Big Bear Tavern
Longtime Yerba Buena Jazz Band clarinetist Bob Helm recalled the Big Bear Tavern in the Oakland Hills as a nightspot where musicians bored with playing in commercial swing bands and interested in experimenting with hot jazz met for jam sessions, 1938 - 39.
The music hall, the sanctuary, the conservatory and experimental laboratory, at that time, was a place, name of Big Bear Tavern. Most of the Bay Area jazz musicians came up to this obscure place to blow away those commerciality blues.
- Bob Helm Interview, 1953
By 1937, Lu Watters, Turk Murphy, and Bob Helm had all landed in San Francisco after extensive tours with commercial bands throughout the US, or in Watters’ case, to the Far East on board a maritime marine ship.
According to writer Lester Koenig, who knew them all and composed liner notes to their recordings on his Good Time Jazz label, Murphy, Watters, and Helm had at least one thing in common, a desire to play hot jazz as opposed to the pop music of the day, big band swing.
Lu Watters organized a five-piece group and opened at the Ambassador Ballroom on Fillmore Street. Murphy and Helm put together their own five-piece ensemble, landed a few jobs around town, but couldn’t make a go of it. Turk Murphy wound up working as a mechanic in an Oakland garage to pay the rent.
I had played in what a person would consider name bands of all sorts for a long time, with a huge amount of drudgery. That is, you settle down and play a bunch of notes in the same inflection, same phrasing, night after night after night. You play the same music. You get so you can play it upside down, with your eyes shut, play with your horn behind your back. You have all the tricks, in fact you'll try them just to get through the boredom of it.
Turk Murphy and Bob Helm learned much from playing together, even briefly, in a free-wheeling five-piece jazz band, as opposed to performing the same stock arrangements in hotel ballrooms, night after night on the road. Settling into the Bay Area, they scoured the city looking for used records from the 1920s. Together, they listened to Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five, Murphy zeroing in on Kid Ory’s trombone, and Helm on Johnny Dodds’ clarinet style.
Helm and Murphy began dropping into Big Bear Tavern for jam sessions that began after hotel ballroom jobs ended and often went on until dawn. A well-established local bandleader with obvious knowledge of early jazz repertoire, Lu Watters was a regular and provided a steady center for the loosely-knit gatherings.
Jam sessions elsewhere around the country focused on the pop standards “Tea for Two” or “Lady Be Good.” Not so at Big Bear Tavern. There, the set list included songs few had heard of anywhere outside New Orleans: “High Society,” “Panama,” and “Maple Leaf Rag.”
The attraction for these songs was their multiple melodic strains, which gave musicians the opportunity to stretch out musically, rather than be stuck playing a simple verse-chorus pattern.
- Hot Jazz for Sale, Cary Ginnell, 2010
The Foundation for Lu Watters’ YBJB was Laid
At these sessions, Watters was the dominant figure, and his reputation was that of the best jazz musician in the area. Getting together, playing, listening to records, Watters showed the S.F. jazz musicians there was another kind of jazz that went back prior to the swing style, prior to the Chicago musicians and Bix, prior to Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five. They discovered New Orleans.
Much later on September 13, 1944, aboard the naval ship the S.S. Antigua, Lu Watters composed "Big Bear Stomp" to commemorate many nights spent playing hot jazz with friends at a little roadhouse in the Oakland Hills.