Monthly Archives: April 2008

JS35: The Black Elks on Chandler

The Independent Benevolent Protective Order of the Quinsigamond Elks #173 is best known as the Black Elks. Back late 1960s and early ‘70s, the first Elks Club was on Summer Street. By the ‘80s, the order set up shop at 200 Chandler Street on the corner of Bellevue Street. Like its predecessor, the Black Elks held Sunday afternoon jam sessions. The house band was the Soul-Jazz Qt., featuring trumpeter Barney Price, bassist Bunny Price, drummer Reggie Walley and pianist Allan Mueller.

A pianist in residence with the Thayer Symphony and Chamber Orchestras today, Mueller is also an outstanding jazz pianist in the Oscar Peterson vein. A few years ago he sat down to recall his days at the Elks. The intent of the conversation was to document the club as part of an oral history section of the Jazz Worcester Real Book. Unfortunately, the section didn’t make the cut. Here is our conversation.

Tell me what you remember about the club?

It was the same type of thing we were doing at the Hottentotte [A former club on Austin Street]. We played a session. It was a Sunday, like 3 to 7 p.m. The music room was separate from the bar. I remember that the stage was tiny and not very deep. We had to spread across. If you are looking at the stage, Reggie was on the left. I was next to him. Then Bunny. The three of us would be in the back. Then the horns would be out front. Barney really liked being right out there with the people. There was some kind of soundboard and occasionally a deejay would crank something up on the break.

Who were some of the guys who sat in?

A lot of guys would come in and you wouldn’t even know their name. They’d say “Hi, I’m Bill.” There were so many. And of course you have all these guys lined up on the side. They would be holding their horns waiting to play. I can remember Bob Simonelli would come in and play. He would get so frustrated because you’d be playing a tune like, “I’ll Remember April” and somebody would be up there blowing and he might be three fourths of the way through the tune and stop playing and walk off. We’d be in the middle and this guy would start at the beginning. You’d go nuts trying to figure out where all these. If you were playing “How High the Moon” in G, they’d play in G, but they wouldn’t make any changes. Simbob would look at me. We just decided to keep the form no matter what. Reggie would be smoking his pipe and smiling. Everybody was drinking and having a good time. It was loose and relaxed. We’d set up, play and have a good time. It was fun. I can remember Teddy Blandin coming in. When I left, one of my students, Jim Heffernan, came in.

What was the audience like at the club?

It wasn’t just a black crowd. It was a good mix of white and black. Everybody was there to hear the old tunes and remember back when there were clubs where you could go out and hear that stuff. There were very few places where you could go once the Hottentotte closed. As those places died out you wound up with discos and deejays. Before you knew it there were not many venues for musicians to play.

Nobody seemed to bother us. I could never remember any instance of any kind of a racial thing going on. When I was there or Nat Simpkins was there it was just a crowd of musicians and a crowd of people that liked music. There was no, I’m black and you are white. No problems. It was a natural situation – we played and people appreciated what you did. Nobody would ever hassle you.

I taught at Clark [University] during that period and so just spreading the word that we were doing jazz on Sundays you’d get a lot of kids coming down sitting-in. I’d have students get up and play a little bit. That’s the name of the game, how you learn to play. Again, you had to be a little careful because the union was strict about people sitting-in. They weren’t supposed to unless that had a union card. They didn’t like the business of sitting-in anyway. We did it anyway.

[A partial list of other players to have played the jam include Bruce and Steve Thomas, Bill Vigliotti, Jim Robo, Charles Ketter, Jerry Pelligrini, Tommy Herbert, Sonny Benson and Willie Pye.]

Did you ever play at the club when it was on Summer Street?

You are talking about the original Elks, which was way over in the Laurel/Clayton neighborhood. I did a lot of playing over there with Barney and Reggie. This was in the 1960s. I remember going into the place. There was a big old upright piano in there. It was really beat, out of tune, but not ridiculous. The sustain pedal didn’t work. I can remember somebody went out back and found a broom handle. We were able to saw it off and stick it on the piano. We did a lot of stuff like that. We’d take the whole front of the piano off so you could hear it.

It was like a session. One time Larry Monroe was with us. He was studying at Berklee. I remember we rolled the piano right out of the club and down the street. Some of the local kids were riding it. We rolled it right onto a basketball court and we played an outdoor thing there. The kids were running and jumping all over the place. It was all-acoustic. Bunny played an old upright bass. There was a saxophone player name Al Pitts. He was great. It was fun to play blues with guys like that. They played the real stuff.

What it was like working with Barney? Not much is written about him.

Barney Price was a super guy. I played with him quite bit. He used to like to open with the theme song from the Burns and Allen TV show, “Love Nest.” That was a tune that he liked to play. He had a great voice. He used to sing a lot of things – actually sang more tunes than Reggie. He knew more tunes.

He was great with the crowd. Right off the top of his head he always had all kinds of stories, little anecdotes and stuff. The first concert I did at Clark University, I had Larry Monroe and Barney, Bobby Gould, Bunny Price and myself. It was when I first started to teach at Clark. We did a jazz concert. I remember Barney got on the mike and he said, ‘What town are we in? Oh, wait a minute this is Worcester.’ This was a typical Barney thing. He would always keep you laughing. He had a million stories. I think a lot of it was because he worked at the train station helping people with their luggage. He had a lot of personality. We did a lot of jobs together and he was an awful lot of fun to be with. Barney and Howie Jefferson were also a great pair to work with.

I seemed to recall him going from Louis Armstrong hits to modern stuff. Was he flexible like that?

He was open to doing anything. I mean, jazz-rock tunes, he’d get in and play it. Barney was good with the swing and the old time blues. He’d get in and do his thing, whether we were doing a Cannonball Adderley tune, “Walk Tall.”

I had a lot of respect for Barney. He may not have been a schooled musician but the guy was a real musician and somebody that I respected. It was for what he was able to do, his entertaining with the people. It’s certainly something I can’t do. Barney, Howie [Jefferson] and Reggie were the three guys.

You have to hear these guys back in their prime to really appreciate them. The problem is some people hear them when they are old and their chops are starting to go and they say, “What’s the big deal with these players?”

JS34: The Swinging Sheppard Brothers

Harry Sheppard tells this great little story about how Harvey used to wake him up in the middle of the night and carry him into downtown Worcester to hear some of the all-time great jazz artists jam. Harvey is Harry’s older brother. He’s 88. The kid’s just celebrated his 80th on April 1 – no foolin’. Back in the late ’30s, early ’40s, Harvey had a studio on Front Street, overlooking the common.

“Quick story,” Harry says, speaking by phone from his home in Houston. “Bands would play at the Plymouth [Theatre on Main St., now the Palladium]. My brother would run his jam session after hours at the studio. Nobody was invited but musicians.

“My brother would come home and get me out of bed and in my jammies, he would take me down to the studio. I would sit and listen to these guys play. I was a little kid. My folks never knew that he took me out of bed. I enjoyed it so much.”

The wily veterans have an intercom phone and Harvey jumps in and says, “I rented it so we could woodshed. We used to get all the bands coming through. Gene Krupa’s band. Will Bradley’s band with Ray McKinley. The guys wanted to drink a little and just jam.”

The Sheppards were born in Worcester. Harvey in 1920. Harry’s date is 1928. They both started out on drums, but later switched to vibes. While Harry is better known, having played with among others, Billie Holiday, Benny Goodman, Roy Eldridge and Coleman Hawkins, Harvey has also remained active throughout his career performing in Europe as well as New England, Florida and Texas. His group, “The Tune Timers,” played the “Arthur Godfrey Show,” and also was the opening act at the Sands in Las Vegas for Louis Prima and Keely Smith for many years. He also opened for Jimmy Durante, Dean Martin, among others in Vegas and Reno.

Harry says he grew up in Worcester, Leominster and Leicester. “My first grade of school I was in Leominster. Two years later we moved back to Worcester. I went to Chandler Street School. Then in the sixth grade we moved to Leicester.”

Harvey says, “I went to Classical. The Hurricane of ’38 forced me to finish at North.”

While in Worcester, the Sheppards lived on the second of a three-decker on Dale Street, which is off Murray and Jacques Ave. “It was 23 Dale Street,” says Harvey. Teddy Lane [trumpeter] also lived in the neighborhood.

Harry recalls that there was music, “All over the street,” he says. “Don Fagerquist lived right across the street from us. We used to hear him practicing. We also had music in the family – a very famous music publisher, Robbins Music Corporation. Jack Robbins was my mother’s brother.”

Harvey left Worcester in 1942. “We are only talking about 65 years ago,” he says, laughing. “I left to enlist in the Army.”

By the time Harry was of age, he too cut out of town, by joining the Navy. Before leaving however, both Sheppards were very active in town playing with many of the notable musicians of the day. “I was mostly playing commercial around Worcester,” Harvey says. “I worked with Jerry Goodwin, a good local band at the time. George Greece, a wonderful trumpet player and Jack Kaplan, a trombone player, were in that band.

“I worked with Dol Brissette – ‘swing and sweat with Dol Brissette.’ I did a few things with Dol. I did the home show at the Auditorium. I worked at the Moors on Rte. 9 with Emil Haddad. He was a terrific jazz player.”

The brothers might be octogenarian percussionists, but neither one of them has missed a beat in the way of memory. “In those years I worked all the clubs,” Harvey says. “I started with the Lido on Pearl Street. It was an upscale supper club. I played there with Ned Cosmo.

“I was still a drummer then. Cosmo says, ‘Why don’t you get vibes.’ I said, ‘I don’t want vibes.’ He said, ‘If you don’t get vibes, I’m going to get a drummer that’s got them.’

Harvey says he finally relented. “I and went downtown to Carl’s Music Store. I paid $250 for a set of Ludwig vibes. If I could find Ned Cosmo – whether he is in heaven or hell – I would send him a thank you note. Because if I was still playing drums, I would be home watching television and my brother would still be playing drums.

After high school, Harvey headed off to Boston. “I studied percussion at the New England Conservatory with George Lawrence Stone. I never got a degree. I took arranging, keyboard, solfeggio and percussion.”

From there, he spent a memorable summer in playing at the Cape. “I got a summer gig in West Falmouth at the Barclay Club,” he says. “I was there with a bass player Mary Francis Conlon. She went to Classical. Bernie Cormier on tenor saxophone and Al Mercury on drums.”

The gig was not far from Edwards Airforce Base, which eventually led Harvey into the military and out of town. “I was in regimental band,” he says. “We had guys from Vaughn Monroe’s band, Tommy Dorsey’s band and Ruby Newman’s band. They called it the All-American Army Band.”

Harry says like older brother, he too, first played drums. “As a little kid he started me off. I guess I was around seven. The idea was as we grew up I could be the drummer in his band. He knew he was going to go for vibes.”

That never happened. “He went into the service for four years, got married and left,” Harry says. “I never did gig with my brother. When he was in the army I was still a kid. When he came back from the army he went onto bigger and better things. The years separated us.”

Before going into the Navy, Harry played in his own backyard of Leicester. “Our music director was a guy by the name of Ted Hopkins. I was maybe 15. I wasn’t suppose to be in these places. We played the Hillcrest Country Club.”

When he got out of the Navy, Harry went to Berklee College of Music. “My second semester I added a secondary instrument,” he says. “I figured if I pick a horn I’ll never get a sound in a semester. I could fiddle around with vibes, because they were always around the house. By my third lesson I said, ‘This is it! This is what I want to do.’ I practiced five hours a day for a year and a half and that was the end of the drums.”

His first gigs on vibes were with Perry Conte. “Perry would say, ‘Bring them along.’ Play them at the end of a tune, a chord, something. They were very instrumental in inspiring me to learn,” Harry says. “Perry would book us with different bands. On a Saturday night he would have a bunch of bands. There was a lot of work. Sometimes he’d send me out with his brother Al Lopez, [Loconto]. If it wasn’t for that whole family I don’t know if I would have had the courage to do what I do. They really pushed me into it.”

Accordionist Johnny Mason and guitarist Johnny Rines were two musicians in particular that made an impression on Harry. “There were a lot of good accordion players around Worcester, but Johnny Mason was in a class all by himself. He played more like Count Basie. He would be like a whole sax section. Johnny Rines would be playing a solo and Mason would back him up like he was the whole Basie band. He had a big band sense. Nobody got a sound like that and he could do all the Art Van Damme stuff too. He had great facility. He was a wonderful swinger.”

He begins his thoughts on Rines by saying, “He was such a sweet guy. He could have worked with anybody in the country. He just wanted to do his thing. He was working with Emil Haddad. When I left and started to do stuff in New York, like the ‘Steve Allen Show.’ Johnny grabbed me one day when I came back to Worcester to visit and said, ‘I’m so proud of you. You did it. You left Worcester.’ He was so proud that I went out to New York.’

“Johnny Rines was one of the great jazz players. He could have played with anybody in the world. He was totally unsung. Nobody knew about him accept in Worcester. You couldn’t really compare him to anybody. He was just so clean and so full of fire. There’s nothing he couldn’t play. He could really swing.”

Before heading off to New York, Harry also had a group with his former wife. “Her maiden name was Betty Ann Miller. She went to Commerce High. She was a singer. She later took bass lessons in New York and became a very good jazz bass player. She now lives in Atlanta. Of course, we are divorced a thousand years now, but we are still friends. She remarried and never went back to music.”

Harry was active in New York throughout the 1950s. His long list of credits, includes stints with Billie Holiday, Cozy Cole and Benny Goodman. His touring highlights include the world with Lana Cantrell, in Paris with Georgie Auld and Doc Severinsen, South America with Benny Goodman.

Harry has an extensive discography to his credit including more than a half dozen as a leader. He has also recorded with among others Chubby Jackson, Lester Young and Ruby Braff.

These days Harry and Harvey are back together again like their early days on Dale Street. “Harvey’s living here on my property,” Harry says. “He’s still playing. He does four or five retirement homes a week.”

Just before hanging up, the Sheppard brothers are asked if they know Moe Kaufman. Harvey laughs indicating he gets the joke. Harry takes it a step further by saying, The flute player that wrote ‘Swinging Shepherd Blues.’ No he didn’t write it for us. He would have spelled the name right.”