Sunday, May 4, 2014

Tending jazz at the Kitty Kat

By Chet Williamson

Reggie Walley
When I first started writing The Jazz Worcester Real Book, I had hoped to include a collection of interviews with musicians talking about some of the places they had played. Unfortunately, with profiles of 100 people and just as many accompanying published compositions, I simply ran out of room. I still have all of the conversations and from time to time I’ll post them.

Here’s one on the Kitty Kat as recalled by bassist and trumpeter Bunny Price. Owned by a one-time tap dancer, vocalist and drummer Reggie Walley, the Kitty Kat Lounge was the place to play. 

Located at 252 Main Street, in what is now a parking lot, the lounge was upstairs from the dance studio that Walley and his wife Mary ran from 1947 to 1967.

Jerry Pelegrini 

The club opened in 1969 and closed in 1976. In its short life, the Kat proved to be the incubator for many of today’s local players of that generation, including Jim and Dick Odgren, Al Arsenault, Ken and Babe Pino, Rob Marona, Jack Pezanelli, Gene Wolocz, Jim Arnot, Tom Herbert, Jerry Pelligrini, David Agerholm, and many others who cut their whiskers at the Kat.

Organist Gene Wolocz

Local musician Bunny Price not only played in the house band, but he was also the regular bartender and a silent partner.

“The club came along in 1969,” he said. “We had sessions right away. We started with our group that I brought in from the Peacock Club. It was Al Mueller on piano, myself on bass, Bill Myers on trumpet, Larry Monroe on alto and Reggie Walley on drums. Bobby Gould played with us for a while. We were the house band. We might have been using the name of the Soul Jazz Quintet because that’s what it stemmed from. My dad [trumpeter Barney Price] and Howie [Jefferson] would also come down. Reggie was the house drummer. Reggie was all over the place. He was Mr. Personality. Hey, ‘Bunny, give these guys a drink.’ That was Reggie.

Al Mueller, Bunny Price, Bill Myers, Bob Gould, Larry Monroe and fans

“We would alternate with Al Arsenault and Jackie Stevens. We used to take my organ out of my house. I had like a spinet-type organ, a Lowrey with a Leslie speaker. We used that to get Al the gig. He was an attraction, you know. The club eventually bought a Hammond B-3.”

What nights did you present jazz?

“We started making Thursday a ‘pioneer’ [jam session] jazz night. Jackie Stevens was probably our biggest feature. He was a good friend with Al Arsenault. Jackie was a good solid modern player. He was like a bebop player. He swung hard. He played that horn. He wasn’t a Getz player, no laid back player. Jackie blew that horn. There’s no doubt about it. He got tied up with Al Arsenault a lot. They jammed around. Also, with Gene Wolocz. Jackie was an exception.

Jackie Stevens
"The next big person to come through there would be Dick Odgren. My dad worked down at the bank and his wife worked at the bank. She was telling my dad that her husband was coming home from the Navy and he was playing piano in the Navy Band. So I guess my dad told him to come on down. That’s how we all got to know him. Right after that, a year or so later, his brother Jimmy started to come down. He was a young skinny kid. I heard him and I said this kid is going to be good. You know what I’m saying." [The club later added Sunday afternoons as well.] 

Dick and Jimmy Odgren, late '70s
How was the club laid out?

“I remember you’d walk up the stairs, turn right into the music room and the bar was in the back to the left.  We played in front of the window. Reggie built the stage. I think there were four or five booths. If you have six people in the booth you have 25-30 people on that side. I would say roughly – I forget what the license called for – you did have a count for safety purposes. I think that lounge sat anywhere from 70 to 75 people.

“On the other side there was like an empty area for people to dance. On the left-hand side of this big room, where the stage was, there was a small bar. It probably sat six people. Then the bar sat 12 to 15 people. For a while we had a little kitchen. We sold like open steak sandwiches and salad for a few bucks. It was also a social hall. We had a lot of wedding receptions there. Back in those days they paid you $35 bucks for the use of the hall.”

Guitarist Jack Pezanelli and saxophonist Tom Herbert
What was it like tending bar at the Kat?

“I started as a barkeep. My thing was taking care of the bar. That was my responsibility. If you know this business, you know the thieves. The sound wasn’t too bad. I spent an awful lot of time in the bar area but I could hear everything. That’s how I first heard Nat Simpkins when he came in with some of those Soul bands from Boston. He was the tenorman backing up some of the black singers. I don’t even remember their names. They came in from Providence and Boston. We had a lot of good people. [*Nat Simpkins would later be a regular at Walley’s next club, the Hottentotte, which will be featured in a future posting.]

Who actually owned the club?

Nat Simpkins
"The club was the involvement of three couples, three partners. Reggie was the frontman, in name and everything. Reggie had been paying rent at the dance studio downstairs. 

"Then there was Dr. Goldsberry and his wife, me and my wife [Betty Price, a former School Committee member], Reggie and [his wife] Mary [a former dancer in Lou Leslie’s Blackbirds and the stepdaughter of famed civil rights activist Mary McLeod Bethune.]

Mary and Reggie at the Kat

"Dr. Goldsberry bought the license. We got the place as a tavern license from a place down on Water Street that was going out of business. Now with a tavern license you could go to City Hall and you could apply for an "all pourers" license. It’s a transfer. That’s what got us off the ground."

Howie Jefferson, Al Mueller, Bob Gould, and Bunny Price

What happened to the Kitty Kat?

“It went under. Mr. [Barry] Krock [local property owner] bought the building. We were supposed to have preference to buy the building. The long-range plan was to buy it from Commerce Bank. It lasted a good five, six years. Everybody was welcome. Anybody could come and play. It was really open.”

Jack Tubert

In a 1971 article in the Worcester Telegram, writer Jack Tubert reviewed one of the sessions. “Wall-to-wall music,” he writes, “that’s the attraction any Sunday afternoon when you want to stop moaning about nothing to do in the city and make it upstairs to the Kitty Kat Lounge in downtown Worcester.”

Howie Jefferson played host. Tubert describes him as, “the cool cat with 41-years of blowing well-rounded jazz notes on his tenor sax, shows the way in Sunday jam sessions that draw the best musicians – and crowd of appreciative buffs.”

Visiting the week before, Tubert again chronicles the proceedings by saying, “Last Sunday, Barney Price was on trumpet. Reggie Walley, David Laine, Don Lareau, and Roger Larson all took a turn at the drums, while Al Arsenault played jazz organ and Everett Freeman handled the cool bass. Al Moore sat in for a set on flute, and young rocker Babe Pino took a turn at blowing harmonica and handling vocals. Man, they made music.” 

Al Arsenault, Ken Pino and Babe Pino

Taking a breather, Jefferson tells Tubert that the musicians love to play old classics like “When the Saints go Marching In.” “This is what we love to do, but,” says Howie, “I still love the pretty tunes. Things like ‘Body and Soul.’ ‘Soon it’s Going to Rain.’ There’s a pretty tune.”

In describing the third floor lounge at 252 Main Street Tubert writes, “With the mirrored wall reflecting every angle of the musicians in action (Arsenault’s artistic hands caught on the double-tiered organ keyboard by a mirror behind his head), the group broke fast with Benny Goodman’s ‘The Angel’s Sing,’ a 10-minute joy.”

As the band takes the tune through the paces, Tubert says, “After Jefferson introduced the theme with a big, fat, and moving chorus, the other musicians took turns leading the tune around, each to his own liking, then back to Howie for a couple more bats. Just beautiful. It was the same with ‘Blues in the Night,’ Arsenault showing the way with his wild right hand.

Reggie kicking

Tubert then reports that club owner Reggie Walley sat in the drummer-driver’s seat and took the band for a spin through “The Preacher,” and the group’s signature tune, “Organ Grinder Swing.” “Thirty-nine minutes of beautiful, unrestrained music,” Tubert says. “The audience gave ‘m a heavy hand.”

Barney Price

Trumpeter Barney Price is next up. Tubert describes him as a player with a warm, rich tone that has marked his playing for more than 30 years. He says Barney never sounded better providing the trumpet backdrop for Walley’s singing of “Summertime.”

“Livin’ was easy,” Tubert notes, “just listening.” 

In the early 1970s, poet Nic "Rock" Karcasinas published a book of poems called, Nicodemas. This is one of the pieces: 

                                                                     Kitty Kat 




                                                                                          Main Street

                                                                         black and 

                                                                         "that's like. 
                                                                          you know, 

2blocsbe                                                                     2blocsbe
                yond                                   bove                                yond                       bove 
                             2                                                                                 2 
                             flites                                                                           flites   
                                                         a                                                                       a

                                                                             bronzemen surface and 
                                                                             hey man, 
                                                                             are ya    (be)

                                                                             a glass of 

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

* PHOTO ALERT: I am looking for a shot of the Kat. Got one? Let me know.  

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