Weird Gigs I Have Known: The Stranger Side of Jazz

Like most jazz musicians, I would guess, some bands that I played with experienced off-the-wall encounters that left us shaking our heads—or wringing our hands!

First the head shakers. I got a call from a bandleader to substitute for his drummer on a gig he had just gotten to play a barbecue picnic fundraiser for a city civic light opera company. When I got to the location, it was in the middle of a pasture, and not only was it a hassle to get the drums out there, I also had to dodge the “cow pies” on the way. Once we got set up and started to play, some guests began to ask when we would be playing selections such as “Ah! Sweet Mystery of Life” and “Lover Come Back to Me” or any others by the likes of Victor Herbert and Sigmund Romberg. The band leader assured them we would get to these pieces eventually, but of course we never did. It was a long afternoon—for everyone.

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Another somewhat similar experience was with a band I played with regularly. A woman who came to our monthly gig decided to throw herself a birthday party and booked us to play at it. When the guests began arriving, we noticed that most were wearing Hawaiian shirts, leis, etc.—a dark omen. After we played a few tunes, the guests began asking us when we would play some Hawaiian songs or when the Hawaiian band would arrive. When, on a break, we asked the birthday girl why she had hired us for her party when all of the guests (and she herself) were Hawaiian and they wanted Hawaiian music, her answer was, “I love Dixieland but I can’t stand Hawaiian music, and since it’s my party on my dime, I’m only having what I like.” That didn’t make the evening any shorter for all of us, however.

Next a hand wringer. That same band had a very good banjo player that everyone loved. But his middle name was not “responsibility.” He got us a gig playing at a yacht club on the season’s “Opening Day” on San Francisco Bay. Now, we were a six-piece “pianoless” band—three frontline horns, with tuba, banjo and drums backline. At the appointed start time, we were still waiting for the banjo player, but we started anyway, trusting he would appear momentarily. Having no chord instrument was a big problem, and the frontliners tried to supply chords—or parts if them—as much as possible. On breaks we called the banjo player at home no mobile phones then), but got no answer. Later we found he had just forgotten the gig and gone off to visit the wine country. These were perhaps the longest three hours of most of our lives, and they ended with some “wooden” lips.

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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