J21: “Giant Steps” at the Kitty Kat with Jackie Stevens

Having a guy of his stature play the session was like having a major leaguer in our midst giving us a sneak preview as to what it was like to be in the Show. Though he only spent two short years playing in town, his presence to this day, remains indelible.

Sometime in the early ’70s — no one is quite sure of the exact dates – Jackie Stevens was a regular feature at both the Thursday evening and Sunday afternoon jazz sets at the Kitty Kat [K]lub, a long lost Main Street venue in Worcester. The club was owned by the late drummer Reggie Walley, who played host to many of the finest local musicians of the period.

John “Jack” Stevens was born September 25, 1940. He was raised in Franklin, MA. He first started playing music on the clarinet at seven years old. He would soon take lessons on both clarinet and saxophone with the legendary Henry “Boots” Mussulli of Milford. From the beginning he was a gifted player who after high school, received a scholarship to Berklee School of Music. His professional experience was extensive and varied. He toured the United States, Mexico and Canada with the big bands and many small jazz groups, including Woody Herman, Herb Pomeroy, the revived Tommy Dorsey orchestra featuring Frank Sinatra Jr., and Si Zentner. From 1965-1970 he played solo piano gigs throughout Worcester County.

In addition to performing on alto and tenor saxophone, organ and piano, Stevens also composed a series of jazz compositions. An example of his writing can be heard on Greg Abate‘s 1994 release, My Buddy, in which he contributed seven pieces.

At the height of his career, Stevens wrestled with drug and alcohol addiction. He was later diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. Due to his illnesses Stevens put the horn down in 1980. He died January 18, 2003 in Newport, RI at the age of 61.

As mentioned, though his time spent in Worcester was short, his influence made a lasting impression. Many of those who played the sessions have offered memories of time well spent sharing the stage with Stevens during those days, including Dick and Jim Odgren, Tom Herbert, Jim Arnot, Bunny Price, as well as close friend Peter DeVeber.

Bassist, trumpeter and former barkeep at the Kitty Kat, Bunny Price

I was playing down in Milford. I was taking trumpet lessons with my man Ziggy Kelly. I was trying to build my chops up into a big band lead-type player. All those guys down there were great men, Kelly, Al Katz and another guy named “Mimmy.”

Anyway, I think it was Ziggy, until he has a stroke, he used to come up and sit in once in a while on a Sunday afternoon. I ran the bar, man. We opened in the late sixties. I took the band from the Peacock [Lounge, in Auburn], with Larry Monroe, Al Mueller, Bobby Gould and Bill Myers on trumpet. That was the house band down there for a long while. That was like 1969. Jackie came up not long after that.

That’s when Dick Odgren fell in. Dick had just come home from the service. He found out about the club through my dad. His wife worked at the [Worcester County National] bank with my father. She was telling my dad about how her husband was coming home from the service and he is a piano player and looking to play.

Jackie made all the dates. I used him down at this little joint on Foster Street, The Over the Hill Gang. It was Howie [Jefferson] and my dad [trumpeter Barney Price], myself and Al Mueller. He got pretty tight with Al Arsenault. He was gigging here and there with him as well.

You know how guys talk about musicians? Jackie would never talk about anybody in particular. Most of the guys around this area were diggin’ Howie and Boots. They were the pioneers in Worcester County.

Jackie was ahead of the other guys around here, other than Howie. They jammed together. Jackie was a good modern player. He was mainly playing standards. He didn’t go too far out.

Jackie had gotten sick in that period. I think it was by the time we moved to the Hottentotte, because he was one of the guys that we were thinking of using. I ended up getting Nat Simpkins, because I had heard him so much at the Kitty Kat with all the different R&B bands. That was the beginning of Nat’s history with us.

Pianist Dick Odgren

When I came home from the Navy, I didn’t know anybody, really. That was the beginning of those connections. That’s where I met Howie and Bunny. This was like 1972. So I went up and the funniest thing is Jimmy had already been going. He was still in high school.

We did that for a couple of years. Let’s see, who was playing? Reggie on drums. Jim Arnot was the bass player, [saxophonist] Tom Herbert, [trumpeter] Jerry Pelligrini, Jimmy [Odgren].

Jackie was a great jazz player. He surprised me. He was also an excellent piano player. I really didn’t know anything about him before that. The Kitty Kat is where I met him. I knew of his history through the other guys, not really through Jackie.

I recall that he was an unbelievable player… endless streams of lines as an improviser. We’d played mostly standards, jazz tunes, but we’d play “Giant Steps” too.

I used to watch him. He would be in front of me, but he would be looking to his right sort of past me because the wall that he was looking at was a mirror. He’d be watching himself play to see what he looked like. I don’t think it was conscious. I think it was just something that happened.

We played like ’72 through ’74, somewhere in there. Toward the end Jackie was not there. I remember making a recording when Jackie was there. The guy from WCUW, Vance, was there. He came and sat-in when Jimmy and my brother Paul and I used to play on Saturday nights at the Cock ‘n Kettle. That was a little different because our job was for dancing. He played great. I remember him saying, ‘Man, it’s a scene. Every gig is a scene.’

My feeling was he inspired me with his playing. He was not that older than me. He was born around 1940. He had me by about seven years. He never seemed like he was inebriated or anything to me. We had great conversations and he was funny. His playing never faltered. He was an awesome player and a sweet guy.

Saxophonist Jim Odgren

I didn’t really know him until I met him and heard him play at the Kitty Kat. I was probably 15 or 16. He was a great player. It was great to see somebody at that level, that close up. He used to hang. He’d come up for the session. It was all about the tunes and playing. There’s a lot of stuff you can’t write about. He was trying to get off the junk. I remember he was the only one that I knew who could play on “Giant Steps.” I was interested in it because it was a hard tune. He could play it.

Saxophonist Tom Herbert

I met Jackie through Boots. Jackie was a student of Boots before he went on the road with Woody Herman. I remember when I was a kid 11, 12 years old Boots used to tell me stories about Jackie Stevens, how he was a good player. I have the manuscript of a tune Boots wrote for him, called “Jackie.” It is in Boots’ own writing too.

I didn’t meet him until I was actually in college. He used to hang out in Boston. Jack would go on these binges. He was playing with the bass player, Charlie Lachapelle. Then there was a big band up on the North Shore. I’d go work with him and hang out in Boston. He introduced me to Sal Nistico, the other tenor player in Woody Herman’s band. Sal was the white Italian bebop tenor player.

Jackie wasn’t an avant-garde. He was a mainstream bebop player. His tenor sound was Selmer Mark VI with an Otto Link mouthpiece, kind of like Coltrane was using. His sound was… I can visualize his left hand on the top keys and can remember the sound of the top notes that were kind of like bright and his low horn was real dark. He had a sound that was more like Sonny Rollins. The white tenor players sound different from the black tenor players. They are different.

I have tapes of sessions at his house down in Franklin with me and Jim Arnot with Jack on piano and tenor. I have about a dozen tapes of those sessions. There was a place down on Rte. 9 called the Hungry I. We had a gig there. They had a B-3 in the club and Jackie played it. I played tenor. Jim was playing an electric and Jack told him to go buy an upright bass. He was teaching us how to play.

Bassist Jim Arnot

I got to know him through Tom Herbert. We struck up a friendship. He used to live in Franklin and I lived in Grafton. I used to jam over his house. He was living there with his father. I had Gene Wolocz’s organ at my house. Jackie would come over and he would play the B-3.

For me, I was young and just getting into jazz. I was into blues and rock and trying to get into jazz. We used to just play standards. He would pull out charts. We’d play them and then he would tell us different things about it. It was great. It was a learning experience for me. It was nice to be around somebody who had been there and done it. That was my introduction to jazz.

He had played in the big bands. He was on the road with Woody Herman. He sat right next to Sal Nestico in the sax section. He was home just trying to get himself together. He was a young kid and got hooked on junk. He was trying to get his whole life together at that point after living the jazz life. It was tough at that time too, because big bands were not in demand – even jazz saxophonists in their 40s were not in demand either. So he actually had to come back and move in with his father, which I’m sure must have been tough for him. It was tragic what he went through.

He was like a mentor to us. He was nice enough to help out the kids. He was quite a bit older. We were in our 20s and he was in his 40s. He was great for us as being an older guy who had done it. He would tell us stories. He inspired us in a lot of ways. We got together once a week and played. That went on for a couple of years. He introduced me to some very good players in Boston. He would tell us about all the guys knew on the road and people he had seen. It was definitely something that a 20 year-old kid wanted to hear. He was a cool. We had some great sessions. He was a great player, great guy. He was the real deal.

Fan, friend and producer Peter DeVeber

I played trumpet and my claim to fame is that we got our instruments at the same time in the third grade in Franklin, Massachusetts. He got a clarinet. I got a trumpet. He went on to play with Woody Herman and I gave it up in the ninth grade to play basketball.

As far as his playing goes I was always just amazed by what he could do. He mentioned the Kitty Kat Lounge. The last time that I really saw him play tenor would have been in the late 70s. I think it was a place called the Old Timers Lounge in Clinton. He was playing with a trio and I remember him telling us that the drummer had played on the Tommy Dorsey band.

I really enjoyed hearing him play that night. Of course he was drinking heavily, but he was playing great. I remember him playing “Stella by Starlight” and I don’t think anybody played it like he did. That was the last time I saw him play tenor.

I remember asking him, I said, “You don’t have a recording of ‘Stella by Starlight?’ He said, “I have all these reel to reels.” He had them in a closet in a green rubbish bag. There’s some interesting stuff of him playing horn solo and piano alone.

I didn’t really hook up with him again until around 1985. When his father passed away he called me. It happened that my dad had passed away right around the same time.

He was living in assisted living in Newport at the time. I saw his situation and would visit him frequently and would take him out to hear music. We were really close friends. I was at the hospital the night he died.

When he passed away he left me his tenor. It’s going to go to my grandson. He just turned 13. He’s doing quite well with piano and saxophone. He told me that he bought it in New York when he was with Woody. They had an engagement at the Metropole. He wanted a new horn. Woody sent him somewhere and Jackie went into the store and the owner told him, “Sonny Rollins was in this morning and tried 30 horns and that was his second choice.” So Jack bought it.

Dick Johnson knew that I would be seeing Jack a lot and Dick would on occasion ask me how he was doing and I would tell him. One time he put his head down and shook his head and said, “He would have been a world beater.”

Leo Curran was close to him too. He got a little emotional one night and said, “If he had just stayed healthy, with his looks and his talent, he would have been bigger than Getz.”

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