9 July 2015

Post 234: MEETING THE SHOTGUN JAZZ BAND

The Shotgun Jazz Band

Ever since I was overwhelmed by the YouTube video of them playing at The Abita Springs Opry, The Shotgun Jazz Band has been one of my favourite groups of musicians. You can watch that video BY CLICKING HERE. They play a thrilling, raw, no-frills type of traditional jazz. Under the influence of their dynamic leader - Marla Dixon - they are a direct descendant from the bands of Kid Thomas, De De Pierce, Kid Sheik and Kid Howard. Marla learned her jazz by listening to the records of those great trumpet players.

Marla comes from Toronto, where she was also heavily influenced by 'Kid' Cliff Bastien (she met him shortly before he died) and by Patrick Tevlin (who kept The Happy Pals band going after Bastien's death and was instrumental in including a lot of younger talented players and introducing them to traditional jazz).

During my visit to New Orleans in April 2015, I managed to attend three concerts by The Shotgun Jazz Band and I enjoyed the great privilege of spending some time chatting with them, especially Marla and John Dixon. They were so friendly, generous, kind and willing to talk about their music. 
The day I got to meet John Dixon
- one of the great musicians working in New Orleans.
Marla started her working life as a graphic designer. Her husband John (originally from Florida) lived and worked with Marla in Toronto in 2008 before they decided to re-locate to New Orleans.

John had started his musical life by having piano lessons at the age of ten. But in his teenage years he took up the alto saxophone and joined various reading bands - both symphonic and jazz. The music of Duke Ellington was the kind of thing they played. John went on to learning Charlie Parker transcriptions. But his progress was brought to an abrupt end (the kind all musicians dread) by a serious accident and massive dental damage. 

It was not until many years later that he was able to try playing the sax again - but he modestly says he's nowhere near good enough to play it in a traditional jazz band.

So at the time of going to college, he abandoned the saxophone and switched to guitar (mainly electric) and he was soon playing bass guitar in a rock band. After college he formed a country band. John told me he didn't touch a banjo until he met Marla, who bought him his first one while he was staying with her in Toronto. He played it on a gig at Grossman's Tavern with Marla's dixieland band - The Don Valley Stompers - and has been hooked ever since. John specialises in a distinctive rock-steady pulsating rhythm, striking all four beats evenly. It's my favourite type of New Orleans rhythm-section playing and it possibly owes something to George Guesnon (1907 - 1968) whose recordings were an inspiration to John.
Marla playing with The Don Valley Stompers in Canada,
a few years before she migrated to New Orleans.
And doesn't that string bass player seem very familiar?
Over breakfast in my hotel, a gentleman said that in her trumpet playing Marla lacks the technique of the virtuoso trumpet players he had heard showing off in the nearby streets, where they produced torrents of high-pitched notes. I told him that such a comment completely misunderstands what Marla sets out to do. Having observed her closely, I can assure you Marla's technique is very good indeed. In fact it is perfect for the kind of jazz The Shotgun Jazz Band plays. Not only does she find just the right notes (often using sixths, ninths and flattened thirds to add to the excitement); she is a model in timing, phrasing, attack and sheer driving energy. She is also an expert in getting the most thrilling effects from a mute - especially her aluminium derby mute. I asked whether she inherited that mute from Kid Bastien; but in fact she did not. The Dixons think Bastien's similar mute is now being used by Patrick Tevlin back in Toronto.

As if that isn't enough, Marla knows by heart the words of dozens of songs, without any need to refer to sheets of paper. And she sings with a raw passion and heart-on-sleeve intensity that exactly matches her trumpet playing. And she can play the sousaphone - as she often did in the past.

It is interesting to trace the evolution of the great Shotgun Jazz Band. It seems the seeds were not sown until after John and Marla decided to leave Toronto and try their luck in New Orleans. There, they played as a duet for tips in the streets (mainly at The French Market). They were occasionally joined by a like-minded musician or two. The Dixons happened to arrive in New Orleans at just the right time. There was an amazing resurgence of interest in traditional jazz, with many fine young musicians migrating to that City. John thinks it was significant that dancers arrived too - especially such brilliant dancers as Amy Johnson and Chance Bushman. John told me: 'What followed were more dancers, and with more dancers, more musicians. It was coincidental that Marla and I happened to move here at the same time as this resurgence of interest in traditional jazz. We really had no idea what was going on until we were in it.'

Incidentally, the great reed player Aurora Nealand also told me about the importance for jazz musicians in New Orleans of playing for dancing. She thought this did much to explain the special free and relaxed quality of the New Orleans brand of traditional jazz.

By 2011, Marla and John Dixon decided to make a CD, so they hired a couple more players for this purpose and called the resulting band The Shotgun Jazz Band because they were living in a shotgun house. What a great choice of name that was, by the way. It's immediately striking and memorable. Suddenly they were a proper band, attracting gigs. That first CD (called Algiers Strut), with Ben Polcer on piano, happened to include Love Songs of the Nile, I Can't Escape and Oriental Man - all of which are still among the most popular numbers in their repertoire. The second CD (One Drink Minimum) did not appear until March 2013 and was recorded during several performances at The Spotted Cat. By then, the Dixons had a regular booking there. The CD involved twelve different musicians.

Marla and John's band had no settled personnel at the time. Among the musicians who occasionally played in The Shotgun Jazz Band were Christopher Johnson, Michael Magro, Peter Loggins, Orange Kellin, Todd Yannacone, Robert Snow, Benji Bohannon, Tommy Sancton, Aurora Nealand, Jon Gross, Robin Rapuzzi, Barnabus Jones, Craig Flory and several others.

Two more CDs appeared in 2013. And a fifth came out in September 2014. This was Yearning, well recorded at Luthjen's Dance Hall and demonstrating the high quality of playing they had by then achieved. I think it is the CD of which they are the most proud. (You can read my review of it BY CLICKING HERE).

But by then the Band had a reasonably settled line-up and had honed its distinctive sound into the form so many enthusiasts love today.

John pointed out that at Shotgun gigs Marla runs a fairly 'tight ship' and he is proud that their repertoire has become so varied. Of course they play the standards, but, as John says, they also do a lot of 'pop and R&B tunes as well as a few arranged tunes'.

The young Tyler Thomson - one of the world's most exciting players - followed the Dixons to New Orleans from Toronto and joined them on string bass. Tyler's hero was Alcide Pavageau (1888 - 1969); and it shows. It's no surprise that he forms such a great rhythmic engine-room partnership with John Dixon. Justin Peake from Alabama was recruited on drums. His light-touch 4/4 style of playing perfectly complements the strong rhythmic base of the music that Tyler and John provide. Even though Justin went off to college, the Dixons still asked him to play with them whenever he was in town.

The versatile and ubiquitous trombone-player Charlie Halloran from St. Louis played with them a great deal - and still occasionally does. And Haruka Kikuchi - the super young trombonist - moved to New Orleans from Japan at the end of 2013 and settled perfectly into the band - as if it fulfilled her dreams. (She went on to other projects, including running a band of her own.) That superb musician Ben Polcer (originally from New York), long-time friend of the Dixons and an original member of The Loose Marbles, is very busy on the New Orleans scene; but he still helps out from time to time with The Shotgun Jazz Band, either on piano or - if Marla is unavailable - on trumpet.

Welshman James Evans (reeds) also joined the band at about the same time as Haruka. James told me that when he used to play in the U.K. he would often arrive home from gigs by train in the middle of the night; and that most of his fee would be eaten up by the train fare. He decided to try his luck in New Orleans and his family quickly settled, with his twin children now in school there. He seems to have been snapped up by Marla and John! 'Now,' he said, 'to go to work I have only to walk eight blocks.' As one of the best reed players in the jazz world, James is much in demand and also plays in other New Orleans bands. I could tell that he was a very happy man and really enjoying the fun in working with Marla and John. Just look at him at 3 minutes 26 seconds in this video:-  CLICK HERE.

With such a virtuoso as James on clarinet and sax, and Haruka Kikuchi or Charlie Halloran on trombone, and Tyler Thomson well established on string bass, the Dixons arrived at a line-up that plays gutsy traditional jazz of the most exciting kind. They have rapidly risen to be very special and one of the most entertaining traditional jazz bands in the world.
What a souvenir of my April 2015 visit!
It was a great thrill for me to meet
the dynamic Marla Dixon.
While in town, I spent an evening at The Maison, because The Shotgun Jazz Band was playing there. Someone in the audience asked Marla to play Lady Be Good. I hoped Marla would refuse. I had always thought that tune repetitive and not offering a band much to work on. However, Marla obliged and The Shotgun Jazz Band launched into Lady Be Good. To my amazement, the excitement built up chorus by chorus until it became one of the most sensational performances of a tune that I heard during my entire stay in New Orleans. (It taught me a lesson: I shall no longer have preconceived dislikes of tunes!) After the applause ended, an English band-leader of my acquaintance, who was sitting at a nearby table, came over to me and said, 'If I died right now, I would die a very happy man!' I know exactly what he meant.