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.