***This is an extended version of the article that appeared in the Argus-Courier newspaper on January 1, 2015.***
“This is the Big Easy. Folks have a certain way of doing things down here.” – Remy McSwain – “The Big Easy” (1987)
More than just the latest in a string of music venues to open in historic downtown, The Big Easy is a throwback to the age of flappers, flasks, and fedoras. It salutes Petaluma’s bygone era of back alley jazz clubs and basement speakeasies. Although satisfying a currently unfilled niche, Petaluma’s nightlife and music scene is no stranger to the blues and jazz club scene. The Big Easy offers a glimpse into our colorful past; a yesteryear of history mixed with half-truths.
“I wanna show that gospel, country, blues, rhythm and blues, jazz, rock ‘n’ roll are all just really one thing. Those are the American music and that is the American culture.” – Etta James
Always embracing the wild, weird, provocative, and seductive, the Bay Area was, if not front and center, at least close at hand for the birth of the jazz epoch. Turn of the century streets in Oakland and the Barbary Coast (North Beach) were lined with jazz clubs, some even owned by blacks – a rarity at the time. The term “jazz” debuted in the San Francisco Bulletin in the 1910’s, rumored to relate to the term “jass,” which locals used to refer to any kind of black music. But unlike the blues of the early 1900’s, which was almost exclusively played by blacks, jazz was interracial and multicultural in both performers and appeal. In later years the Fillmore District of San Francisco would be referred to as “Harlem West.” Even modernly, this area still embraces its jazz past. The Museum of Jazz and Art is currently gearing up for a capital campaign to build a facility in Oakland to educate and give tribute to this important part of our culture and history.
“Jazz comes from our way of life, and because it’s our national art form, it helps us to understand who we are.” – Wynton Marsalis
Jazz clubs and speakeasies are intimately connected and are an important part of American history. The Big Easy resurrects a sublime aspect of this legacy. Opening its doors just in time to celebrate the 80th anniversary of “Repeal Day”, it is a modern interpretation of a glamourous past. But The Big Easy experience is “on the level” and is based on comfort and camaraderie, not the subversion, corruption, or debauchery that went hand in hand with the Gin Mills of the 1920’s. With jazz and blues on tap most every night and ambiance to spare, one is transported in time to the days of prohibition, only without the risk of getting rolled for your rubes once you’re plastered or having to explain to the coppers why you’re at a juice joint.
“For every prohibition you create, you also create an underground.” – Jello Biafra
The Big Easy sits on American Alley, anchoring the backside of Helen Putnam Plaza. However simple this might sound, much like the sign-less gin joints of prohibition days, you will have to know what to look for. But finding the club is part of the experience; an important first step towards your indoctrination. Ironically, a visit to sister restaurant Speakeasy (across American Alley) is your best bet for directions.
“Prohibition has made nothing but trouble.” – Al Capone
Once inside, a whole other world envelops you, literally and figuratively. The space is far bigger than one would guess from the outside and although minimally furnished, The Big Easy offers warmth and intimacy. This is unexpected for a club located in the subterranean recesses of a hundred year old brick and concrete building. With low ceilings, exposed wood beams, and high-back booths the room has a serene air to it. It is dark and quiet, but in a good way. Part of The Big Easy’s charm comes from the welcoming and attentive service you receive from co-owners Roger Tschann and Amber Driscoll, who are clearly in their element.
“Once, during Prohibition, I was forced to live for days on nothing but food and water.” – W. C. Fields
Unlike many a windowless bar …dour, melancholy, and glum, The Big Easy is friendly, uplifting, and dare I say, has an optimistic vibe. Even before ordering your first drink you know you are embarking on a memorable experience. Within moments of arriving you will completely forget the time and the place, and if luck smiles down on you, even the decade. It wouldn’t seem at all out of place to see a big cheese decked out in a double-breasted suit and wingtips, surrounded by fur wrapped molls, dolls, or debs drinking giggle water and getting their edge on at the next booth.
“Prohibition makes you want to cry into your beer and denies you the beer to cry into.” – Don Marquis
Mounted above the 24 beer and wine taps is a small set of antlers. These appeared in the alley one day and are now an homage to the owners’ scavenger skills and penchant for repurposing whenever possible. Opposite the bar, at the far end of the room, is a wall of red velvet, cloaking a stage area, temporarily hiding a Hammond B-3 organ, the holy grail of jazz organs and the sound of which is a special occasion unto itself and not to be missed. This particular organ was born in 1957, making it 57 years old at the time of The Big Easy’s opening.
“You not only have to know your own instrument, you must know the others and how to back them up at all times. That’s jazz.” – Oscar Peterson
The Big Easy brings to life the dream of Driscoll and Tschann to create a space that offers great music, great food and drink, but most importantly, a complete experience. Tschann, a lifelong resident of Petaluma and Casa Grande High School graduate has been involved in the local music scene since childhood. Opening Grizzly Studios here in Petaluma in 1991, Tschann has been plugged into the music scene for over two decades. That, coupled with Driscoll’s education and background in business, and The Big Easy sits on solid bedrock.
“Jazz is a very democratic musical form. It comes out of a communal experience. We take our respective instruments and collectively create a thing of beauty.” – Max Roach
In a unique, but not totally unexpected twist, it was actually the landlord that approached Driscoll and Tschann about leasing this space, having heard through the grapevine their dream for his space. This should come as no surprise though because Petaluma is about more than simply pulling in rents. Even the downtown landowners recognize that without our unique character Petaluma’s downtown would be nothing more than strip mall shops housed in hundred year old buildings.
“Boxing is like jazz. The better it is, the less people appreciate it.” – George Foreman
After hosting a snowboard shop and a smoke/sensuality/piercing boutique this space seems to have finally found its true calling. Through their first joint venture, Speakeasy, an American bistro, Driscoll and Tschann’s have helped transform the downtown plaza. Instead of just a park or thoroughfare en route to Kentucky Street, Helen Putnam Plaza is shaping up to fulfill its rightful roll as the center of attention at the heart of town. Like Florence’s Piazza Santa Maria Novella, Madrid’s Playa Mayor, and London’s Trafalgar Square, Helen Putnam Plaza is a place to gather, socialize, and people watch, only on a more intimate scale than its bigger cousins across the pond. Ringed by cafes and shops it is as welcoming to a family picnic as to those who simply want to sip their coffee and watch the world drift by.
“The jazz I love is sweet and pure with raw elements, which is exactly what the good hip-hop is doing now” – Amy Winehouse
Speakeasy was smaller than Driscoll and Tschann originally envisioned and had little room for live music. But it gave the couple a chance to get their feet wet in the restaurant and bar business without getting in over their head. Quickly becoming a downtown favorite, in part because of its late night hours, Speakeasy was great education without the risk of big growing pains. With the knowledge gained through the adventure of opening Speakeasy Driscoll and Tschann have expanded their vision into The Big Easy, a space where they can offer music seven nights a week.
“We find many things to which the prohibition of them constitutes the only temptation.” – William Hazlitt
The Big Easy offers an impressive selection of ever changing local beer and wine, complimented by both in-house menus and guest-chef driven cuisine. Along with ultra-locals Petaluma Hills, HenHouse, 101 North, and Lagunitas, regulars on tap include Anderson Valley, Drakes, 21st Amendment, and Marin Brewing Company. Attention to detail doesn’t stop at the state of the art taps either, extending into the beer cooler by way of an eclectic selection of lesser known beers from small breweries such as Social Kitchen & Brewery and Magnolias Brewery of San Francisco and Craftsman Brewing Company out of Pasadena. If lucky be your lady, you will catch something on tap from Berkeley’s The Rare Barrel, a brewery that only brews sour beer, a style that can sometimes take years to ferment. Wineries include Petaluma’s own Azari Vineyards/Corkscrew and Sonoma Valley Portworks, Preston and Ten Acres out of Healdsburg, and Santa Rosa’s Hook & Ladder. Add in some jazz, blues, soul, funk, Dixieland, and maybe a sprinkle of rock and roll and you will find yourself completely immersed in a unique and nostalgic event.
“Giving jazz the Congressional seal of approval is a little like making Huck Finn an honorary Boy Scout.” – Melvin Maddocks
The Big Easy’s calendar of events reveals an explosion of upcoming activity beyond just musical acts. Wednesday nights promise diverse wine tastings, with everything from international comparisons, to workshops, to winemaker’s dinners. Upcoming wine events that piqued my interest are a Taste of Spain (paired with tapas) and a visit from Heidrun Meadery (paired with oysters from Marshal Store.) Friday’s Beer Club offers classes from a local expert, as well as the tapping of young ultra-fresh local kegs filled with limited editions beers. Pop-up dinners are also in the works, which are truly once in a lifetime experiences where a guest chef prepares unique dishes specifically for that evening’s attendees. The first pop-up dinner will be New Orleans BBQ paired with jazz music and is schedule for Valentine’s Day dinner. The space is available and has already been booked for several private events and holds just shy of 90 people.
“Jazz is about being in the moment.” – Herbie Hancock
Depending on the night, music usually starts no earlier than 7pm, and the club stays open through 2am. Speakeasy’s full menu is available most nights. But on Speakeasy’s busy nights The Big Easy will offer a limited yet mouth-watering tapas menu. Winemaker’s and Pop-up dinners will periodically appear on the calendar.
“Jazz music is to be played sweet, soft, plenty rhythm.” – Jelly Roll Morton
The Big Easy is more than just a music venue. It revives a vibrant element of Petaluma’s past – a time when socializing was a memorable face-to-face event over dinner, drinks, and music with both new and old friends alike. There is an intangible sense that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. It’s like a torrid love affair; too much is never enough. No matter how often you call on The Big Easy, you will always yearn for more.
“The blues and jazz will live forever… So will the Delta and the Big Easy.” – Jack Nicholson