J26: Circe, the enchantress of Franklin Street

With grief for their slain companions mixed with joy at their own escape, they pursued their way till they arrived at the Aegean isle, where Circe dwelt, the daughter of the sun. – From Homer’s romantic poem Odyssey

This is another installment about local jazz clubs. This one is on Circe’s, the short-lived, but historic club on Franklin Street, which later found international fame as the home of Worcester’s Punk scene. It is told by Ken Vangel.

In the early 1970s, Vangel led the hippest little jam session in the city at Circe’s. The house band featured Vangel on piano, bassist Ben Perry and drummer Ricky Price. Some of the regular players included Dennis Wright, Bob Bliss, Jeff Radway, Dwight Perry, Jim Arnot, Dennis Brennan and Jackie Stevens.

The session had a heavy blues tinge to it, and the flyer advertising the session had the musician’s eyes blackened out like old 1950s blue movie stars. At the time, Vangel had recently toured with Paul Pena and subsequently hit the road with Johnny Copeland.

Vangel hails from Worcester. He was born in town on August 30, 1948. He is a 1970 graduate of Clark University. He also studied privately with Madame Margaret Chaloff, Sir Roland Hanna, Evelyn Fuller, Luke Richards and Doris M. Roberts.

In addition to stints with Pena and Copeland, his career highlights are many, including stints with Johnny Adams, Otis Rush, Arthur Bythe, Leon Thomas, George Adams and the New Orleans All-Stars featuring Idris Muhammad and Donald Harrison.

For more than 20 years Vangel owned and operated Diversified Talent Services (DTS), a booking agency that specialized in international tours with an emphasis on Europe. Some of the artists that he booked include Ray Charles, Bobby Bland, Tommy Flanagan, Jimmy Scott and Clifford Jordan.

Before he left Worcester in the mid-‘70s, Vangel also spent time as a promoter or co-promoter. From 1968 to 73, he booked more than 30 acts throughout New England including Chuck Berry at the Paris Cinema (1970), The Beach Boys at the Paris Cinema in Worcester (1971), Buddy Guy at Quinsigamond Community College (1971) and Rahsaan Roland Kirk at Leicester Jr. College (1972).

What was your playing experience in Worcester leading up to the Circe’s gig?

I had been working blues gigs around New England. I also had regular G.B. [General Business] gigs in Worcester, weddings etc., as a sub as well as solo piano or duo or party dates.

When did you start playing jazz in town?

Well, I started getting restless to play some good music and began trying to get some sessions. After a while I was able to put together a few gigs. At each gig there was a great response from some and others just ignored it or looked bewildered. It was exciting though for us.

Who was in that band?

It was Dennis Wright (drums), Jim Arnott (bass), Bob Bliss (saxophone), Jeff Radway (trumpet), Tom Herbert (saxophone). The horns were never there together. The most we had at this time were two horns. Wright was working a regular fulltime job. The others were doing some things part time. I think Radway was working a full schedule, so rehearsals were usually early and not often.

I was living off G.B. and occasional blues gigs and everyone else was doing other gigging. Wright was doing gigs with the wedding bands. He was doing other gigs with Bob Bliss, Paul Marin and John Barilla. Arnott was working with Gene Woloczand others here and there. Radway had some legit gigs. Tom Herbert was doing a jazz night at the Kitty Kat, G.B. and club/blues/rock gigs.

I got the Summer’s World [Inner-City, arts & entertainment organization] gig and began hiring these guys for various combinations with other musicians which included Jack Stevens, The Perry’s [bassist Ben and his brother Dwight on guitar], The Pinos [guitarist Ken and his brother Babe on harmonica], Rob Marona, The Prices [Barney on trumpet and his son Bunny on bass], Emil Haddad, Bliss, Radway, Marin, Herbert, Wright, Dave Agerholm, Ricky Price, Rich Bishop and Athan Billias, among others. Mitch Chakour, who was in high school at the time. Willie Alexander.

What years did you play at Circe’s and who played?

It was 1972 to 73. The band was put together for the date at Circe’s, but it was part of an ongoing process. It was Tommy Herbert, Dennis Brennan, Bob Bliss and Jeff Radway. We started off with drummer Ricky Price [Bunny’s cousin] then Dennis Wright. Guitarist Dwight Perry. It was a quartet at first. Then it ended up with Dennis Brennan and the other three horns. Tommy Herbert was playing soprano, tenor and the flute. Bob Bliss was playing tenor. Jeff was playing trumpet. Dennis Brennan was playing harp and singing. We were doing swing, some Brazilian stuff, some original tunes. Bebop. A lot of Horace Silver tunes. Cannonball Adderley, Miles, Coltrane and Monk tunes.

Jimmy Arnot was doing it too. And Jackie Stevens. Then he moved to Newport. At the time, Jimmy was going up to Woodstock, NY studying with Dave Holland and Dennis Wright was studying with Jack DeJohnette. Dennis was also playing with Zonkaraz.

Where was the club located?

Circe’s was a restaurant and bar on the last block on Franklin before the Library. Next to Ephraim’s Bookstore and the Paris Cinema. I think there was maybe some other business in between on that block. When you entered you encountered a long bar to the right with a line of small tables lining the wall across from the bar and then to the backroom where we set up. There were booths back there, maybe eight-plus, and a few tables. A grand piano came with the place as well as a basic music PA with a 4-input board.

The business was mostly downtown lunch specials for the working crowd. It was the backup to the Eden Garden for the T&G (Telegram and Gazette) crowd, office workers, City Hall. In addition, there was the after work drinking crowd, “happy hour,” but the owner wanted to hang out a few nights a week. The lounge mentality was waning. So, it was difficult to get people in there. He had tried many things during the early ‘70s, but nothing had staying power.

When I approached him, he had just given the group that was there their last notice. He wanted to do a one-day trial, and if it seemed interesting, try some more nights. Well, Dennis Wright was getting fed up with the rehearsals and low paying gigs and he had to take the legit gigs for bread. So he gave me a price he needed to work, so he was out for the first Circe’s date. I wasn’t going to pay out of my pocket. Basically I was doing this with Ben Perry and Bob Bliss, I don’t think Dwight was on that first gig. Someone suggested Ricky Price. I called him at work and he said he was always up for pure jazz. I gave him the run down. He said he’ll try it once, but didn’t want to have to rehearse.

So, the owner gave me a weekday. It sounds crazy now, but it was probably a Tuesday as it fit into Ricky’s schedule. I gave him a song list a few days before the gig. We called a bunch of people and off we went.

Obviously, you got the gig?

We scheduled the Thursday of the next week and kept it a few weeks maybe a month, building it up to about 40-50 people. After this month Ricky called me and said he couldn’t really do the gig anymore, too busy, full time job, family etc. I then called Dennis Wright and he heard that it was happening. We got a couple good rehearsals in with the quintet and did a weekend, both Friday and Saturday night. Tom Herbert wanted in. We added Jeff Radway. The crowds were going from 60-110, then 80-125.

We just kept adding people including [singer, harmonica] Dennis Brennan who was like a feature. We would bring him up to do three or four tunes a set. People came down. They were there to listen and drink at the bar, not play — Eddie Sham, Bunny Price and Joe Holovnia. Emil [Haddad] more than any of the guys his age. Clark Professors came down. [Wes] Fuller was there many times and [Relly] Raffman, once or twice — a few others.

I understand you had a few run-ins with the union at this time?

I think the reason my eyes were blackened on the poster was to hide form the union. I had many battles with them since the ‘60s. I had been called down to their office many times, and they put pressure on me at this gig. But Bob Bliss was on the radio at WICN and one day we all went on with a forum about foolish union rules. We blasted them. How could you legislate against creativity? We made a mockery of them. After that I was never bothered.

Didn’t the gig develop into more than one night a week?

It got built up after Dennis Brennan arrived. It was Friday, Saturday and Sunday afternoon. People came from Boston, including the bartenders from the Jazz Workshop, and others from Springfield, Hartford, New London and Norwich Connecticut.

The first to leave was Dennis Wright. He was approached by Zonkaraz to do some gigs. I had replaced him with Danny Davis from Boston. This lasted a few weekends and then he became too much of a hassle. I had to put him up and pick him up and drive him back to Boston. I quickly found a senior at Berklee from Ohio who was really into the early stages of fusion drumming. His name was Glen Davis, a very hard hitter, with excellent time. He did maybe two weeks.

Bob Bliss received a job offer from the Hartford Times. So he gave notice. Jeff Radway either had a new job or there were new demands from his day gig, I can’t remember, so he was going out. Soon Dwight, Tom Herbert and Dennis Brennan were offered a Top 40, rock gig. As a replacement I went into Boston and to Berklee many days in a row and came up with replacements — Percy Marion, a tenor player from Memphis and Pat Thompson, a female vocalist from LA.

Well, the same week before the gig, Percy received a phone call from Mulgrew Miller who was on the road with the Duke Ellington Orchestra under the supervision of Mercer Ellington and said there was an opening for Percy in the band. Percy had to leave immediately. He quit Berklee and joined Ellington. Percy quickly became one of Mercer’s favorites, one of the new guys coming up-maybe the first “Branford Marsalis,” it was tragic and a terrible shock when it happened. (Incidentally, Percy Marion drowned in a hotel swimming pool shortly after joining the Ellington band.)

How did the Circe’s gig end?

I had tried to get the owner to spend some money on advertising and he never wanted to do it. He talked about it, but since things were going well, he never did anything. So I ended the gig. I continued to do local gigs and many of them with Ben Perry in small groups in Worcester County, but eventually it ran its course and I moved to NYC. Also, prior to moving to NYC, I did many gigs with Luther Johnson and John Lee Hooker and others up and down the East Coast over a period of about seven months.

Here’s a list of some of the tunes that we played: “Lullaby Of Birdland,” “Willow Weep For Me,” “I Can’t get Started, “Watermelon Man,” “Fly Me To The Moon, “D Natural Blues,” “Sunny,” “Yesterdays,” “Bluesette,” “Blue Bossa,” “My Funny Valentine,” “There Will Never be Another You,” “Green Dolphin Street,” “Blues For Bird,” “All Blues,” “Straight No Chaser,” “Sweet Lorraine,” “Misty” and “The Lady Is A Tramp.”

Here’s the material from when we added the horns and Dennis Brennan: “Walkin’,” “ESP,” “Milestones,” “Tune-Up,” “Round Midnight,” “Well, You Needn’t,” “Misterioso,” “Equinox,” “Mr. P.C.,” “Naima,” “Moment’s Notice,” “Bessie’s Blues,” “My Favorite Things,” “Afro-Blue, “Blues Minor,” “Search For Peace,” “Blues A La Mode, “Sack O Woe,” “Work Song,” “Dis Here, “Dat Dere,” “Red Clay,” “Little Sunflower,” “First Light,” “Up Jumped Spring,” “Afternoon In Paris,” “Sugar,” “Stolen Moments,” “Freedom Jazz Dance,” “Forest Flower,” “Killer Joe,” “Put It Where You Want It,” “Take Five,” “Cornbread,” “Jitterbug Waltz,” “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat,” “A Child Is Born,” “Moanin’,” “Cantaloupe Island,” “Close Your Eyes,” “Road Song,” “Sidewinder,” “Hallelujah, I Love Her So,” “Bags Groove,” “Softly As In A Morning Sunrise,” “Sister Sadie,” “Song For My Father,” “The Jody Grind,” “Senor Blues,” “Doodlin’,” “Night In Tunisia,” “My Little Suede Shoes,” “Scrapple From The Apple,”
“Ornithology,” “St. Thomas,” “Playin’ In The Yard,” “Theme From Alfie.”

Dennis Brennan sang tunes like “Compared To What,” “I’d Rather Drink Muddy Water,” “Moondance,” “What’s Goin’ On,” “Parker’s Mood,” “How Sweet It Is,” “Everyday I Have The Blues,” “Georgia,” and “Fever.”

Many of this material we did a lot, others a few times, some maybe once or twice. Somehow the material all worked together. There was never the feeling that it all didn’t belong.

In Homer’s Odyssey there is a scene where the men of the ship, Odysseus, encounter Circe. It reads: “In the entrance way they stayed to listen / there inside her quiet house they heard the goddess Circe. Low she sang in her beguiling voice, while on her loom / she wove ambrosial fabric sheer and bright, by that craft known to the goddesses of heaven.”

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