After three albums, myriad roster changes, and the steady transformation from a ragtag street band to dependable club and festival performers, the Shotgun Jazz Band has found its niche. Even better, the six-member traditional-jazz band has solidified its sound.
If you’ve been within earshot of any of the band’s live performances, you know the heart and soul of their particular sound is Marla Dixon’s big, brassy, booming voice that somehow manages to draw you into the band’s crackling live energy while sounding like it could just as easily be emanating from a hand-cranked gramophone.
Behind the scenes, Marla Dixon wears many hats. She’s the den mother/organizer/cat herder tasked with the unenviable job of wrangling half-a-dozen musicians at any given time, with each one seeming to move in three different directions at once. She and her husband John Dixon, who plays banjo with the band, orchestrate the Shotgun Jazz Band from their (you guessed it) shotgun house in the Marigny.
It’s a small miracle that no previous group of musicians with similar living arrangements had happened upon the same band name. What may be even more amazing, though, are the many varied paths the multinational bandmembers took to end up in Marla and John Dixon’s shotgun house and jazz band.
To start out with, Marla is from Toronto, while John is from north Florida. John moved to Toronto in 2008 to live with Marla, who had been coming down to New Orleans for years and brought him on his first visit to the city. They didn’t want to leave.
“Marla had a strong connection to New Orleans, and I didn’t really have a strong connection to anywhere,” John says. “I’ve been playing music for maybe 20 years, but I didn’t really start playing the banjo until we started playing here.”
Marla is the heart of the band for a reason. Her passion for traditional New Orleans jazz lured her south in much the same way as the early Cajuns were drawn down from Acadia to the banks of the Mississippi. After drawing John into her musical orbit, she began to attract and acquire other musicians of a similar inclination and mindset.
With a current lineup that includes the Dixons, Welshman James Evans on clarinet and saxophone, Toronto native Tyler Thomson on bass, Justin Peake from Alabama on drums, St. Louis, Missouri, native Charlie Halloran on trombone, and New Yorker Ben Polcer on piano, the musicians themselves could hardly have come from farther apart. It was the music that brought them together.
“People ask us all the time how the band got together, or if we all know each other from school,” Marla says. “You just come together because of the music. You talk to someone who tells you to call this musician or you see someone playing and you say, ‘Can I call you for this next gig?’”
Marla encountered a few bumps in the road from graphic design to musician, though, especially at the beginning.
“We started when Amy Kirk at the French Market started doing a Saturday feature for the people that wanted to come and play,” John explains. “Marla said, ‘I’m gonna go down there and play sousaphone for two hours by myself!’ I said, ‘That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.’”
Characteristically undaunted, Marla started playing anyway.
“I had just gotten fired from my job, and before moving down here I was playing sousaphone in Toronto, and I was like, ‘Damn, I’ve got to do something because my life sucks right now,’” she recalls.
It may not have been a particularly auspicious start, but Marla’s time playing in the French Market led her to a realization.
“I was listening to some Billie & Dede Pierce,” she says. “Dede Pierce was a trumpet player, and Billie was his wife. She played piano, and they played these little duets. I was listening to that and I thought, ‘Well shit, I used to play trumpet years ago; I could do this. John plays guitar, he could do that,’ and I cajoled John into coming down to play with me. And then the people in the market would tip us and give us fruit cups, and we realized that we could do this.”
In a city where a band can choose to play primarily on the street and still gain notoriety, as Tuba Skinny is currently proving, the Shotgun Jazz Band could have very well stayed on the streets of the French Quarter. But it didn’t. As fate would have it, Shotgun’s evolution took it in a different direction. Not that anyone was really steering the ship at that point.
“We were just playing on the street, as a three piece, and then we wanted a CD to sell on the street, but we didn’t want to record a CD as a three piece, so we hired a couple more people,” John says. “Then somehow we had a CD with a full band on it. Then, after that, we started getting gigs in clubs because we had a CD with a full band on it, and we were like, ‘Shit, I guess we have to have a band now.’”
There seems to be an invisible line separating buskers on the street corner from bands in bars, and once the Shotgun Jazz Band crossed it, there was really no turning back.
“It really wasn’t that it was easier to play gigs,” John says. “It got harder to play on the street. After a while, we just realized that we had five gigs a week, so we didn’t have to go out and play on the street as much as we were. Then, when we would want to go play on the street, you’d go out mid-morning and find a good spot, and then you start playing at 11. It became going out an hour earlier, and then an hour earlier until people were spending the night there. It just got harder and harder.”
And there was one thing missing from the street corners: veteran musicians.
“If you’re playing on the street, you don’t get to play with old, seasoned veterans of New Orleans music, by and large, which is one of the reasons I moved here,” trombonist Halloran says. “You’re not going to get Tom Sancton or Tom Saunders or Duke Heitger or Tim Laughlin to play on the street, and that’s the reason I moved here, to play with those guys. You might make more money playing on the street, but that’s not the point. I’d rather play with those guys than sit in the sun.”
The band’s trajectory has taken them from the French Market through their home base at the Spotted Cat to Jazz Fest, Satchmo SummerFest, and beyond. It also recently landed them in Luthjen’s Dance Hall in the Marigny, where they recorded an as yet unnamed album.
For clarinetist Evans, the sound the band was able to capture on the new album brings him right back to the root of what he loves about New Orleans jazz.
“It harks back to something very deliberately, which is when people started recording jazz in New Orleans,” Evans says. “They really wanted it to be spit and sawdust. They would put down one mic and stick a bunch of guys in an empty dancehall and have them play. The sound of the instruments is actually blending in the air and not just at the mixing desk.”
Drummer Peake also describes the recording process a deliberate harkening back to earlier times. “It’s nice that we were able to get together as musicians to discuss the sonic space of the recording,” says Peake. “Oftentimes, it’s left up to the producer, but we had a really nice formula for achieving the sound we were looking for. The sound itself is just as much a compositional statement as the music.”
The blending of musicians and the music they make is at the heart of what makes the Shotgun Jazz Band special. As Marla Dixon sang on the band’s 2011 release, Algiers Strut, “C’est si bon.”