Spotlight on Bert Thompson

Reprinted courtesy of JUST JAZZ, number 96, April 2006:


On Hogmanay (Dec. 31st) in 1934, I came into this world in Dundee at 7:05 p.m., just in time for the New Year's celebration--Scotland's mother of parties, as anyone who has participated in one can attest. My family was fortunate enough to own a "radiogram" (radio-gramophone combination) for as long as I can remember, and my earliest musical memories are of listening to Glenn Miller, the Ink Spots, Bing Crosby, even Felix Mendelson and his Hawaiian Serenaders - all on 78's, of course. But no jazz. Gradually the stock of 78's diminished as these discs fell prey to the ravages of steel needles or to being dropped, sat on, or otherwise mishandled. In addition to that music, I also became fascinated with pipe bands, particularly the side (snare) drummers and, around the age of six or seven, would be indulged by a doting grandmother, beating on the arms of her stuffed easy chairs with a pair of her wooden knitting needles to tunes in my head. Thus encouraged, I waited impatiently until I could join the Boys' Brigade, our local company, the 47th Dundee, having a pipe band. Around 12 years of age I did so, and after a couple of years of wood shedding with sticks and waiting for a vacancy in the drum section, eventually joined the band, in which I played snare until my discharge at eighteen.

When I was about 16 I was also recruited by a senior pipe band, the Bullionfield pipe band of Invergowrie, then a village just outside of Dundee, and I continued to play snare drum with them until I left Scotland in 1956. Around this time, too, I began to become aware of traditional jazz. Our school music teachers, probably like most then, had no time for jazz, classical being the only kind of music they would recognize. But in the school's music room was a wind-up record player, and we would congregate there at lunch time to surreptitiously listen to 78's that we would smuggle in. Many of these records did not survive the exercise, but it was no great loss for the most part. One of the group, however, who was always viewed as a bit odd, brought in a few discs by people such as Bunk Johnson, Lu Watters, Eddie Condon, et al. Several of us did not razz him but started to dig what we were hearing, thus being weaned from the pop junk of the day. So started my long love affair with jazz as I joined a small fraternity who haunted the record shops every Saturday to listen to these 78's in the booths until chased out by the proprietors. Pocket money did not allow for more than about one purchase a month, so we tried to stagger our purchases to allow for maximum listening time. But only so many bodies could be crammed into a booth! However, I started my collection of Bunks, George Lewises, Chris Barbers, Ken Colyers, et al. (I still have almost all of these 78's, having dragged them across the Atlantic when I left for America. A couple of years before that I had purchased a record player which had 33 1/3rpm and 45rpm capabilities as well as 78rpm, LP's now coming on the scene, but I was not prescient enough to see that the 78's would be reissued in LP format; so I packed the old 78's very carefully in one of the cabin trunks, and almost all of them survived the trip to San Francisco.)

From 16 on I longed to play jazz, but I had no drum set (only marching snares for the pipe bands--and these drums belonged to them), nor did I know of any other aspiring jazz musicians while in school. After graduation and beginning work as an apprentice quantity surveyor, I met a like-minded fellow, and he bought a clarinet. I scraped together enough to pick up a cornet in a hock shop and took a few lessons. But the instrument, which I still have, was not worth doing anything with except hanging on the wall as decoration. And it was drums that I wanted play anyway.

Around 1954 or 1955, I began to think about emigrating to America, and in the summer of 1956 I finally did. Several weeks after I got to San Francisco, I received my "Greetings from the President of the United States," inviting me to be a guest of Uncle Sam for the next two years. Before I went, I did manage to get down to the Tin Angel in San Francisco, but Turk Murphy was gone on tour and I was unfamiliar with the band who was substituting for him there. I tried to get a posting to the Presidio of San Francisco, the Sixth Army headquarters, since they had a very nice pipe band with whom I auditioned. But I refused to enlist for a three-year hitch so didn't get that posting. Instead, I was sent for basic training to Fort Carson in Colorado, where there was also a pipe band, which I auditioned for. They told me that I would get orders to report to the band after basic was finished. However, when my orders came down, they showed my destination to be the 101st Airborne Division Band in Fort Campbell, Kentucky--which had no pipe band, as I discovered.

Once there, I learned that the 101st was the first to have atomic weapons (scary thought), and its band was also to be "experimental," all its musicians having a superior audition rating. It was to be 68 pieces strong--much larger than any other division band--which could also break down into two 34-piece bands, several drum and bugle bands, two 16-piece dance bands, and various small combos. I invoked the wrath of the bandmaster when, at the end of his spiel, he invited questions and I asked how I could get a transfer to the 6th Army pipe band (San Francisco Presidio) or the 5th Army pipe band (Ft. Carson, Colorado), that being what my military specialty designated. His face turned quite red as he told me I would damned well learn to play drums in a marching band if I was any kind of drummer, and that was it--or, he hinted darkly, I might get a transfer to a line (infantry) company. So I resigned myself to my lot, and decided to follow the American adage--when you have a lemon, make lemonade.

Thus I embarked on learning not only how to play Sousa marches with this behemoth of a marching band, but also how to play a drum set, of which there were several available. I had become friendly with a guy from New York, who was going to be a professional drummer (modern jazz) after discharge, and he agreed to start me in how to play a set. After a month or so, he said I knew enough to go it alone. Thereafter I was fortunate enough to get into one of the two dance bands, where we played mainly stock arrangements of all the big bands--Miller, the Dorseys, Kenton, Goodman, etc. I also landed a spot in a quintet, which was headed up by a professional (again from New York) reed player. He played alto sax, clarinet, and flute. The other musicians played trombone, piano, string bass (he also doubled on trumpet), and drums, respectively. As well as having to play the odd duty gig, the leader negotiated a nice paid gig at the officers' club where we worked every Saturday and Sunday night. We played a variety of things--Latin, top 40 pop stuff, waltzes, and some Dixieland. Most important to me was the latter, which included tunes such as Muskrat Ramble, Jazz Band Ball, Tiger Rag, as well as Bill Bailey and the Saints. (As a side note, I had an interesting experience when, some 30 years after discharge from the army in 1958, I was playing at the San Diego festival and went to listen to the Uptown Lowdown band from Seattle. The trombone player looked very much like the one I played with in the army quintet, Bill Kick, who was from Seattle. When I asked my wife to check the program for the name of the trombone player, sure enough, it was he. We had quite a reunion, not having seen each other in the intervening time.)

A few months before discharge in 1958, I took a week's leave and went down to New Orleans, but not being savvy enough to find out where the jazz was, I heard only one band on Bourbon Street, which I believe was Papa Celestin's at the Paddock. All the other clubs had strippers and R & B--much like today (prior to Katrina). If only I had known who to ask for guidance--what a wealth of the older musicians were still alive and playing there at that time, and I had to miss them!

So passed the two years (a bit too slowly for me), and after discharge, I returned to San Francisco and entered San Francisco State College (as it was called at that time; later "College" became "University") to begin studies leading to a B.A. in English. I approached the head of the music department to inquire about the possibility of jamming with some members of the music program, but when he found out I was not a music major, he in effect told me to get lost. That, coupled with the need to support myself while going to school, meant no playing music.

After earning my degree and my teaching credential, and now having a wife and first child to provide for and a second on the way, I obtained a position teaching high school English in San Francisco in 1962 and bought a used drum set to start practicing again. Then I began a university program leading to a master's degree in English, as well as teaching a couple of nights a week at the adult school (to improve the cash flow), in addition to my full-time day teaching job. That left little time for music.

Having finished that degree and joined the English Department faculty at City College of San Francisco, I had begun playing commercial gigs with a couple of trios when one day--around 1969, it was--my wife showed me a small filler in the San Francisco Chronicle headed "Do It Yourself Dixie." It spoke of a group of musicians that were to meet once a month in various locations on the San Francisco Peninsula (which is south of San Francisco) to jam, and all were invited, listeners as well as musicians. She urged me to go check it out, and eventually I did. So I found myself in a very congenial environment, and I went on to make many musical friendships that have lasted until today. In 1970 I began a course of studies leading to a Ph.D. degree in English at the University of Oregon in Eugene, Oregon, so again music was shunted to the back burner since I was in the university library from the time it opened until it closed, six days a week. I tried to keep Sundays for a little family life.

When I returned to San Francisco, I picked up again with the "Do It Yourself Dixie" group each month. It finally folded around the end of the 70's, but from its ashes rose the South Bay Traditional Jazz Society. With the other "Do-It-Yourselfers," I joined that society, and about this time several jazz bands formed to play the various jazz societies' monthly meetings. There were about five of these societies within an hour's drive of San Francisco, and going about another hour brought another two or three within reach. One of the bands that formed at this time was Gene Maurice's "And That's Jazz Band," still playing today, and I was the band's first drummer. Their style was a little more Chicago--actually what I would call "Dixieland" rather than New Orleans. As well as playing for the jazz societies and private gigs, they had a residency at a local pizza parlor for about a year, and in 1983 the band played at the 10th Sacramento Dixieland Jazz Jubilee.

The next year, 1984, I felt it was time to move on, although I didn't quite know to what, and left the band. After a year of playing jam sets at the jazz societies' meetings, I got a call from a band with the rather strange name of "Professor Plum's Jazz" that had formed in 1978. Of course, I knew of them and had heard them, and they had a long-running weekly residency, again at a pizza parlor. They were a very fine West Coast-style band, à la Murphy/Watters, and had garnered a large following. I was offered the drum chair (or should that be "stool"?) and accepted, playing with them until the band broke up ten years later in 1995. During that time the personnel was very stable, the only chair seeing many changes of occupant being the clarinet. Although it was not a New Orleans-style band, I did enjoy playing with them because they were all excellent musicians and the band had a marvelous "book." And they didn't just follow the "formula" of ensemble-solos-ensemble out. Instead, they relied only on road maps for the more complicated tunes, such as those by Jelly Roll Morton. While there were the usual standards in there, the book was replete with tunes by Morton, Oliver, the Armstrongs (both Louis and Lil), the Williamses (both Spencer and Clarence), De Paris, Ellington, et al. The band "educated" its audience to appreciate tunes (including many of the lesser known ones) by these masters that usually give musicians such satisfaction, and in addition to requests for such numbers by the afore-mentioned composers, we would get requests for compositions by others, such as "Apex Blues," "Spanish Shawl," "Messin'Around," "Oriental Man," "Rhythm King," "She's Crying for Me," "Chelsea on Down," "Since My Best Gal Turned Me Down," "Westmoreland Weave," "Snake Hips," "Sweet Lotus Blossom," "Oriental Strut," "West Texas Blues," "Back to Bottomland," "Southern Stomps," "Bouncin' Around," "Candy Lips," "The Chant," "Chicago Buzz," "I'm Comin' Virginia," to name a few. During my tenure with it, the band also was invited on several jazz cruises, so my wife and I enjoyed trips to the Caribbean, Alaska, the Mexican Riviera, the Hawaiian Islands, some of them several times. And of course we went to festivals all over the U.S. and Canada, and a couple of times we played for a week's residency in hotels in Mexico. My one regret is that we did not make it over to the U.K. or other foreign climes. Periodically we have a reunion to play at some event or other, often a festival.

At the same time I was playing with Professor Plum, I did have a longing to play New Orleans style jazz. One day in 1989 I got a phone call from Jerry Kaehele, leader of the Goodtime Levee Stompers of Shingle Springs, California, asking if I would play with a New Orleans-style band that was coming up from Southern California to play at a one-day festival which he organized, the Hangtown Festival--"Hangtown" being the Gold Rush era name for Placerville, California, located in the foothills of the Sierras. They were minus a drummer and wanted one who was familiar with the New Orleans style. I had never heard of them (nor, of course, had they of me), but I thought, "Nothing ventured ...," and agreed. This "blind date" turned out to be very successful as we hit it off with each other, and I am still playing with them today, the band being known now as Gremoli, an anagram of the name of the founding leader, Denis Gilmore. The only bad part is that I get to play with them too seldom, their gigs involving a 750-mile or so round-trip for me.

About the same time I got a call from yet another band, which I still play with: the West Coast-style one named The Jelly Roll Jazz Band. Ted Shafer, proprietor of Merry Makers Records, first formed the band in Southern California when he lived there. After moving north to the San Francisco Bay Area and starting his record label, Merry Makers Records, he eventually reformed The Jelly Roll Jazz Band, using local musicians, and, as I recall, I started playing with this band around that time, ca. 1990. It is a band in the style of Joe Oliver's Creole Jazz Band and Lu Watters' Yerba Buena Jazz Band, but in addition to the two-horn lead also has two banjos. The band is a "reading" one, the book consisting of arrangements that one of the members, the late Charlie Sonnanstine, transcribed from Joe Oliver recordings, leaving room, of course, for the solos and breaks. He was occasionally assisted by the late Robin Wetterau. Some of the numbers are Sonnanstine or Wetterau originals. When this band gets rolling, the effect is electrifying.

Hankering to play more New Orleans-style music, I got the idea to form my own New Orleans-style band in 1990 since the Gremoli dates were too few and I had little chance to play that style. I named it the "New Revival Jazzmen," but after several years of struggle to find the right musicians locally and not being satisfied with the results, coupled with the constant striving for bookings which was more than I wanted to handle, I decided to fold the band.

Around this time, too, I got a call from a local band leader Earl Scheelar, who has a band named the Zenith New Orleans Parade Band, asking if I would join that band on snare drum. While the personnel varies a bit from gig to gig, depending on who is available, usually the band consists of seven to ten pieces. The only black member is our parade marshal, Hollis Carr, resplendent in tuxedo and top hat, wearing a red sash over his shoulder and carrying an umbrella in the colors of the Ghana flag (red, yellow, and green), a small red plastic crawdad suspended from the end of each rib. There are not that many local parades, so the band only works about two or three times each year.

A few years ago I also got a call from Jim Armstrong, then leader of the Phoenix Jazzers from Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, after their drummer, Stephen Joseph, died, to play with them in the few festivals they did each year. This was the band founded by Mike Cox back in 1975, I believe, to play in the British style. I was with them for about two years until Armstrong decided he was too busy with other musical commitments to continue running the band, and he folded it.

In addition to playing with Gremoli, the Jelly Roll Jazz Band, and the Zenith New Orleans Parade Band, I am often called to "sub" ("dep" is the English term, I believe) with other bands in this area. If the gig is a jazz one, I usually accept since it keeps the wrists and fingers supple. Not having the advantage of a roadie, I have to load the drums into my minivan and unload them at the gig site, then repeat the process in reverse after the gig, but I figure as long as I can do that, I'll keep on playing. When retirement time finally comes, I'll have the recordings and pictures on the walls to help recall those happy times when the world and I were younger.

30/03/20 -

The bio is a little old now, but not totally inaccurate. However, I am no longer playing (age and arthritis to blame, not desire), but I am keeping my hand in by writing CD reviews, which appear in Just Jazz, The Syncopated Times, and MusicWeb International. If any of the bands in the Northwest (or elsewhere) would like me to review their issues, send a copy of the CD to

Bert Thompson
60 Singingwood Lane
CA 945634-1211

Bert Thompson

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