Odd or Unusual Venues Where I’ve Performed

Probably most musicians have played in strange venues at one time or another. Over the years I have played with various bands in some odd or at least unusual places.

Some of these occurred at jazz festivals. The late, lamented Sacramento Dixieland Jazz Jubilee, held each Memorial Day weekend in May until 2017, had one really odd venue, which was dubbed Freeway Gardens. There was not much “garden” to be seen as it was a cavernous site located under the Interstate 5 Freeway in Old Town Sacramento—but it could accommodate large crowds. It was surrounded by concrete structures and had the underside of the concrete freeway overhead, the result being that the sound bounced off these walls and ceiling and came back at you while you were playing, That, coupled with traffic noise, made playing there a real challenge. I was fortunate to have played at that site only once, and that was one time too many.

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Old Town Sacramento boasted one other unusual venue, and that was the Delta King, a riverboat moored permanently there. With a colorful history dating from the late 1920’s, it still looks the part for authenticity, but the engines having long since been removed, it will not be sailing any time soon.

Delta King, Sacramento

Speaking of riverboats, one might have thought that if St. Louis, located on the Mississippi River, had a jazz festival with a boat venue, it would be a working riverboat. Such was not the case, however. The year Professor Plum’s Jazz played there, there was a venue on the water, but the “boat” was a flat barge. It did “sail,” though, pushed, as we played each set, up and down the river by a tug, just as other cargo-laden barges were!

The brassiere-festooned Little Bear Saloon in Evergreen, Colorado. (courtesy Bert Thompson)

Another jazz festival site on the strange side was a bar, the Little Bear Saloon in Evergreen, Colorado. What, one may ask, is strange about a bar as a venue? Well, this one had dozens of women’s brassieres affixed to the ceiling over the stage, and it was a bit unsettling to have all of this lingerie dangling just overhead. But the several times I played there with Gremoli, no one doffed a bra or tried to attach it to the ceiling.

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Jazz venues at sea are not that unusual, what with the many jazz cruises and even some jazz gigs on individually owned yachts, both of which I have been fortunate enough to be on. However, one was quite different from any of the others. It was on a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, the USS Carl Vinson, which was about to be repositioned from Alameda, California, up to Bremerton, Washington. (The vessel’s home port has since been changed to San Diego, California.)

The naval brass had decided to have a short cruise out from the naval base at Alameda, on Francisco Bay, out around the Farallon Islands (some 30 miles away from San Francisco) and back, for all of the crew’s dependants. The Jelly Roll Jazz Band, which I was with at the time, were hired to provide some musical entertainment during lunch, and after it we all went up onto the flight deck to witness some naval jets come in to land, marveling at the tail hooks that grabbed the cables to bring them to a halt. Then, later, we were thrilled to see the planes take off via the aircraft catapult that launched them off the bow. It was a rare experience that not too many people other than naval personnel get to witness.

USS Carl Vinson

Another locale with nautical connections was the first Queen Mary, moored at Long beach and now a hotel and conference center. With Gremoli I played a gig on board at a corporate convention and sensed some of the history.
These are just some of the odd venues in which I played. Other musicians will have their share, too.

Born in Dundee, Scotland, Bert Thompson came to the U.S. in 1956. After a two-year stint playing drums with the 101 st Airborne Division Band and making a number of parachute drops, he returned to civilian life in San Francisco, matriculating at San Francisco State University where he earned a B.A. and an M.A. He went on to matriculate at University of Oregon, where he earned a D.A. and a Ph.D., all of his degrees in English. Now retired, he is a professor emeritus of English at City College of San Francisco. He is also a retired traditional jazz drummer, having played with a number of San Francisco Bay Area bands, including And That’s Jazz, Professor Plum’s Jazz, the Jelly Roll Jazz Band, Mission Gold Jazz Band, and the Zenith New Orleans Parade band; he also played with some further afield, including Gremoli (Long Beach, CA) and the Phoenix Jazzers (Vancouver, B.C.) Today he reviews traditional jazz CDs and writes occasional articles for several publications.

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