Monthly Archives: May 2007

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.