Back to Articles

Rockabilly heaven

After 10 years, Big `C' Jamboree still taking music to its roots

Tribune Photo by Heather Stone By Chrissie Dickinson
Special to the Tribune

April 30, 2002

After 10 years as a staple of the Chicago music scene, the Big "C" Jamboree remains one of the city's better-kept secrets. Over the last decade, this highly organized and vibrant jam session, held the first Thursday of every month at Martyrs', has become rockabilly central for many of the musicians and fans of Chicago's American roots music scene.

The Big "C" Jamboree celebrates its 10th anniversary Thursday at Martyrs', 3855 N. Lincoln Ave.

Although the monthly jam is devoted to rockabilly, the Big "C" Jamboree has also offered the span of 1940s and '50s American roots music, from hillbilly boogie to western swing, jump blues and first generation rock 'n' roll. The night is run swiftly and simply: a host band performs a short set, followed by myriad roots musicians who do three songs each.

The Big "C" Jamboree has maintained a fairly low profile, but those who have discovered it over the last decade retain a great deal of affection for the monthly jam.

"I literally kind of stumbled upon it," says Richard Milne, WXRT air personality and host of the station's Local Anesthetic, which focuses on Chicago musicians. "Interesting people, incredible music, and that's still why I go back. It seems like a real community of very friendly folks who are into, at this point, kind of an esoteric music form. But they're not snobbish about it."

Suttons supplied energy

The brainchild of Chicago musician Jimmy Sutton, 35, and his wife, Gabrielle Sutton, 33, the Big "C" Jamboree began inauspiciously in 1992 at the now-defunct bar Batteries Not Included. The Suttons, who were then dating, decided to start a jam session exclusively dedicated to 1950s roots music.

"At the time there weren't a whole lot of venues for rockabilly music," says Gabrielle Sutton. "There were a lot of upstart bands with nowhere to play, a lot of musicians floating around, transient musicians trying to hook up. We thought we could have a forum for people to get together, try new material, promote a show."

The Suttons ran the night in Mom and Pop fashion: She waited tables, booked the acts and worked the sound, and he ran the stage. In 1993, the two moved their nascent jam session to the Lincoln Park club Deja Vu.

In order to reflect the musical depth of the night, the couple changed the name from Rockabilly Night to the Big "C" Jamboree.

"Big `C' stands for Chicago," says Jimmy Sutton. "I was looking through a book of slang, and under Chicago I saw the `Big Wind,' `Windy City,' `Cow Town,' the `Big C.' The name is also a play off the Big D Jamboree [the classic Dallas radio and stage roots music show]."

A night of drinking, dancing, socializing, networking and non-stop music, the Big "C" moved to Martyrs' in 1997.

Although the Big "C" Jamboree welcomes "civilian" music fans, the regular crowd includes a bevy of diehard rockabilly devotees who dress the part, from '50s zoot suiters to leather-jacketed greasers bearing tattoos from knuckle to shoulder.

The music follows suit. "It's not a ballad kind of night," says Gabrielle Sutton. Indeed. The party-like atmosphere includes socializing, drinking and dancing galore in the crowd, while the rotating lineup onstage usually features the raucous sounds of pompadoured rockabilly musicians wailing away on upright basses and hollow-bodied electric guitars. This is your parents' music, if your parents rocked out to Elvis circa the King's original Sun Sessions.

A full house

"The sound at Martyrs' is spectacular, the staff there is incredible. It has a much bigger dance floor, it has two bars. Considering it's a Thursday night, a school night for most people, we've always had a standing room only crowd."

With the Big "C," the Suttons have created one of the most organic and dedicated evenings of music in the city.

"In a way, I think rockabilly night is everybody's night, it's just that we happened to be the ones who started it," Jimmy Sutton says. "We're sort of the safekeepers of it, we protect it, we just keep it real simple."

Jimmy Sutton, who played in his first rockabilly band at the age of 15, has been a longtime presence in the Chicago rockabilly scene, performing in such noted local acts as the Moondogs, the swing ensemble the Mighty Blue Kings and now the Four Charms.

"I think Jimmy's a helluva force, and I always have," says Ronnie Dawson, the legendary Texas rock 'n' roller who has played the Big "C" Jamboree in the past. "It's a credit to Jimmy and Gabrielle for hangin' with it this long, because I don't know of any [similar jam nights] that are going on in any other cities now. That says a lot about Chicago and its local musicians and people."

Although many of the players and audience regulars at the Big "C" embrace the vintage clothes and hairstyles of the music's original era, living the lifestyle has never been a requisite for inclusion in the scene. Ken Mottet, the show's longtime emcee, believes the night belongs to anyone who loves the music, newcomers included.

"Because of its small size, we can't afford to make anybody feel excluded," Mottet says. "My standing phrase is, you could take all the hard-core rockabilly fans in the United States, put them in the Allstate Arena, and still have seats left over. It behooves us to remain open and willing to accept anyone who shows any interest whatsoever. They're doing us a great honor by showing an interest."

Accepting all comers

Besides the music, it has been that very inclusiveness that is one of the evening's main attractions. "It's not cliquish," says Milne. "You know if you go, you're going to have fun. The bottom line is that it's going to be a nice night. I think everybody's looking for that, no matter what kind of music you're into -- you're looking to have a quality evening of entertainment and feel welcomed and turned on to new music. You get all that in one night there."

The lineup

The Big "c" Jamboree's 10th-anniversary lineup at Martyrs', Thursday.

Music starts at 9:30 p.m. sharp. Admission is free.

The Moondogs; Three Blue Teardrops; The Riptones; Ken Mottet; Big Daddy Sun; Rockin' Billy; Nick Willett; The Honebees; HFI & The Roadburners; The Moondogs (second appearance); Carl Schreiber; Torturing Elvis; Joel and Jim; Susanna Pineda; The Gin Palace Jesters; The Brunswicks; Jim Byron; John Battles.

Copyright © 2002,

Russian Language

Rockabilly Central | Tours | Chicago | Swing | Photos | Articles | Reviews | Movies | Links

Get Smart! lisa wertman marc koch frank loose kansas chicago One For All remotes