Saturday, September 20, 2014

Six stringer Jim Skinger

By Chet Williamson 

In the bio notes on his web page, guitarist Jim Skinger says, “It seems there was never a time when I wasn’t strumming a guitar, playing the piano or practicing the accordion, but it was the guitar that held the most fascination for me.”

Sixty years later, the guitar continues to captivate him and the music that he has both composed and performed on the instrument is heard around the world. Born in the Middlesex-area on April 20, 1940, Skinger was adopted by a Worcester family and brought to town as a child of two years-old. He went to Ward Street Elementary School and Commerce High School before enrolling in Clark University. Skinger grew up around Millbury Street and, as mentioned, music was there from the beginning.

“When I was very young I used to spend a lot of my weekends up at my aunt Helen’s house,” he recalls. “She had a piano in her living room and I would sit there for hours and learned to play – right by ear, little tunes. Then I began accordion studies. I took lessons with Guido Forticcelli for a while. There was a fellow before him.”

Skinger gravitated to the guitar at the age of 9. He says practicing was never a problem. In fact, his parents would actually ask him to stop once in a while to do other things. “I taught myself how to play. I think I sent off for one of those home-study courses. I could read and play. It was just a very natural thing. I began studies at Arthur Pruneau’s studios. They were in Worcester at the time.”

Speaking of his fascination he says, “It was an instrument that you could create all kinds of sounds on the strings. It didn’t have the visual thing like the piano or accordion where you could see all the keys. There was a mystery about it – how you put all those notes together on the strings.”

Being a teenager in the ’50s and a guitar player, rock n’ roll of course grabbed his ear. At the same time, Skinger says he listened to everything. “I was into old time music because I used to listen to a radio show out in Wheeling West Virginia, WWVA. There was an extraordinary deejay out there, Lee Moore, whom I got to know years later. He’s passed on now. He brought out all kinds of bluegrass and old time music. I loved all that music as well as early rock ‘n’ roll. We had a band and singing group growing up. We had a good time.”

His band was called the Melotones. “It sounds corny these days,” he says, “but we were a well-known group in our high school years. We used to play for all the high schools and college fraternities and dances. There was a place in Westboro called the Red Barn on Rte. 9. We did a variety of things, Presley and a lot jazz. That was an era when there was still a lot of the American Standards in play. People would ask us to play ‘Misty’ or ‘Moonlight in Vermont’ and jazz tunes.”

Skinger says he learned to play jazz by listening. One of his early favorite guitarists was Johnny Smith. “He was a huge influence on me. I was in 7th or 8th grade and I would run home from school and listen to his albums for hours. He was just extraordinary. I remember saying to myself, ‘Gee, if I go out and buy the sheet music maybe I can play just like that, only to realize there was something more going on. I began to realize there was another whole element to playing jazz. In those days it was really bebop.”

Johnny Rines
Skinger also mentions local guitarist Johnny Rines. “I knew his son who played drums with us. Johnny was a really nice guy and there was a piano player Bill Clemmer. I did some jobs with him. This is the way it worked in those days. There weren’t instruction books. He would say, ‘Look, this is what I’m going to do.’ And he would do all these wonderful things. He was very advanced for the time. These guys were way ahead of the curve. He would modulate and do different things with the chords and you’d say, ‘My god where is he going?’ There was no sheet music.

“Bill Clemmer was a tremendous player. His wife was Pat Goodwin, the jazz singer. They would play at this little coffeehouse that was downtown behind Front Street. It was started up by some very artsy people. It didn’t stay around long. They weren’t business people. Patty and Bill would go there and perform. I remember that very well. She was a great artist. I would say Johnny Rines and Bill Clemmer were tremendous influences.”

Back in the 1950s and into the ’60s, Worcester offered Skinger a showroom full of commercial work and mentoring was still a big part of the scene.

“There were people like Perry Conte,” he says. “I was still a kid. He would call me up and say would I come and play with this and that group. I have to tell you that hardly exists anymore. That’s where you got your training. He would send you out with these guys with big reputations and you’d be scared as hell going to the job, wondering were you going to be able to handle it. They were all older and more experienced. That’s how you learned.

“It’s not like that today. A lot of the students I’m working with have to do a tremendous amount of preparation. They may not have the experience that we received but they have to really pass auditions. We started making money, right way, while we were kids still in high school. We were working constantly. It seemed like the most natural thing in the world.”

Bill Leavitt
Sometime after high school, Skinger headed to Berklee College of Music to further his jazz studies.

“I’ll never forget that interview,” he says, “I told the registrar the kinds of things that I was picking up out on the street. I just thought everybody thought this way and understood things like this. They really didn’t come to find out until later.”

Evidently, the promising young guitarist was much further along in his playing than the average incoming freshman at the time. Right then and there the school was willing to take him on as a student. They also offered him a position as an instructor.

“This pre-dates Bill Leavitt,” Skinger says. “This is when it was a single little brownstone. All the big names were there, Herb Pomeroy and people like that. They were just in the infancy.”

Though the offer was tempting, Skinger went to Clark University instead. It was a chance, he says, to study in a formal way. “By this time I was becoming more involved with classical guitar. The influence was pretty strong. At the time we were newly married. I was an older student. It was difficult to think of traveling around too far. I made the decision to stay in Worcester,” he says.

Jazz banjoist Walter Kaye-Bauer
While at Clark, Skinger initiated a guitar program, which he directed for four years. At the same time, he continued classical guitar studies with such notable teachers as Walter Kaye-Bauer in Hartford, Sophocles Pappas in Washington, DC and with Alexander Bellows in Manhattan.

Skinger was in the department with Relly Raffman. “He was another huge influence. We had to stay pretty much down the middle of the road as far as sticking strictly to a classical curriculum. Although, on the side we would often go and play jazz gigs together.”

Skinger also was one of those who got involved in the creation of the Worcester School for the Performing Arts, later known as Performing Arts School of Worcester (PASOW). He also taught privately. Carl Kamp was one of his students.

Carl Kamp
“He was my first classical guitar teacher. I couldn’t use a pick anymore. I had to grow my nails. It was a life changing experience,” Kamp says laughing. “I studied at his house. He had a lot of students. He lived on Germain Street. I’m still playing classical guitar. This was around 1968. I switched to classical when I got out of college. I knew him from the store [Union Music, owned by the Kamp family]. He was a customer too. He’s a good man.”

Skinger left Worcester in the early ’70s. By this time he became heavily involved with things going on in Europe. His studies took him to Santiago de Compostella, Spain and to London where he studied with English composer John Duarte and the lutenist Diana Poulton.

John Duarte 
“It just felt right for us to spend time there,” Skinger says of his family’s move to England. “It was a fascinating area that I wanted to pursue. I got the opportunity to study manuscripts at the British museum. So I spent a year there working with musicians in England.”

In the mid-’80s, Skinger turned to composing and arranging in both classical and jazz idioms. Several of his compositions have been published in the U.S. and the U.K. In 1990 he formed a jazz trio, which led to many successful performances throughout the New York area.

When asked about how jazz and classical music coexists in his world, Skinger says, “Here’s my spin on it. Today everything is on the table. Those kinds of restrictive stylistic pedagogical techniques are almost becoming a thing of the past. In certain conservatories I see a more conservative approach and in some of the more Eastern European programs, but having said that, if you see what has happened with the guitar in the last 20 years, you will find that there has been tremendous … the Latin American composers have done a phenomenal job of taking folk music from their country and indigenous music and incorporating jazz and European music and coming up with phenomenal music that has been extremely popular.

“Certainly the English have done this with composers like John Duarte and others who have used English folk songs as a basis for composing contemporary works for the guitar. He was one of the most prolific composers for guitar. (He was also a jazz guy. That’s why we got along so well.) It seems to me that the one area that was lacking was our own country, where there was a division between classical and jazz. People did breach it like Charlie Byrd. He was an artist who did both.

“Jazz has a language and a tradition that is approached differently from the classical position, but I always felt that if you could combine both in a way that wasn’t a pastiche of styles – which is where the corruption thing got in there – but actually if you can create a unifying wholeness to the composition, you have something. That’s pretty much where I am with my composing right now.”

1997 was a banner year for Skinger. He made his debut with the Chappaqua Chamber orchestra, performing Joaquin Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez. He also appeared in a solo concert at the Royal Festival Hall in London for the Latin American and Caribbean Cultural Society of London.

In May 1999, Skinger was invited to perform in the Central Library of Moscow. The solo concert was sponsored by the Music Lover’s Club of Moscow. He also performed for the guitar classes at the A. Schnitke Music Institute and for the Primary School music classes for young musicians in Moscow.

In July 2000, Skinger performed in a series of performances throughout Italy celebrating Italian/Anglo Culture. The new millennium continues to offer Skinger new challenges and opportunities.

“It’s amazing how life can take different turns when you least expect it,” he says. “I met a fellow in Mexico who is a publisher. He is German, Norbert Dahms. He asked me to send him some compositions and I just got busy and never did. We met again the following year in Montreal. He said, ‘You were supposed to send me some music. So then I realized he was serious about taking on some of my music. So I sent him some scores and things. He’s published seven or eight compositions of mine.

“Then I was invited over to do some concerts in Germany. From there it led to some invitation to Austria where I’ve been going for the last three years to jury a competition and festival. Last year they premiered one of my compositions, which was written for, of all things, jazz quartet and classical guitar. That came out of the blue. I had spoken to the director who said, ‘I want you to write some music.’ He’s a great Venezuelan guitarist and I had assumed that he wanted something along the lines of solo or chamber music for classical guitar. He said no I want a jazz piece. So they brought in a jazz group from Vienna to perform. It was written for piano, percussion, bass, saxophone and classical guitar.”

Skinger has a new CD coming out in the coming months, his third. “There are two bonus tracks. One is a chamber piece for oboe, bass, flute and guitar. The other is the jazz piece that was premiered in Austria. This is the first that is all my own music. I thought well it’s time to fly,” he says.

Now residing in New York State, when not recording, arranging, composing, performing or traveling, Skinger still finds time to teach. He says he plays both nylon and steel string guitars.

“For some of my teaching I do the steel, but for myself, I prefer the nylon string, but I play all the guitars. I got them all. I’m still working locally. I do all kinds of things. When I have a jazz gig with my bass player, I play electric guitar on that.”

When asked if Worcester was a good place to grow and develop, Skinger says without hesitation, “Very definitely. There were players that took you under their wing.”

This piece was originally published in Jazzsphere on March 29, 2008.

Note: This is a work in progress. Comments, corrections, and suggestions are always welcome at: Also see:  Thank you.

Barney Price, Son of Gabriel, Shining trumpeter of the Laurel/Clayton neighborhood

By Chet Williamson 

Trumpeter Elwood Barney Price Sr., died in 1989 at the age of 76. The following is an unpublished feature that I wrote in 1987, a couple of years before his passing, as an English assignment in college. Robert Walker, my English professor at Worcester State, asked us to write an extended piece that we could then pitch to the Worcester Telegram and Gazette.

The trumpet shall sound,
And the dead shall be raised incorruptible,
And we shall be changed.
       -- Prophet Isaiah, Old Testament

Elwood “Barney” Price is sitting with his trumpet in his lap in the first pew waiting for his call to play. On this Sunday, the service is for children. The children’s choir is featured once a month here at the A.M.E. Zion Baptist Church on Belmont Street. Mr. Price is usually asked to play on the hymns, his favorite.

It’s a crisp autumn day, the leaves are turning, and at 75, the trumpeter has much to consider in his reflection. Although a 1986 heart attack, and a continuing bout with diabetes have slowed Price, his love for playing the trumpet is still with him. He was born in Worcester on February 17, 1913. As a young child he went to Belmont Community School and is a graduate of Commerce High School, class of 1932. Price played in the high school band and while still a teenager he began to perform professionally.

After church, I introduce myself and ask for an interview. He says, “Sure, why don’t we meet at my place in an hour. I live at 53 Catherine Street. See you there.” Price lives with his wife, Muriel in a three-decker, not far from Green Hill Park. The couple raised nine children, six boys and three girls, all grown and on their own. We take a seat at the kitchen table.

“Can I get you a drink?” he asks, before reconsidering what he said. He laughs and says, “Maybe I should rephrase that. You are probably not even old enough to drink. Can I get you a soda, water, or a cup of coffee?”

Wendell Culley
Mr. Price’s memory reaches way back. I break the ice by asking him how he began playing. He says as a child he wanted a clarinet until he heard the records of Louis Armstrong.

“My mother bought that first trumpet for me for Christmas,” Price says. “I was 13. An Armenian kid from the neighborhood showed me the fingering for ‘Oh, Come All Ye Faithful.’ That was 60-odd years ago and that wasn’t just yesterday. And you know the best thing about it is Wendell Culley, one of the best trumpet players around – who was playing with Count Basie, a black cat from Worcester – broke it in. He came home for the holidays.

“I don’t know how he knew I had a horn. I was playing it on Christmas day and he came to my house that night and wanted to borrow my horn. I said, ‘Geez, I haven’t played it myself yet.’ But I knew he was a good guy. Yeah, Wendell Culley broke in that horn of mine and I’m glad he did because I’ve been playing ever since.”

Price says soon after, his mother sent him to the basement to practice. He is said to have been so proud of his trumpet that he carried it everywhere he went and attempted to play everything that he heard. Price said that a bandmaster to a local brass band took a “liking to me and taught me music.”

He also studied with Charlie Bowles. “He was a great trumpet player,” Price says. “I studied privately with him. He played the theater circuit. He played the Palace. We used the Aubin Method. It had everything you wanted to know about the trumpet in that book. I think I still got it. It’s a good method today.”

Price was first inspired by the trumpet sound of Louis Armstrong and later Joe Smith, Doc Cheatham, Henry “Red” Allen, Charlie Shavers, and Jonah Jones. I asked him about the influence of Armstrong.

“Louie Armstrong? He was the first one that really stunned me,” Price says. “I was coming down the hill from high school one day and see the sign that said: Louis Armstrong. He appeared at Mechanics Hall. This was around 1930. He had that record out, ‘Shine.” He had 10-12 men with him. Amazing.”

Guido Grandpetro (alto), Howie Jefferson, possibly Jaki Byard on piano, Barney Pice singing

One of the trumpeter’s best friends in life was Howie Jefferson. The late saxophonist, who died in 1981, was one of the more popular musicians ever to come out of the Worcester area. He and Price were neighbors in the Laurel-Clayton section of Worcester. I asked Mr. Price to riff awhile on his friend.

“I got my horn for Christmas and Howard got his the following March,” he says. “I couldn’t write the rhythms see so, he’d play a note and I’d write it down. One of the first tunes we got down was a Duke Ellington thing, I think it was ‘The Mooche,’ (the trumpeter sings a phrase of the tune).

“My folks always had records around the house. My mother’s brother was a drummer. He went on gigs with Fats Waller, but like all musicians he had family trouble. He left his family in Boston. They say he was a good drummer.

“Howard’s mother would buy a lot of records and we’d take a lot of stuff off the records. … ‘Black and Tan’ by Duke. See, we’d play those songs all day. Guys used to ask, ‘Where’d you learn that at?’ They didn’t know we had our own arrangement. Howard couldn’t write at all, but he could play anything under the sun. I’d come home from school and the first thing I did was go to Howard’s house and play and listen to records. We played even after we got married.

“Howard had a wonderful ear. He was one of those guys that could hear anything and then play it. He was playing somewhere and he was playing ‘Body and Soul’ and blew Coleman Hawkins solo note for note and never did he see that song on paper.”

By the time he was 17, Price was playing professionally with Boots Wards’ Nite Hawks, one of the city’s first and best jazz bands. In a 1929-‘30 black and white publicity photograph of the Nite Hawks stands Price looking rather dapper. To his left and right, other members of this all-black band flank him, including Jefferson. The men are gathered around bandleader and drummer Ward, who sits behind an archaic drumkit with one hand held to his heart, the other raised to the heavens. In front of the eight-member ensemble is an impressive display of the group’s musical instruments.

At a quick glance the picture could be mistaken for one of King Oliver, Sidney Bechet, Jelly Roll Morton or any of the other great New Orleans bands of the 1920s. The Nite Hawks were from Worcester. In 1929, the year that marked the beginning of America’s Great Depression, the Nite Hawks appear to be a happy bunch. Dressed in tuxedos, yet casual in their stance, and wearing smiles.

Howie Jefferson at far left. Price is standing behind Ward, the drummer. 
“We had some great times,” Price says. “Yeah, we were very lucky. We travel around. We played all over New England. We might be in Providence tonight. Springfield tomorrow. We were an all-black band of Worcester boys. This was before WWII broke.”

The Nite Hawks played their music at private parties, community centers, social functions, and weddings – anywhere and everywhere. There were no so called “jazz” nightclubs in Worcester.

“We mostly played for dancing. One summer, we played at someplace down on Shrewsbury St. All the guys were ‘shocking’ the girls out there. Man, I thought that was great,” Price said, chuckling.

Jefferson seated at right of Ward holding alto and Price is standing next to the banjo player holding his trumpet. 
Price said, Boots was the bandleader and a pretty good drummer for them days. “He could sing too. He’d sing tunes like ‘Old Rockin’ Chair,’ he says, leaning back in his chair and singing a few bars of the tune with a dreamy, faraway look in his eyes.

When Boots Ward died Freddie Bates, the tenor saxophonist in the band, took over the role as leader. “Freddie was a good player but he wasn’t a ‘take-off’ [soloist] man,” Price recalls. I know that sounds funny for a black cat, but he’d let others do that. He’d sit there and read the stuff all night.”

Freddie Bates and the Nite Hawks. This is a later version of the band after Jefferson and Price had left.

Price and Jefferson stayed with the Nite Hawks for almost 10 years, but as the music scene changed and they progressed, they began to look for work elsewhere. Both musicians were given opportunities to leave the area and tour with popular jazz bands of the 1940s and ‘50s, however the two friends chose to remain in Worcester close to family and friends.

Price and Jefferson were founding members of the Saxtrum Club, a fraternal organization and one of the first jazz collectives founded by musicians in New England. It opened in 1938 at the corner of Glen and Clayton Streets. The first group included Price, Jefferson, saxophonists Dick Murray and Ralph Briscott, pianist Jaki Byard, drummer Eddie Shamgochian, and bassist Harold Black.

Officers of the Saxtrum Club in 1940. The date tagged is wrong. Price stands in the middle. Jefferson at far left next to Alice Price. Jaki Byard is seated at far right. 

“We named it the Saxtrum Club – Sax(ophone)-Trum(pet),” Price says. “I was the secretary and treasurer. We were only paying $12 a month for the store. We had two rooms. There was a tailor next door, but they were closed at night. We had it together for a good ten years.”
Some of Worcester’s finest musicians hung out at the Saxtrum Club, ones who went on to become established performers, including pianists Barbara Carroll, Don Asher, and John “Jaki” Byard, Jr.

“Young Jaki Byard, from the neighborhood, would hang out there all day,” Price says. “There were a lot of cats from downtown who used to come and blow. I sanctioned pianist Don Asher for the Union. He went on to write the Hampton Hawes [Raise Up Off Me] book. He played the Valhalla with us.”

Guido Grandpetro, unidentified drummer, Jefferson, Price, unidentified singer, and Don Asher at piano. 

Word of the night jazz jam session got out and soon jazz musicians on the national scene would fly by the Saxtrum Club to play. At same time, the Plymouth Theater in downtown Worcester featured some of the biggest names in show business. After hours, they would go to the Saxtrum and jam with the local musicians.

“We had them all down there,” Price says. “Anita O’Day, Roy Eldridge, Chu Berry. Jammin’ with those guys, man, it was a privilege, because those cats knew what they was [sic] doing. These cats would come in off the road and say, ‘Let’s play something we can blow on.’ If they played 100 choruses of ‘How High the Moon,’ ain’t nobody said nothing.

“Gene Krupa was in town one night with Roy Eldridge in the band. They wanted to stay till 3-4 o’clock in the morning. We stayed as long as we could. The cop that was on the beat was a good cop. He’d say just shut the windows and the doors. They were really good like that. We had some good times and when you think of it now – nobody taped that stuff.”

At 21, Price went to work for the railroad.

“That was at Union Station,” he says. “I stayed there 25 years. I was there through the war years. One good thing about it was I could always get off in time to work a music job. I had two boys and I got to support them somehow. I was married when I was 19, so I said I’ll go to work. I wasn’t much for running around anyhow.”

Price held various positions for the New York Central and later, the Pennsylvania Central Railroads from 1936-1960. In 1960, he joined the Worcester County National Bank as a public assistance officer, a job from which he retired in 1978.

Throughout his working life, somehow Price always found time to play music. He has been a member of Local 143, Worcester Musicians Association. The weekly session is something Price has also participated in since the Saxtrum days. In the 1960s the jam was held at the Fox Lounge on Rte. 9, Westboro, then at Reggie’s Kitty Kat on Main St. When Walley moved to Austin St. and opened the Hottentotte in the 1970s, Price attended jam sessions held there. Sessions were later also held at the Elks Lodge on Chandler St. until the club underwent renovations in 1987. Price was there.

Barney Price and Edwin Perry
Price also began working with longtime friend Reggie Walley in a group called the Soul Jazz Quintet. The SJQ also featured saxophonist Nat Simpkins, pianist Allan Mueller and Barney’s son, Elwood Jr., “Bunny” Price on bass. Bunny started on trumpet like his father and made the transition to bass out of necessity. Good bass players are hard to find.

One of Barney’s other sons, Tommy, is also a musician. “Tommy is a drummer who studied with Alan Dawson in Boston,” Barney says. “He’s a teacher now down in New Jersey. He still plays out though. He and Bunny were the only two boys out of my six who wanted to be musicians.”

Tommy Price, who recorded extensively throughout the 1960s with artists such as Henry Grimes and Frank Wright for the ESP label, is still active and recently recorded with Ernie Edwards. The Sunday afternoon session at the Elks turned out to be the last regular job for Price and his last public gig with the Soul Jazz Quartet at the GAR Hall as part of the First Night celebration last New Year’s Eve.

These days, Price can be found Sundays in the first pew in the African Methodist Zion Church on Belmont St., where he performs with the church organist and choir. He plays old gospel hymns such as “Pass Me Not, Oh Gentle Savior,” “How Great Thou Art” and “Just a Closer Walk with Thee,” a tune he often played with boyhood friend Howard Jefferson. It was one of the last tunes they played together before Jefferson died.

As a jazz musician, Price is a melodic player who never veers far from the blues. His gentle side can best be heard on his phrasing of such ballads as “Georgia” or “Bye Bye Blackbird.” His big brassy sound is heard on standards like “I’ll Remember April.” His blues side can be heard on “St. Louis Blues” or “Red Top.”

“You’ve never lived, until you’ve danced to the Louis Armstrong-styled Price trumpet,” T&G writer Jack Tubert once wrote. “Soft and oh, so tasty.”
Price once told Worcester T&G writer Susan Seymour that to play jazz -- “You got to have that feeling … I’ve played with certain black guys and they just didn’t have it. They didn’t know how to bend a note. Real jazz, it just comes up like a cuppa coffee boiling over.”

I asked Mr. Price if he had any advice for young players. He said, “Learn how to play the piano. It’s all there in front of you. One thing that people had the wrong idea about. People think you have to play loud to play jazz. Play pretty. Also, get out and hear music live. My wife and I used to go to New York all the time. Small’s Paradise and uptown. We saw everybody man.”

Elwood "Barney" Price, Sr., and Elwood "Bunny" Price, Jr. 

Price died on December 3, 1989. In addition to his nine children, he left 35 grandchildren, and 42 great-grandchildren. Though his joyous trumpet sound was never recorded, Price left a local legacy in jazz that should not be forgotten.
Note: This is a work in progress. Comments, corrections, and suggestions are always welcome at: Also see:  Thank you.

The Worcester/West Coast connection of Bill Tannebring

By Chet Williamson 

On the Worcester Telegram & Gazette’s Website there is a new feature called “Gone but not forgotten,” in which you can submit your memories of growing up in the area. One recent submission was by pianist Bill Tannebring, who reminisced about playing music in town back in the early 1960s with Howie Jefferson, Barney Price and Reggie Walley.

Here’s a taste of what he wrote: “What wonderful memories these letters provoke! I lived in Worcester from 1940 until 1960 but my parents continued to live on June St., until the early 80s. I attended schools Greendale; Andover Street and Greendale Grammar and I went to both North and South High School. Greendale was a wonderful community in which to grow-up, populated by hard working families who worked at Norton Abrasives and Wickwire Spencer Steel. Who could forget Indian Lake and Norton Beach, the Boulevard Spa and the Higgins Armory?

“Being a musician, I was friends with many of the people mentioned in other letters, Perry Conte, Emil Haddad among them, and played at clubs between Worcester and Framingham including. The Speedway, The Driftwood, 371, The Bonfire, The Red Barn, Monticello, Maridor and so many more. … And the El Morocco was legendary especially among musicians and night clubbers. ... I live near Los Angeles now and it wasn't until I traveled throughout the country that the experience if growing up Worcester impacted me. It was a truly wonderful city and the memories it inspires continue to enrich my life.”

Though jazz piano has been a major part of his life since his teen years, Tannebring spent most of his career in television, working as a producer and broadcaster here in Worcester, then Boston, New York and L.A. At 70, Tannebring can be found these days gigging around Huntington Beach, California, where he now hangs his hat. In fact, he recently worked at the Lighthouse in Hermosa Beach with flutist Sam Most.

Tannebring grew up in Worcester, but he was actually born in Bermuda. “My dad was a musician playing in a band. My mother and father lived in Bermuda. I was born there. We settled in Worcester when I was four or five.”

His dad was the highly regarded saxophonist, Roland “Rollie” Tannebring. “He was more of a legitimate musician,” Bill says. “He played big band, but he also played concert bands and theaters when they had pit orchestras at Loew’s Poli and the Plymouth Theater. They used to have shows in the afternoon, like stage shows, he’d be there in the pit.”

Bill was born in 1937. At 12, the family moved to Park Ave. and Maywood Street. He went to South High.

“I took piano lessons in the Day Building and had a dentist in the Park Building. It wasn’t until I traveled throughout the country that the experience of growing up in Worcester impacted me. It was a truly wonderful city and the memories it inspires continue to enrich my life.”

Bill says he started playing professionally when he was 15 or 16. “There were steakhouses downtown, the Polish and Italian American Clubs. The Speedway Club on the Lake. I had a band in high school.”

Tannebring was introduced to the world of television in high school. He worked in the prop department doing sets at WWOR-TV. “That was like the first local TV station in Worcester,” he says. “They opened sometime in the ‘50s. One of the kids I went to school with was a Steve Allen wannabe named Dick Volker. He talked them into giving him a teenage show five nights a week. It was called ‘Teen Style.’

“They hired me to do the music. So we had a little jazz trio on TV in Worcester. I was 16 and that was my introduction to TV production. When the show went off the air after a year or so, I decided I wanted to be in television. That’s how I started my TV career. It was great fun.”

The teenage trio consisted of Tannebring, bassist Nick Peroni and drummer Paul Westerback. Tannebring says the Worcester jazz scene in the 1940s and 1950s was quite memorable and he was well aware of the tradition. He mentions the names of pianist Don Asher, trumpeter Don Fagerquist, and drummer Frankie Capp.

Jaki Byard
“When I was a kid, the pianist I remember was Jaki Byard,” Tannebring says. “He was a hero of mine. He wasn’t living there then. He would come back and forth. Tony Zano was around when I was there. The Holovnia brothers Fred and Joe. Fred had a big band. Joe played bass. There was like 16 of us. George Thurman on drum. Larry Monroe on alto. He and I were best friends. I was the best man at his wedding. Emil Haddad, of course. He was working on Park Ave. with Johnny Rhines and those guys. He and my dad were friends.”

Tannebring was a member of the local 143 musician’s union and worked a parade of jobs with and for the Conte Brothers. “I worked with Perry and his brother Jerry. They owned a tuxedo rental business and had the commercial scene sewed up,” he says. “I remember Perry would say, ‘$14 a night, plus $1 for gas.’ He was the big booking guy at that time. He used to have all these bands play at proms and clubs.

“He put together a Herb Alpert copy band. I was in that band for about a year. We traveled all over Worcester, Millbury and Westboro.”

There was another guy that I played with as well, his name was ‘Ockie’ Menard. He was a funny guy. His neck was always bent, cocked to one side. It was like the saxophone, the head and the neck were all one unit. He was the nicest guy. I remember Ray Starr, the tenor player as well.”

Ockie Menard and Glen Kaiser at the Crystal Room in Milford
Tannebring also worked with a slew of singers. He recalls Gretchen Morrow. He says he played in a score of places up and down Rte. 9 all the way out to Framingham and Natick — “The Driftwood, the Meadows, Monticello’s, the Maridor, Bonfire — all those places.”

He says his gigs with Reggie Walley, Howie Jefferson, Barney Price, and the bassist Judy Wade were especially memorable. “I played with Reggie a lot. He and his wife [Mary] were like the dynamic duo. They always had something going. They were a great couple. That was the jazz scene in the ‘60s and ‘70s. I can’t remember the names of these clubs, but there were so many. The Elks – there were just so many clubs on Summer Street and Water Street.”

Though Worcester had its share of notable pianists, Tannebring says most of his influences were coming out of Boston at the time. “I was a big fan of Dave McKenna,” he says. “My favorite pianist was a guy from Natick named Danny Camacho. He used to play with Boots Mussulli. He was about 10 years older than me. We ended up being in a band together for about three or four years. I played vibes and he played piano. It was one of the highlights of my life. He had been my childhood piano hero. To play in a band with him when I was 19 was really a big kick for me.”

Danny Camacho
Occasionally, Tannebring would get to work with some of the emerging players on the Boston scene. “I was in a band that played the Bonfire, a little club on Rte. 9. It was with John Abercrombie on guitar, George Mraz on bass and Peter Donald on drums. These guys were like 19 years old. Now they are world famous,” he says.

Tannebring left Worcester in the late ‘50s to go into the Air Force. He came back in the early ’60s, worked the clubs before heading to Boston in 1966. According to the bio notes on his Website, Tannebring moved to Beantown with the intent of making his career as a jazz musician. He says, Boston was a musical Mecca at the time, “the Berklee School made Boston one of the most exiting jazz environments in the country attracting talented musical artists from all over the world.”

As mentioned he got to perform with the likes of John Abercrombie as well as bassist Miroslav Vitous. For years, he was one of the house pianists at Paul’s Mall. He says it wasn’t unusual to find him in the club working with his trio, while John Coltrane or Mongo Santamaria performed next door at The Jazz Workshop. He also notes that Boston was the home of other great pianists at that time including McKenna, Chick Corea, Alan Broadbent, Hal Galper and Jan Hammer, among others. 

Utilizing his TV production talents, Tannebring became the force behind the first ever weekly jazz television program in the nation. It was called “JAZZ on WGBH” and hosted by the great trumpeter and band leader Herb Pomeroy. For three seasons, Tannebring, as the program’s producer, attracted some of the world’s greatest jazz musicians including Oscar Peterson, Wes Montgomery, Cannonball Adderly, Sonny Rollins, Gary Burton, Hampton Hawes, Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, Thelonious Monk, Herbie Mann, Wynton Kelly. The show aired every Wednesday night and the performers appeared live, Tannebring said. Critics have hailed the show for its visual style, unique feel and musical excellence. Tannebring is said to have also produced the first ever television broadcast of the Newport Jazz Festival.

Tannebring stayed in Boston until 1973 before moving to New York City. “I was working for ABC television and I was doing gigs as well,” he says. “I was always doing both. I didn’t really book work for myself. I usually got hired to work with somebody. I was not part of the New York jazz scene but I would play some cool gigs in lounges and hotel lobbies.”

Tannebring says he spent three years in New York City producing a television series with Lloyd Bridges but still found time to join a band led by Lou Levy, backing singer Peggy Lee that toured the East coast, and work jazz gigs around the city.

After leaving New York, he relocated to Dallas Texas where he became the Executive Producer of KERA TV. Still working as a musician, he found time to perform regularly with saxophonists James Clay and Marshall Ivory. He says he spent an exciting year playing piano and vibes in a quintet led by David “Fathead” Newman.

As mentioned, Tannebring currently resides in Southern California where he continues to work as a television producer/writer, teacher. (See his online reviews here.) However, his lifetime love affair with jazz is what really drives him. “There are a lot of great players out here,” he says. “I’m out once or twice a week doing something. I love it.”

Tannebring says although there have been a lot of notes played across the bridge between the east and west coast, his developing years spent in Worcester are never far from memory. “I have great memories of Worcester,” he says. “My sister lives on Martha’s Vineyard and my other two sisters live in Worcester. 
So I’ll be back.”

Let’s hope he gets a gig next time he’s in town.

Addendum:  This piece was first published in the Jazzsphere blog on May 27, 2007. Bill Tannebring died in Laguna Hills, Orange County, California on April 30, 2010. He was 73.

Note: This is a work in progress. Comments, corrections, and suggestions are always welcome at: Also see:  Thank you.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Jackie Stevens' Giant Steps at the Kitty Kat

By Chet Williamson

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, a long lost Main Street venue in WorcesterThe club was owned by the late drummer Reggie Walley, who played host to many of the finest local musicians of the period.

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.

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.

A teenage Jackie Stevens on alto in the 1950s
Young Jackie on tenor

He was a gifted player from the beginning, 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 Stevens played solo piano gigs throughout Worcester County. In addition to performing on alto and tenor saxophone, organ and piano, he 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.

Jackie's tune written for his teacher, Boots Mussulli from the Jazz Worcester Real Book

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.

Jackie, third from left on alto (next to Sam Rivers) with the Herb Pomeroy Orchestra

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 and Hottentotte, 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 had 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.

Al Mueller, Bunny on bass, Bill Myers, Bob Gould, and Larry Monroe

“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.

Howie Jefferson

“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 [Odgren] 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, and Jimmy.

“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.

Rob Marona, Tom Herbert, and Jim Arnot (Photo credit: Dave Agerholm)
Bassist Jim Arnott

“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 he knew on the road and people he had seen. It was definitely something that a 20 year-old kid wanted to hear. He was cool. We had some great sessions. He was a great player, great guy. He was the real deal."

Fan, friend, artist, poet, 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.

Jackie, pianist Danny Camacho, and bassist Joe Holovnia
“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.

Jackie near the end (DeVeber)

“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.

Jackie in his prime

“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.’

“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.’"

Jackie with Herb Pomeroy Band
DeVeber continued … 

"In the mid 90s, I decided to produce a CD featuring Jack's music, to give him something to document his writing and his contributions to the music. He suggested I get together with Greg Abate. I met Greg at the Chestnut Hill Mall and told him what I wanted to do for Jack. I brought the lead sheet for 'Song For Michelle,' written by Jack for a wedding gift for my daughter.

Greg played it that day at the Chestnut Hill Mall. Beautiful tune and played only as Greg can play it. Greg and I hit it off and we began planning the My Buddy CD. I told him the people I wanted on the CD and he brought them together and we recorded at Stable Sound (Steve Rizzo) in Portsmouth, RI.”

Abate and alto
In addition to Abate on saxophones and flute, the release features pianist Mac Chrupcala, bassists Marshall Wood and Al Bernstein, drummer John Anter, and trumpeter Paul Fontaine, who roomed with Stevens on the road with the Woody Herman band. Donna Byrne supplied the vocals.

I had Donna sing “My Buddy” and “Stella By Starlight,” a favorite of Jack's and could he play it," DeVeber said. "Greg made this thing happen musically, arranging and leading - mostly done in one day. The CD got very good reviews - especially for its originality and spontaneity.

Broken Dreams came about as a result of the producing bug bite and meeting Frank Tiberi [leader of the Woody Herman band at that time]. He played with Woody for 16 years, Woody's favorite, and took the band over at Wood's behest. Greg came through once again arranging and leading. The personnel on this date included Abate, pianist Chrupcala, bassist Dave Zinno, drummer Anter, and featured Frank Tiberi.


DeVeber singles out Tiberi’s solo on “Early Autumn” and Abate’s reading of “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” as standouts, noting that “Boulevard” was selected for a compilation disc out of Tokyo. 

He also points out that Broken Dreams received good reviewd in Jazz Times, and others publications. It was recorded at Peter Kontrimas PBS Studios in Westwood, MA.

This piece was originally published on October 20, 2007. 

Special thanks to Peter DeVeber for his assistance. 

Here’s a clip of Jackie with Woody Herman playing “The Days of Wine and Roses” --

Stevens wailing with Woody

Note: This is a work in progress. Comments, corrections, and suggestions are always welcome at: Also see:  Thank you.