Irene Higginbotham and Irene Kitchings-Wilson. You can find the program archived on line.

After playing the music of both Irenes, he adds historical notes on each songwriter. Towards the end of the show he gets to the heart of matter. He says one of the first telling leads in separating fact from fiction came from Bessie Smith biographer Chris Albertson, who actually knew Higginbotham in the 1960s. Albertson says she was holding down a government office job at the time and had given him a tape of her songs. Albertson said Higginbotham was always trying to come up with another “Good Morning Heartache.” Johnson also mentioned that Albertson confirmed that she was J.C. Higginbotham’s niece.

Johnson also emailed author Donald Clarke, who penned the Billie Holiday biography, Wishing on the Moon. “Clarke’s book had drawn upon interviews done by Linda Kuehl, a woman who interviewed nearly 150 of Holiday’s associates and friends in the early 1970s for a projected biography of Lady Day,” Johnson says. “Kuehl committed suicide before she was able to write the book. When Clarke took on the project he gained some access to Kuehl‘s research, which was now held by a private collector.”

Beginning to make the distinctions more evident, Johnson says, “According to his book Irene Wilson had become ill and moved by to Cleveland in the 1940s, where she married an Ohio State Youth Commissioner named Eldon Kitchings in the 1960s. She had seen Billie Holiday for the last time in the late 1950s, after Billie’s book Lady Sings the Blues had come out when Billie was passing through Cleveland. Her eyesight was failing when Kuehl interview her in 1971.”

Johnson then notes a key discrepency. “But Clarke’s book had identified the Irene of “Good Morning Heartache” with the early Irene of “Some Other Spring.” He then mentions Jay Maynard, a Ohio lawyer and jazz fan, who poses the question: “How could Irene Wilson have been Irene Higginbotham in New York when Chris Albertson knew her in 1960s — if she were Irene Kitchings in Ohio at the sametime?

“In addition,” Johnson asserts, “Chris Albertson said that while Irene Higginbotham regularly brought up her involvement in “Good Morning Heartache” to him, she never mentioned any of the other songs, which are now semi-attributed to her and were recorded by Billie Holiday.”

Johnson says, “They were two different people. Donald Clarke wrote back to confirm that he had made a mistake in his discussion of the mid-1940s Decca recordings. In addition, Linda Dahl’s online essay Jazz Hers, identifies them distinctly as two different people and said, that Irene Higginbotham had been a concert pianist.”

In his closing remarks on the show, Johnson notes that it’s hard to say where and how the confusion began saying, “The fact that both women were named Irene and wrote signature heartbreak songs for Billie Holiday. They were each women songwriters in a time when the jazz world discriminated fiercely against women. Only in the past two decades has jazz history become sensitive to the troubled issue in jazz.”

Okay, there it is. So let’s focus on Irene Higginbotham. We still know very little about her time in Worcester. In the 1944 version of the ASCAP Biographical Dictionary, she is listed as a composer born June 11, 1918 in Worcester, MA. They say she was educated privately with piano lessons. As a songwriter her chief collaborators were Ervin Drake, Dan Fisher, Sammy Gallop, Fred Meadows, Andy Razaf, Bob Hilliard, Syd Shaw, Jay C Higginbotham. At the time, they cite her songs only as “This Will Make You Laugh,” but list her compositions as “Goodmorning Heartache,” “No Good Man,” “That Did It, Marie,” “Typewriter Serenade,” “Harlem Stomp,” a “Boogie Woogie on a Saturday Night.” Lyrics and music: It’s Mad, Mad, Mad.”

Higginbotham is also listed in the U.S. Copyright Office. In addition to many of the tunes above, here are some others: “Love is a Frustrated Thing,” “Get out of the Phone Booth Buster,” “Look at Them,” “Any Gal At All,” “Be Good To Me, Baby,” “Blue Enchantment,” “Blues for Higgie” (written with J.C. Higginbotham), “Late for Work,” “Anna Lucasta” (w/J.C.), and “A Woman’s Got A Right To Change Her Mind.”

In the 1980 ASCAP version of the bio dictionary, Irene Evelyn Higginbotham’s married name is listed parenthetically as “Irene H. Padellan.” According to the Social Security Death Index Interactive Search (SSDI) she died on August 27, 1988. Her last known address was in Brooklyn, Kings, NY.

After posting part one, I received a couple of interesting comments. Here’s one from Rosemary Orange Brown: “Irene Higginbotham was my first cousin and lived with my family in the Bronx for a while. She wrote “Good Morning Heartache” while living with us. I remember this clearly because I was fascinated with the last words “Good Morning Heartache, sit down” Her parents were Garnet and Carrie Higginbotham. She has a sister Violet and a nephew still living in the Atlanta, GA area. Irene was married at the time of her death and has a step son with whom I have lost contact. One of Irene’s greatest compositions (in my opinion) was “This Will Make You Laugh” recorded by Nat King Cole and later, Natalie Cole. Irene was in a class by herself.”

Upon receiving her comment, I emailed her asking for additional information, especially about the Kitchings-Wilson confusion. Here’s what she said, “I am not familiar with the Kitchings name and I don’t think it is part of our family. It might have been Irene’s mother’s maiden name. Unfortunately, Irene’s sister Violet is elderly and not in the best of health, but I will send your e-mail to her son (Irene’s nephew). There are several other cousins named Higginbotham on the east coast and I am forwarding the article to them.” 
Another interesting note can be found at the online jazz site, Organissimo. Back in February of 2006, someone with the tag of “Christiern,” posted this: “I knew Irene Higginbotham fairly well–was introduced to her by J.C. This was in the 1960s and she had a government office job. She wrote tons of songs, always trying to come up with another “Good Morning Heartache.” Somewhere, in my jumbled closet, there are a couple of audio cassettes with songs written by her, but none that I found interesting–at least not back then, when she gave me the tapes.”

In part one, it was mentioned that Higginbotham also used the pseudonym, Glenn Gibson. A little confusion lies in this possibility as well. However, certain evidence make it quite plausible. In All Music Guide, Eugene Chadbourne says, “Glenn Gibson shows up as the composer of material in styles such as classic blues, jazz, R&B, and doo wop in the late ’40s and throughout the ’50s. To suggest that the name was larger than life is totally appropriate, since Glenn Gibson represented the publishing interests of more than one person. For a while, Glenn Gibson was Irene Higginbotham. Around 1954, Glenn Gibson turned into Bertha Knapp (aka Bert Knapp, Phoebe Snow, Rinky Scott Jones, and Adrienne Garblikand).

Chadbourne goes on to explain that Higginbotham became Gibson in order to place material with both competing performing rights societies, ASCAP and BMI. “She was under contract to Joe Davis, whose activities in the music business included management, A&R, running record labels, publishing, and songwriting,” he says. “For Davis, subterfuge with songwriting credits was simply a way of collecting publishing money without revealing whose pocket it was going to. One obvious advantage would be that funds would thus accumulate in a tidy row of smaller pools rather than an enormous one that might be heavily taxed. A case could also be made that the pseudonyms were an attempt to avoid responsibility for the material.”

Checking ASCAP’s listing of Higginbotham tunes, none of these novelty numbers are listed under her name. However, there are a parade of others that could fill the bill, including “Fat Meat is Good Meat,” “Liver Lipped Jones,” “Mama Put Your Britches On,” and “No Pad To Be Had.” ASCAP has Higginbothan, not Gibson as the co-writer of “No Pad To Be Had” and “It’s Mad, Mad, Mad” with Syd Shaw. They also list Joe Davis writing “Last Thing at Night” with her.

If its true that Higginbotham continued throughout her life to try and write another “Good Morning Heartache,” who could blame her? It is a masterpiece as evidenced by the number and quality of singers who cover the classic. A partial list includes: Alicia Keys, Tony Bennett, Ruth Brown, Carmen McRae, Rosemary Clooney, Natalie Cole, Diana Ross, Sam Cooke, Johnny Adams, Dinah Washington, Ella Fitzgerald, Joe Williams and, of course, Billie Holiday.

In an article that accompanied the CD box: Billie Holiday – The Complete Original American Decca Recordings, Steve Lasker wrote: “On January 22, 1946, Billie cut three numbers for Decca with a band directed by reedman Bill Stegmeyer. Two of the songs, ‘Good Morning Heartache’ and ‘No Good Man’ are stunning marriages of poetry and melody written expressly for Billie by her close friend Irene Higginbotham.”

Given the list of all-stars who covered “Good Morning Heartache,” it’s fair to say that if she had never written another song, Higginbotham’s contribution to the jazz literature would be recognized. Thankfully, she gave us others. As her cousin has said, “This Will Make You Laugh,” sung by Nat and Natalie Cole is a good place to start. It was also recorded by Marvin Gaye, by the way. Another strong piece is “Are You Living Old Man,” as recorded by Stan Kenton with vocalist Anita O’Day. “Harlem Stomp” was recorded by Louis Armstrong. “It’s Mad, Mad, Mad,” was covered by Duke Ellington. Saxophonist Coleman Hawkins released a version of Higginbotham’s “Look Out Jack” and trumpeters Wingy Manone and Rex Stewart covered her “Mr. Boogie Man.” In 1941, Benny Goodman recorded Higginbotham’s “That Did it, Marie” wth Peggy Lee on vocals.

It should also be noted that Higginbotham co-wrote with some of the best musicians of her day, including J.C. Higginbotham, Sammy Price, Al Sears, Don Redman and Louie Jordan, among others.

There are so many questions still to be answered about Higginbotham. Any information towards answering these questions would be greatly appreciated. Please leave comments.

I would especially like to thank Sven Bjerstedt for his research assistance.

This is a picture of one of the two Irenes.

For more research information on our Irene click here and here.

Additional information on Irene Higginbotham can be found in the following sources:

Claghorn, Charles Eugene, Women composers and songwriters: A concise biographical dictionary
Lanham, Md: Scarecrow Press, 1996, 247 p.

Bloom, Ken, American song: The complete musical theater companion: 1877-1995. Volume 2: T-Z and indexes. Second edition
New York: Schirmer Books, 1996, 2093 p.

Walker-Hill, Helen S., Music by black women composers. A bibliography of available scores
Chicago: Center for Black Music Research Columbia College, 1995, 110 p.

Cohen, Aaron I., International encyclopedia of women composers : classical and serious music New York: R. R. Bowker, 1981, 597 p.

Southern, Eileen, Biographical dictionary of Afro-American and African musicians Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1981, 478 p.

Press, Jaques Cattell, ASCAP biographical dictionary of composers, authors and publishers:
Fourth edition New York: R. R. Bowker, 1980, 589 p.

Perlman, William J. & Spaeth, Sigmund, Music and dance in the New England states New York: Bureau of Musical Research, 1953, 374 p.

Handy, William Christopher, Negro authors and composers of the United States New York: Handy Brothers Music Co. Inc., 1938, 24 p.

J10: Good morning Irene, part 1

Her songs have been covered by the likes of Nat Cole, Anita O’Day and Louie Armstrong. She is the author of “Good Morning Heartache,” one of the most emotionally searing ballads in all of jazz. She was a close personal friend to Billie Holiday. The jazz history books have her born in Worcester on June 11, 1918. To say that Irene Higginbottam is one of our lost treasures would merely be stating the obvious.

Like a lot of jazz women of her day, very little is written about her. She is, in fact, sometimes considered to be two different people. Here in Worcester, the name Higginbotham has disappeared from local directories, only Higgenbottom and Higginbottom appear and are of no relation. The name Kitchings is absent as well. Local bassist Bunny Price, who is now in his 70s, says that there were some black folk in Worcester with the name Higginbotham but moved out of town a long time ago.

Musician Eugene Chadbourne has given us something to work with to help bring Irene Higginbotham’s identity into focus. In his biographical sketch written for All Music Guide, he writes: “While her closest connection in the popular music of the ’30s and ’40s was the great jazz singer Billie Holiday, prolific songwriter Irene Higginbotham was also related by blood and marriage to several famous musicians from this genre.

“The songwriter was the niece of classic jazz trombonist J.C. Higginbotham. She was also the ex-wife of Teddy Wilson by the time he provided piano accompaniment for some of Holiday’s most deeply romantic performances. In a not particularly rare example of jazz combining with soap opera, some of these were Higginbotham’s ballad masterworks, haunting tales of hearts that albeit broken can still be syncopated. Chances are these songs would be on the list of any Holiday fan’s favorite records, including “Some Other Spring” from 1939 and “Good Morning Heartache” from three years later.

Chadborne also notes that in a period of several decades, Higginbotham wrote enough songs to fill the pages of her own biographical volume. See ASCAP pages for a partial list.

Chadborne goes on to say, that despite the association with songs of love and loss, Higginbotham’s songs show a wide range in subject matter and singers who delivered them. He says that “In the Quiet of the Dawn,” is especially worth mentioning because it established her as a seminal presence in the creation of early doo wop.

“She also had a humorous side,” Chadborne says, “concocting material combining on-stage antics and music for the vaudeville team of Stump and Stumpy. Her collaborations with co-writer Syd Shaw were in demand as jumping jive reached up to the R&B shelf.” He cites such witty songs such as “No Pad to Be Had,” “It’s Got a Hole in It,” and “The Bottle’s Empty.”

Evidently, Higginbotham could also write hit material for dancers. “In the early ’50s some of the latter material such as a toll-free “Jersey Turnpike” was published under the pseudonym of Glenn Gibson due to shenanigans involving a BMI contract,” Chadborne reports. “Not every song attributed to Glenn Gibson is Higginbotham vintage, however. Joe Davis — A&R man, record label manager, and one of Higginbotham’s publishers — also used the name Glenn Gibson to copyright songs, some of which were actually in the public domain.” In the 1950s, Davis also recorded Stump and Stumpy singing Higginbotham’s “Two Thirds Dead.”

In closing, Chadborne compliments our lost hero by saying, “In general, high quality is the proof of an Irene Higginbotham composition. Her songs routinely stood out, sparkling with something special, at recording sessions where several sets of writers participated.”

A few years ago, jazz radio host David Brent Johnson on his show “Night Lights,” heard over WFIU 103.7 FM in Bloomington, Indiana presented a fascinating show called “Ghosts of Yesterday: Billie Holiday and the Two Irenes (a Jazz Mystery).” In his commentary on the program he claims to have solved the riddle of the two Irenes.

Building his show around the inquiry, Johnson presented a program that featured the Irene Wilson/Kitchings and Higginbotham compositions recorded by Billie Holiday, as well as songs that Holiday co-wrote with Arthur Herzog Jr., the man who supplied the lyrics for Irene Wilson’s songs. In “Ghosts of Yesterday,” he thanked jazz writers Chris Albertson and Chuck Nessa for their assistance in the matter.

An important link to Higginbotham may be traced to Joe Orange, a retired health insurance executive, who is currently running his own health insurance consulting firm near his home in Columbia, Maryland. Orange is a relative of Irene. A jazz musician himself, Orange was born and raised in the Bronx. He is also a noted trombonist who has worked with among others, Lionel Hampton, Eddie Palmieri, Charlie Palmieri, Lloyd Price and Herbie Mann. In a musical memoir written as a project for Fordham College, Orange wrote: “Music was also always part of my home life. My mother played piano and Hawaiian guitar, and I had an uncle and cousin that were prominent jazz musicians. My Uncle, J.C. Higginbotham was considered the greatest jazz trombonist, of the 1930’s and 40’s. He had played with Fletcher Henderson’s band, and recorded ‘Saints Go Marching In’ with Louis Armstrong.

“My cousin Irene Higginbotham was a great Boogie Woogie pianist and songwriter. She composed the words and music to Good Morning Heartache’ that was made famous by Billie Holiday in the 1940’s, and again by Diana Ross in the 1970’s. Today the song is considered a standard in the jazz repertoire.”

To be continued …

Here’s a link to a boogie woogie songbook adapted by Higginbotham.

Check out this clip of Joe Lovano, Bill Frisell and Paul Motian performing “Good Morning Heartache,” live.

J09: Tristano time, intuition and feeling

In his opening remarks at the Lennie Tristano Symposium on Sunday, April 15, at WPI’s Alden Hall, Jazz Studies Director Rich Falco joked about the weather. He mentioned that the other symposiums were held in February and also impacted by the winter. “So we decided to move it to April,” he said, waiting a beat for the laughs, before introducing the special guests.

The event was held during that freakish week of rainstorms that happened in mid-April. The symposium brought together a collection of family and friends, colleagues and educators who were all there to riff on the late Lennie Tristano. The weather may have effected the turnout. There were only about 50 people in attendance.

The panelists included pianists Connie Crothers and Harvey Diamond, guitarist Bud Tristano and saxophonist Jimmy Halperin, with WPI Prof. Eunmi Shim, the author of the new biography, Lennie Tristano: His Life and Music. Noted critic Ira Gitler and pianist Sal Mosca were also scheduled, but due to personal reasons, were not able to attend. The symposium was moderated by Monica Hatch, host of “Jazz Matinee,” WICN 90.5 FM and interviews were conducted by Tom Reney, Producer/host “Jazz a la Mode, WFCR 88.5 FM. The festivities were recorded by WCCA TV Director, Mauro DePasquale.

Ms. Crothers was the first panelist introduced. “I could talk about Lennie Tristano all day,” she said and proceeded to offer wonderful memories of her studies with what she called the master. Although her lengthy and passionate presentation was not scripted, it read like a dissertation. She talked about her first encounter with Tristano’s music. She was a student at University of California Berkley studying classical music when she heard a recording of “Requiem,” Tristano tribute to Charlie Parker.

“The impact was a transforming experience,” she said. (For more on Crothers’ take on studying with Tristano see Jazzsphere seven.) She called Tristano the greatest jazz improviser ever and the first to figure out how to teach jazz. She very eloquently explained how and why. She also talked at length about the recording of “Intuition,” and little anecdotes about musicians like Roy Eldridge. She said that the trumpeter was one of Lennie’s favorites. “If you want to learn about jazz phrasing, sing along with his solos,” she said.

Reney asked her about “Requiem,” saying that it was a transforming experience in the span of four minutes. He then asked if there was anything else in that Atlantic Sampler (that “Requiem” was released on) that also effected her. Crothers said that she only really heard the one tune. She then talked about how the piece was an elegy for Bird. Lennie told her that Dizzy Gilespie called to tell him that Parker had died. “What you are hearing is the sound of Lennie’s grief.”

Crothers also talked about polyrhythms exemplified in “Turkish Mambo,” and the debate about multi-tracking and the often false take on Tristano’s music as being too “brainy.” She said Tristano played with a stream of consciousness that rendered “melodic lines of stunning logic and musical beauty.”

Reney asked her about the blues and Crothers said that the band wasn’t comfortable playing blues. He also queried her about Tristano’s reputation as being tough on drummers. She then mentioned how many of the greatest drummers wanted to work with him. “Kenny Clark and Max Roach always made sessions at Lennie’s and couldn’t wait to play with him,” she says. She also claims that Tristano was the first to hire Elvin Jones when he arrived in New York and that Billy Higgins worked with him at the Kool Jazz Festival. “So, you see, the very opposite is true,” Crothers said. It was a testy little foray, but Crothers thanked Reney for asking the question, saying she had hoped it would be brought up.

Reney then raised the subject of psychoanalysis, saying that Tristano was very interested in the topic and wondered if Lennie ever suggested to his students to consider it in the creative process.

Crothers answered the question by saying it was not presented to her. However she knew that Tristano’s brother Michael was a practicing psychiatrist who was into something called orgonomy — “something that was very hip in the ’50s. Lennie wanted his students to be open and real.”

In closing, Crothers said that Tristano always made others feel like he was interested in you. “He was like sunshine and water on a plant.”

For more on Crothers click here.

Saxophonist Jimmy Halperin was up next. He studied jazz improvisation with Tristano and Sal Mosca. His performance resume includes work with Warne Marsh, Lee Konitz and Sonny Dallas, among others. He is currently an adjunct professor of the saxophone at the New School University and Queens College and has a private teaching practice. His segment was a rambling historical overview of classical music and how jazz has always been considered a second class citizen. He said, Lennie viewed jazz as art.

“Classical music has always been given that distinction,” Halperin said. Jazz was considered inferior and still is.” He played several samples of music. He began by featuring Charlie Christian and said, “Lennie thought he was the swingingest cat. He was like a meteor.”

Halperin said 1947 was pivotal in the music and in the 20th century – it marked the arrival of Jackie Robinson and the year that Tristano’s “Intuition,” said to be the first free jazz performance ever recorded. The highlight of Halperin’s presentation was his piano example of “Turkish Mambo,” playing all the various rhythms that the piece entails.

For more on Halperin, see: www.jimmyhalperin.com.

Next up was guitarist Bud Tristano, Lennie’s son who was named after Bud Powell. He was born in New York City and only got to live with his father until he was four. The family split in divorce. He lived with mother and sisters across the Hudson. Still, Bud recalled countless hours sitting in a rocking chair, listening to records from his father’s collection.

He remembered playing a free form game called dance freeze, where his dad would play music and stop and the kids had to freeze the move they were in at the time. He said he was not conscious of his dad’s musical influence, but said, “He was totally supportive. When I told him that I was not interested in pursuing music, he was totally cool with that.”

As a teenager Bud got into rock guitar and copied the licks of the gods of the day — Hendrix, Clapton and Zappa.

Reney then asked a series of questions: “How close were you to your father? Would you care to say anything about how it feels to be the son of this brilliant, yet under-appreciated musician? Do you think of Lennie’s philosophy as being manifest in your music?”

To which Bud answered, “At first I was reluctant to talk about it.” He said, he began to notice his father’s “conspicuous omission in the history.” He talked about how if in any given year ASCAP royalties were $700, only $1 would be from U.S.”

In the 1990s, Bud started spending more time in New York City re-connecting with his father’s closest associates like Crothers. He said listening to the music of Igor Stravinski and Bela Bartok provided the missing link.

In 2001, Bud released a duo recording with Connie Crothers called Primal Elegance. See more at: http://www.budtristano.com/mypage.html

At one point there was a long and healthy volley about Tristano being misclassified as a “cool” musician. Reney commented that Gerry Mulligan said that Tristano may have had more of an impact on the Cool School than Davis’s Birth of the Cool recordings.

At this point. Prof. Shim jumped into the discussion refuting the argument and went on to site a series of quotes from Tristano and others on the subject, essentially saying that his music should never be considered cool. The discussion grew even more dense with a spate of dialectics ranging from black musicians and white players, East Coast versus West Coast, Miles and Lennie, etc.

Bud broke some of the log jam by mentioning that Lennie loved Bach. Connie weighed in by recalling Lennie’s band playing Bach at Birdland and not announcing it as such until the performance ended. She went on to mention how Lennie there was always a “brilliance and logic to Tristano’s music.”

“Someone stood up and asked if anyone knew if Tristano liked Thelonious Monk. Connie volunteered, “Lennie didn’t think Monk was a good pianist. Hey, he was opinionated.”

The discussion then veered into the rudiments of music. Another audience member said with all this talk about feeling the music, did Lennie talk about study and discipline. Connie took that on as well and said, “Am I allowed to curse in this forum? Pardon the expletive, but Lennie always said you’ve got to do the ‘shit’ work. You’ve got to put your time in.”

Sensing that the audience was growing weary of the academic exercise and all the talk, Diamond played a gorgeous reharmonization of the standard “You Don’t Know What Love is.” It beautifully conveyed this convergence of heart and mind and losing yourself to the music.

Crothers also played. She introduced her piece by saying, “I’m going to play one of Lennie’s favorite songs, ‘My Melancholy Baby.’ She played two choruses of the tune on one hand. The first time through she delivered only the melody, straight with no chaser. The second time, she played a slight variation with approach notes.

After the break Prof. Shim read from what must have been a section from her book about Tristano’s take on drummers and then launched into a slide show demonstration on Tristano’s piano playing. Shim, who received her B.M. in Piano Performance from Seoul National University Seoul, Korea, and her Master’s and PH.D. in Musicology from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, presented a detailed analysis that can be found in the appendix of her book.

Her book on Tristano was recently published by the University of Michigan Press, which, according to the press release, is the “first in depth treatment of Tristano’s life, music and teaching. This book discusses Tristano’s pioneering role in extending the concepts and practices of jazz, and reevaluates Tristano’s position in jazz history through thorough research, combining oral history, archival research, and musical analysis, illustrating that Tristano’s position in jazz history is a unique one.” See more at: http://www.press.umich.edu/titleDetailDesc.do?id=17728

The session finally ended at 6 p.m. Panelists and audience members alike then retired to Spaulding Hall downstairs for a reception where a variety of musicians played many of Lennie’s tunes.

All in all, The Lennie Tristano Symposium was an important look at one of the unsung heroes of jazz. Prof. Falco should be commended for organizing this event that was free and open to the public in Worcester. There were many highlights and just as many low ones. On paper, the program was well constructed and looked like it would make for a lively discussion and presentation. Unfortunately, being an academic exercise, it grew too heavy at times with minutiae and not balanced with more musical examples from the exceptionally talented panel.

Clip of the week: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lGLpczTtnEM
Site of the week:http://www.lennietristano.com/

J08: Jaki Byard and the indestructible aluminum baby

On Thursday, April 19, at 8 p.m. the New England Conservatory (NEC) Orchestra, under the direction of jazz department chair Ken Schaphorst, will present a free concert of the music of the late Jaki Byard. See related story at: NEC Website.

Byard was quite possibly one of the most famous musicians to come out of Worcester – certainly the most prominent in jazz. While still a teenager, growing up in the Laurel/Clayton neighborhood, he was already a legendary figure. An account of his Worcester days are vividly chronicled in Don Asher‘s classic memoir, Notes from a Battered Grand. Asher is also a pianist who studied with Jaki and remembers comparing notes on his lessons with another famous Worcester pianist, Barbara Carroll.

Jaki went on to effortlessly scale the heights of jazz greatness before dying tragically from a gunshot in his home in Queens, NY in 1999. He was 76. The case is still unsolved.

In its press release for the concert, NEC’s sent out this little bio sketch of Jaki that reads: “Byard was a member of the bands of Herb Pomeroy and Maynard Ferguson. He recorded extensively with Charles Mingus, and toured Europe with him in 1964. He contributed to Mingus’s landmark recordings Black Saint and the Sinner Lady and Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus. He also made important recordings as a sideman with Eric Dolphy, Booker Ervin and Sam Rivers. As a leader, he recorded a series of critically acclaimed recordings for the Prestige label during the 1960s: Here’s Jaki, Out Front, Hi-Fly, Freedom Together, Sunshine of My Soul, and The Jaki Byard Experience.

To see a clip of Jaki live with Mingus in Norway click here.

Gary Giddins, in his memorial tribute said this about his piano playing: “Listening to him was like turning on a tap in which all the strains of modern piano, from James P. Johnson to Cecil Taylor, flowed in one luscious rush.

Often overlooked in Byard’s career is the fact that he was a trailblazer in the way of jazz education. He shared his skills privately at NEC and the Manhattan School of Music. This fact is not lost to such notable players and ex-students as Jason Moran, Fred Hersh, Anthony Coleman and D.D. Jackson.

As a jazz educator, Schaphorst says Byard was “one of the first in a way. He certainly influenced NEC and I think his influence is still felt there. I thought a lot about this recently because, first of all, he has this complete historic understanding of the music, which very few people have – not just intellectually, but being able to play all those styles — and yet he was very modern. He was very interested in the latest thing – whatever that was. I think that influenced the school to this day. There’s been a dedication. That’s not that common in jazz education. I’m grateful to be at a place where that is understood.”

The immensity of Byard’s talent as a player, composer, arranger and teacher is virtually impossible to measure. In tribute, noted jazz critic Don Schlitten said this about him: “Jaki Byard: Promethean eclecticism was only the beginning.” Fortunately, a great deal of Byard’s music was documented on record. One only has to listen to the expanse of his music.

Here are some listening samples.

Unfortunately, the written documentation of Byard’s output still need to be collected. Here’s where Schaphorst comes in.

“I had heard Jaki years ago with the Boston version of his big band,” he says. “This was probably the summer of 1979. It impressed me. I hadn’t heard any music like it. It was kind of wild, chaotic but very beautiful. He certainly was an impressive pianist and saxophonist.”

In 1969, the then president of NEC, Gunther Schuller hired Jaki Byard to teach at the school. Byard was also in residence for many years at Michael’s Pub, a local bar where he led the Apollo Stompers, consisting largely of NEC students such as Anton Fig and Ricky Ford, among others. Byard taught arranging and jazz improvisation at the conservatory for more than a decade.

Schaphorst arrived at NEC first as a student studying for his masters in composition in 1982. “I met Jaki then, but I didn’t study privately. He wasn’t as involved at that point as he was earlier,” Schaphorst says. “Then I came back to teach at NEC in 2001.”

In his third year of teaching, NEC celebrated the 100th anniversary of Jordan Hall, the school’s main concert venue, and Schaphorst thought the big band should play and present the music of Byard. Unfortunately, although he had arranged for such big bands as Herb Pomeroy’s, Maynard Ferguson’s and his own Apollo Stompers many of the charts were either not available, lost or in some cases never existed on paper.

“I couldn’t believe how hard it was to find his music” Schaphorst says. “Since then Herb Pomeroy gave me a couple of things. So we ended up playing ‘Aluminum Baby.’ Byard arranged that for Herb. It was recorded in 1957. The recording I have is called Life is a Many Splendid Gig. Jaki is playing in tenor in the section.

Schaphorst says that the NEC big band played a short set of Byard tunes and the 2003 concert went off beautifully. “I guess ever since I’ve been digging around seeing what I could find,” he says “I got in touch with his daughter, Diane. I heard at one time that she was considering donating some of the stuff to the school. She sent me a little bit. My goal, and I told this to Diane, and I think this is one of the reasons she was really supportive of the project, was to have a book that we could play – maybe once every generation – so every group of students who come to the school will get a chance to hear and play his music.”

A small collection of Byard’s works were left at the school, but there were also quite a few missing parts as well. “It was frustrating but fun because I had to reconstruct a few things, from a combination of recordings and guessing,” he says. “I think I’ve gotten to know his style — ‘Okay, this is the way he is voicing the saxophone section. The missing note must be this.’ So there were a few things where pages were Xeroxed and there was a note or two off the page.

“I was at a lunch with Eddie Palmiei. He’s at Harvard and the guy at Harvard says, ‘Oh, I have a couple of things of Jaki. So, I’m hoping that just the fact that we are doing [the concert] will draw some attention to it and maybe we can collect more music. My goal more than anything is to have his music played. Because it’s not played. That’s the sad thing — as great as his arrangements are – high school band’s should be playing them. Some of them are difficult. Some of them are out. It’s sad. I try to be optimistic and thinking that the truth of that music will survive. It needs a little help. So it’s been more work than usual in terms of getting music ready, but I think it is going to be a great concert.”

The program for Thursday’s concert is filled with highlights. Special guests include pianist Anthony Coleman. As a child, he studied with Byard in New York City. Ran Blake, who had recorded with Byard, is also on the bill. Blake is a longtime NEC faculty member. After Jaki was shot he wrote a piece dedicated to him called “Only Yesterday.” He will play the piece at the concert. The NEC big band will play “Up Jumps One,” which is Byard’s take-off one on Basie’s “One O’Clock Jump.” Audiences will also hear an arrangement of Oscar Pettiford’s “Tricotism,” “St. Thomas,” “God Bless the Child,” “Satin Doll,” as well as Byard’s “Aluminum Baby,” “Two-Five-One,” “Apollo Theme” and “Spanish Tinge.”

“He wrote so much,” says Schaphorst. “I haven’t heard anything that I haven’t liked. There’s so much history. One thing that inspired me to do this is I got a hold of one chart and it was number 251. Typically in a big band book you number every chart from 1 to whatever. That suggests that there is a lot of music out there that we still need to find and I hope we can.”

The concert will be held at Jordan Hall, 30 Gainsborough St. It is free and open to the public. For more information call 617-585-1122 or visit www.newenglandconservatory.edu.

Here’s a clip of Jaki with Earl Hines.

Click here for information on Anything for Jazz, a Rhapsody Films documentary.

Here’s a fan’s tribute.

A discography site.