The Independent Benevolent Protective Order of the Quinsigamond Elks #173 is best known as the Black Elks. Back late 1960s and early â€˜70s, the first Elks Club was on Summer Street. By the â€˜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 didnâ€™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 wouldnâ€™t even know their name. Theyâ€™d say â€œHi, Iâ€™m Bill.â€ 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 youâ€™d be playing a tune like, â€œIâ€™ll Remember Aprilâ€ 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. Weâ€™d be in the middle and this guy would start at the beginning. Youâ€™d go nuts trying to figure out where all these. If you were playing â€œHow High the Moonâ€ in G, theyâ€™d play in G, but they wouldnâ€™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. Weâ€™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 wasnâ€™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 â€“ 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 youâ€™d get a lot of kids coming down sitting-in. Iâ€™d have students get up and play a little bit. Thatâ€™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 werenâ€™t supposed to unless that had a union card. They didnâ€™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 didnâ€™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. Weâ€™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, â€œLove Nest.â€ That was a tune that he liked to play. He had a great voice. He used to sing a lot of things â€“ 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, â€˜What town are we in? Oh, wait a minute this is Worcester.â€™ 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, heâ€™d get in and play it. Barney was good with the swing and the old time blues. Heâ€™d get in and do his thing, whether we were doing a Cannonball Adderley tune, â€œWalk Tall.â€
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. Itâ€™s certainly something I canâ€™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, â€œWhatâ€™s the big deal with these players?â€