Debuting in historic downtown Petaluma, The Big Easy is a throwback to the age of flappers, flasks and fedoras. More than just the latest in a string of concert halls to open downtown, The Big Easy salutes Petaluma’s bygone era of back alley jazz clubs and basement speakeasies.
The term “jazz” debuted in the San Francisco Bulletin in the 1910s, rumored to relate to the word “jass,” which locals used to refer to any kind of Black music. Streets in Oakland and the Barbary Coast (North Beach) at the turn of the century were lined with jazz clubs. But unlike the blues of the early 1900s, jazz was interracial and multicultural in both performers and appeal.
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 revolves around comfort and camaraderie, not the subversion, corruption or debauchery that went hand-in-hand with the gin mills of the 1920s.
With jazz and blues on tap most every night, and ambiance to spare, patrons are 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.
The Big Easy sits on American Alley, anchoring the backside of Helen Putnam Plaza. This sounds simple enough, but much like the sign-less speakeasies of prohibition days, you will have to know what to look for. Finding the club is part of the experience; an important step towards your indoctrination. Ironically, a visit to Speakeasy (across American Alley) is your best bet for directions.
Once inside, another world envelops you. The space is far bigger than one might guess, and, although minimally furnished, The Big Easy offers dark-wooded warmth and intimacy. This is unexpected for a club located in the subterranean recesses of a 100-year-old brick and concrete building.
With low ceilings, exposed wood beams, and high-back booths, the room has a serenity to it. It is dark and calm, but unlike many a windowless bar, The Big Easy is friendly, uplifting and optimistic.
Mounted above the bar is a small set of antlers, paying homage to the owners’ scavenger skills and penchant for repurposing whenever possible. At the far end of the room is a wall of red velvet, cloaking the stage and temporarily hiding a Hammond B-3, the holy grail of jazz organs. Born in 1957, this organ is 57 years old and its sound is a special occasion unto itself and should not be missed.
The Big Easy brings to life a dream shared by co-owners Amber Driscoll and Roger Tschann to create a space that offers great music, great food and drink, but most importantly, a complete entertainment experience. Tschann, a lifelong resident of Petaluma, opened Grizzly Studios here in Petaluma in 1991 and has been plugged into the music scene ever since. These music industry connections coupled with Driscoll’s business background and phenomenal culinary taste have started The Big Easy on solid footing.
The Big Easy offers an impressive selection of ever changing ultra-local beers and wine on tap. Additionally, there will be more eclectic selections of beer such as Berkeley’s The Rare Barrel, brewing super long fermenting sour beers. It also won’t be uncommon to find cider, mead and port on the menu. Depending on the night, cuisine is either delicious house-made tapas or the full menu from Speakeasy, an American bistro, also owned by Driscoll and Tschann. Add in some jazz, blues, soul, funk or Dixieland, and you will find yourself immersed in a uniquely nostalgic experience.
The Big Easy’s calendar of events is filled with much more than just music. Wednesday nights promise diverse wine tastings, with everything from international comparisons to workshops and winemaker’s dinners. Friday’s Beer Club includes classes and some of the freshest, locally handcrafted, limited release beers available in the North Bay.
Pop-up dinners are also in the works, a rare experience where a guest chef prepares unique dishes specifically for that evening’s attendees. Additionally, the space is available for private events, accommodating just shy of 90 guests.
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.
(For a more detailed report, visit Houston Porter’s blog at http://rivertown.blogs.petaluma360.com/)