Musicians from Near and Far Pay Tribute to Drummer Josh Dixon
“Josh’s cymbal beat made you want to smile and dance. Don’t need much more than that.” – Nicholas Payton
Josh Dixon was only 41 when he died of heart failure in his sleep, but judging from the response to his passing so far, he has several lifetimes worth of accolades to send him on his way, all of them earned through his masterful drumming and positive personality.
Pianist Karel Roessingh, who has known Dixon since he was four years old and has been a major figure on the Victoria jazz scene for years, says Dixon was not only “a really, really great drummer” but also a terrifically positive person with a wonderful sense of humour who took delight in everything he did, whether it was playing music, whacking a ball around a golf course, or painting a house.
“He had an almost boyish wonder about him,” says Roessingh, adding that Dixon was always friendly, humble and respectful and “clearly had a hugely deep love for his family.” Roessingh recalls him talking about his family “all the time.”
As a player Roessingh says Dixon was “a kind of trickster” who would get a sly smile on his face and then do something totally unexpected that would surprise and delight his fellow musicians. “He had such a simple little drum kit – like something from a toy box – but the stuff he did with it!”
Antoine Drye, a renowned New York trumpeter who has performed with many of the best jazz musicians in the world, says Dixon was a “natural drummer” and a “swinging dude” who fit very well into the New Orleans and New York scenes that he joined in the early nineties with his best friend, bassist Sean Drabitt. “That’s a hell of an achievement in itself,” says Drye, noting that to become a working musician in New Orleans and New York, the very breeding ground of jazz, “takes balls.”
Drabitt calls the years in New Orleans with Dixon “a golden time” where a group of young players learned together under the tutelage of the great Ellis Marsalis. He remembers playing up to three gigs a night, gigs that sometimes included members of the Marsalis family – Ellis, Wynton, Branford, Delfeayo, and Jason – in different configurations. Nicholas Payton and Brian Blade were also part of the scene, as was Jason Stewart.
Stewart, now bassist for the Ellis Marsalis Quartet, says Dixon was “a great drummer” and a clever person with a particularly dry sense of humour. He had “a great feel” and was clearly well entrenched in “a certain tradition” of drumming, he adds, noting that unlike some drummers who overwhelm the bass, he meshed really well because of the quality of his sound.
Drabitt says that everything Dixon hit sounded good and that he had a “masterful” ride cymbal on the level of Claude Ranger’s, the iconic Canadian drummer who mysteriously disappeared in 2000. “He got the colours he needed.”
Dixon had little formal musical education beyond high school but studied with Ranger, Jeff Hamilton (Diana Krall’s frequent collaborator), and Marvin “Smitty” Smith, a famous drummer who toured with everyone from Sonny Rollins and Dave Holland to Sting and Willie Nelson.
Mostly, though, he got his musical education the old-fashioned way by listening to records, playing gigs, and immersing himself in the scene. Drabitt says he was heavily grounded in the early sixties both “soundwise” and “approachwise,” citing drummers like Elvin Jones, Grady Tate, Tony Williams, Billy Higgins and Philly Joe Jones as major influences.
Multiple Juno winner Hugh Fraser, who played his first professional gig in Victoria with Dixon’s dad George and eventually would mentor Dixon, says that even before he traveled to New York and New Orleans, the young Dixon “sounded like an old spirit,” and had a “wide open” swing feel that distinguished him from other drummers, not only in Victoria but also in Canada.
Fraser feels that his immersion in the New Orleans and New York scenes simply magnified qualities that were already there. “He had such traditional flare and drive” says Fraser, crediting Dixon’s listening to a lot of different recordings and growing up with his drummer dad, for the great feel he possessed.
Fraser adds that Dixon’s enthusiasm made him fun to play with. “He was always up for playing in the true sense of the word.” He fondly recalls the young Dixon pulling up to his (Fraser’s) mother’s house in a convertible MG with the top down and his dad’s drum kit stuffed in the back – a scene right out of the 40s in Fraser’s mind – ready and excited to play.
He remembers, too, that while teaching in London he would get phone calls from Dixon and Drabitt at 4 am in the morning, excitedly telling him they were at Mary’s (his mom’s) house jamming.”I thought jams happened only when I was there, ” laughs Fraser, adding that Dixon “was a sweetheart we’ll all miss so much” who infused his music with a playful, magical spirit.
Phil Dwyer, another multiple Juno winner, met Dixon and Drabitt in the summer or 1988 or 1989 when they played together with Dave Keen at Pagliacci’s in Victoria. A precocious musician himself who had journeyed to New York a few years earlier to immerse himself in the scene when he was only 17, Dwyer says “it was pretty clear they were (real) musicians who were in it for the long haul. “I was really pleased to hear that they had both struck out for south of the border.”
When Dixon returned from the U.S., Dwyer says you could tell he was someone who had “been sitting at the feet of the masters and paying attention.” He describes him as “a real groover” who “hadn’t checked his ego at the door – he’d checked it at the building down the block.” Dwyer adds that he had great respect for the jazz tradition “without pandering to it,” and when he played, he made things feel good and gave back “the right kind of energy.”
Vancouver pianist and trumpeter Brad Turner, who met Dixon in the early nineties and played with him in various quartet and trio gigs in Victoria and New Orleans, says Dixon was one of those rare drummers with both great technique and great musicality, making him a tasteful accompanist and a formidable soloist who played flawlessly with passion and fire.
He recalls a night in 1994 when The Sean Drabitt Quartet (Drabitt, Dixon,Turner and saxophonist Terry Deane) played the entire John Coltrane A Love Supreme album. “Josh was on fire that night,” says Turner, adding that he was the kind of guy who would “give you the shirt off his back” and was a “gregarious, generous and intelligent person.”
Tom Vickery, who gigged with Dixon around town and played with him at the Hermann’s jam every Thursday night for the last few years, says ” he had a passion for those drums”, and “he made me play,” adding that he was always upbeat when he arrived, could play any style, and “had a special touch.”
Dixon also made an impact outside the jazz world. Victoria Juno-nominated bluesman Bill Johnson credits Dixon with stretching him as a musician:
“As I’m a blues artist, playing with Josh Dixon was an experience that left me feeling both guilty for restraining him, and on the other hand, free from the blues form. If I felt the inspiration to take off into uncharted territory, he would be there ready to fly. He was like a springboard for my imagination. Those gigs were among the most musical experiences of my life.”
It’s not only older, established musicians who have great things to say about Dixon. Mitch Fisher, a 12-year-old student of Dixon’s who studied with him for five years, says Dixon was “a very nice guy” who in their weekly sessions focused more on “on playing than just learning,” and had “a really good positive attitude.” Fisher says other drum students had the same experience and always looked forward to their lessons with him.
Those words might have been spoken by Vancouver drummer Jesse Cahill who has written on his blog how important Dixon was to him as a young drummer growing up in Victoria and trying to make his way in the jazz world.
“Josh was one of the first real jazz drummers that I ever saw perform live. I’ll never forget him coming to my high school when I was in grade nine and playing in a trio with pianist Louis Rose and bassist Russ Botten. After that I made a habit of going to check him out at the restaurants and cafes around town whenever I could. Eventually he started giving me the opportunity to sit in on his gigs, always offering encouragement and advice. He gave me a few formal lessons but most importantly he was always happy to hang out and talk about playing music.”
Evidence of Dixon’s impact can be found in the press, too. A glance through journalist Joe Blake’s old Backbeat columns in the Times Colonist shows that Dixon, with Drabitt, had a major impact on the local scene very early in his career. “Ferociously swinging,” and “concise, joyful, orchestral” are just a few of the descriptors Blake used as early as 1991 in praise of Dixon’s drumming.
The last word, though, must come from Sean Drabitt who has been with Dixon on his musical journey since they were 16-year-old’s playing the music of The Police and forming their first jazz group. “I was always impressed with his ability to be so nurturing,”says Drabitt. “He always seemed to care.” And of his general approach to life and music, Drabitt adds, “He had an old wisdom to him…he was very accepting and a genuinely nice guy.”
Needless to say Josh Dixon will be missed by many people, not least among them is Grammy-winning New Orleans trumpet and piano iconoclast Nicholas Payton, who put it succinctly when he expressed what Dixon meant to his fellow New Orleans musicians:
“Josh’s cymbal beat made you want to smile and dance. Don’t need much more than that.”