J05: Elks on Summer Street

When I first began the writing of The Jazz Worcester Real Book, I wanted to include a collection of interviews with musicians talking about some of the places where they had performed. After talking with Roscoe Blunt about the Saxtrum Club, Emil Haddad about the El Morocco, Bunny Price on the Kitty Kat, Ken Vangel on Circe’s, among others, I quickly ran out of room. I still have all of my interviews on file and from time to time I’ll post them.

Here’s one on the original Quinsigamond Elks Club, when it was on Summer Street. I had called upon drummer Tom Price to fill us in. Price is the son of the late trumpeter Barney Price and brother of bassist, Bunny Price. In the ’60s and ’70s, Tom lived in New York City, where he worked with Jaki Byard, Burton Green, Henry Grimes and Frank Lowe. He also taught the art of drumming at the New Community School of Arts in Newark, NJ for more than 30 years. We begin with a general interview about his life in music.

Did you come up playing drums inspired by your dad?

Yes, the fact that he was a musician naturally drew me into it. He was an influence.

Did you take lessons?

I started out playing bongo drums. I taught myself listening to Calypso music when it was the craze — listening to Harry Belafonte and of course a lot of the other Latin bands — Prez Prado and people like that were around. I was playing bongos and congas.

I played with Kingsley McNeal. He formed a Calypso group. He was originally from Kingston, Jamaica. I was in my early teens, like 14 or 15. I played with him for two years. We used to play some of the country clubs around Worcester County. He was a singer. We had a little group with some of my sisters. I performed with him a great number of times with just him singing and myself playing the bongo drums. A few times he had someone on guitar.

I used to play the conga drums for Reggie [Walley] down in his dance studio on Main Street. I even performed a few times with him at the dances. His wife Mary choreographed these routines. That’s how I started out. Then I started taking lessons with a guy who played in the local symphony. I don’t know if he is still around. Then I took lessons with Joe Brindisi. He is still playing around. After I graduated from high school — I was at Commerce High — I went into Berklee. I was studying with Alan Dawson. He was, I would have to say, the major influence on me, in terms on playing. Aside from listening to guys like Max Roach, Roy Haynes and Philly Joe Jones – you know, listening to these guys on record.

I would like to ask you about the Elks.

That was the spot. Back then it was on Summer Street not far from Union Station. Just a little in from the square. That’s where it was for many years – across the street from Second Baptist Church. We did sometimes Friday and Saturday night. Sometimes it was a late afternoon on Sundays. We played functions and dances as well.

Do you recall any of the players?

Johnny Catalozzi played with us an awful lot. Bunny. Al Pitts, the tenor player. He died. He stayed in Worcester for quite a while then he moved into Hartford. He used to come back and forth every now and then to play.

I heard he was quite the bluesy player.

Oh, yes. He was. He was originally from Gary, Indiana. He ended up in Massachusetts because he was in the army. He was stationed at Fort Devens. After he got discharged he stayed around. He took up residence in Worcester for a while. As a matter of fact, he married one of my cousins.

Did you play jazz as well as the pop songs of the day?

We formed a group with Art Lonegan. Bunny was on bass. Lou, a piano player, whose name escapes me. Art used to get all these gigs. We played the pop stuff of the day. We did weddings and commercial gigs. At the time I was in high school. I left to go in the service when I was 22. While I was at Berklee I was doing a lot of playing.

Do you recall what the old Elks looked like?

It was basically a membership thing. It was a social club as such. I remember the place that was at Clayton St. We had a little club there for a while. I know my dad and Howie played there. I’m trying to recall if it was still the Saxtrum at that time. It may have been the tail end of the Saxtrum Club that I am thinking of. It didn’t last. Later on it became a church.

Did Jaki Byard play there?

I didn’t play with Jaki in Worcester. I played with him in New York. We played at the Top of the Gate. That was during the days when I was hanging out in the city. That was a gas. It was really great to play with Jaki. It was a quartet.

Did you gig with Howie?

We did some things in that little place I was describing. It was another thing they had going. I don’t want to say it was a rival to the Elks. I did a few things there with Howard and my dad. We had different people on piano. Judy Wade played bass. The Elks was there for quite a long time. It was pretty much the focus in terms of black entertainment. It was the place for many, many years. That’s where everybody came on Friday and Saturday nights. There was an upstairs and downstairs but downstairs was where we did all the playing. It was a big boxy room with tables. I remember playing a gig upstairs too.

Did you feel like it was a learning time for you? A time to pay your dues?

Definitely. It was a learning and growing time for me. Just to get the experience to play. For me the Elks was the place. It was a mentoring time. As far as some of the older black musicians that were around. I remember Freddie Bates. He had a stroke, but he was always around at sessions. They were role models. A lot of it wasn’t spoken out to you directly. You just learned. You noticed how people dressed and how they came to the gig and things like that. You were expected to be there on time and all of that. I did a lot of watching. Because even before I got to play somewhat regularly, I was at gigs just watching, observing and learning that way.

Postscript: The red brick building is at 210-225A Summer Street, which is right off Washington Square before Asylum Street, was recently purchased by Katie Krock, who intends to open a nightclub.

Clip of the week: Sonny Rollins with Don Cherry, Billy Higgins and what appears to be Henry Grimes. For more on Grimes, see: http://www.henrygrimes.com/biography.html.

Here’s a picture of Price with Grimes: http://www.henrygrimes.com/Photos/photos.html.

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