Swinging In the Streets: In Search of Jazz and Heritage With New Orleans' Loose Marbles

It’s a breezy, late-spring night in New Orleans’ French Quarter, and the streets are jammed with tourists. Bourbon Street is in full spectacle, awash in neon lights. Women with lurid tans stand on the corner drinking hand grenades; shirtless dudes cruise the strip with decorative live snakes draped around their necks; the bars are advertising “Huge Ass Beers to Go”. 

It’s the first weekend of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, the city’s last big fling before summer torpor sets in. The name is somewhat misleading—while the odd jazz band can be found at the festival, they are vastly overshadowed by rock-festival staples like the Dave Matthews Band and pop-culture flotsam like Bon Jovi and John Mayer. Nor is the entertainment in the Quarter of a more discerning caliber—cover bands, churning out Sweet Home Alabama ad nauseam. But just a block south of the Bourbon Street bacchanal, one stumbles across an odd specimen of jazz and heritage. A six-piece Dixieland jazz band has set up in a loose semi-circle in the entryway of a Royal Street art gallery, banging away at the smash hits of the prohibition era, and a growing crowd is gathering to watch them play. A strange alchemy occurs among passersby, as drunken bemusement gives way to total rapture. “They even kind of look like they’re from the 1920s,” remarks a bewildered bystander. 

There is, in fact, something disarmingly antique about the band’s appearance. From their unamplified, old-world instrumentation to their shabby, jazz-age fashion sense—the tuba player is wearing suspenders—the band looks like it could have wandered out of a history book. But these are young kids, not old-timers, and they’re playing their guts out—the music swings mightily, and certainly doesn’t sound antique. The crowd responds with an enthusiastic shower of tips. “Thank you, we’re the Loose Marbles,” announces the trumpet player, as the cash box fills rapidly. “We’ll be back on the street tomorrow.”

I’ve come down from Chicago to learn more about the Loose Marbles and to see them in their element. Although I’m old friends with two members of the band, pianist Shaye Cohn and tuba player Todd Burdick, I’d never seen them play until the spring of 2008, when I passed through New Orleans on tour with my rock and roll band and saw them first as a scrappy, spirited 5-piece playing on Royal Street and later in the evening at a backyard party in the Bywater, playing with heavily-tattooed singer Meschiya Lake. I’d already developed something of a bias against the subculture my bandmates and I jeeringly referred to as old-timey—white kids in desperate flight from modernity, constructing a historically dubious pastiche of gypsy and hobo fashions that seemed, at best, a slightly charming form of cultural escapism. Post-Katrina New Orleans, with its cheap rent, plentiful drink and hobohemian permissiveness had become something of a spiritual center for these banjo-wielding youths, and while many of them seemed like perfectly nice people I was not particularly interested in their slavishly dusty musical output. I like my music loud and freaky.

The Loose Marbles, though, blindsided me. Their playing was not only historically fastidious—close your eyes and you may as well be another epoch—it was also wild, virtuosic and eminently danceable, the final word in backyard-party music. Whatever brought these kids to traditional jazz—and that’s what I couldn’t quite wrap my head around—their passion for this 100 year-old music clearly went beyond some stylistic fetish or countercultural revivalism. They were head-over-heels in love with this music, and played it literally day and night. As a one-time busker, I was doubly intrigued when Shaye told me she’d saved up enough money playing on the street, over the course of a few weeks, to finance a lengthy trip to Europe. While my band was playing in basements and scraping together the gas money to get across Texas, these kids were going out into the Quarter, playing in the sunshine and absolutely raking it in.

Getting a handle on the Loose Marbles, it turns out, will not be a simple task. Even the most basic elements of the group’s story are stubbornly ambiguous—when the band began; who’s in the band; whether it is in fact a band at all, or is more, as New Orleans-based journalist Dan Baum has it, a sort of “amalgamated jazz corporation” led by clarinetist Michael Magro and trumpeter Ben Polcer. And while finding members of the group is easy enough—at any given time, they’re probably playing music out on Royal Street, if not with the Marbles then with some related configuration of musicians—making time for interviews will prove exceptionally challenging; time spent talking with journalists is time that could be more lucratively spent busking for the robust Jazz Fest crowds.


I make a plan, after some byzantine deliberations, to meet guitarist Kiowa Wells and trombonist Barnabus Jones at Flora’s, where Kiowa wants to play chess. Flora’s is a Bywater cafe, in the most old-world sense of the word, serving more as a public forum than a place of business. At virtually any hour of the day, musicians are gathered out front, on the leafy sidewalk, playing and singing and smoking. One is as apt to hear Russian folk songs as hobo ballads or early-20s blues—I recall a night when, after watching the Marbles play a late-night set at Fritzel’s jazz club in the Quarter, I biked past Flora’s and found two young kids, an accordion and fiddle duo, playing Hungarian ballads to a rapt crowd—at 2:30 in the morning! It’s probably the only cafe in America where a person can find two or three tuba players on a typical afternoon.

In a slightly irritating display of musicianly multi-tasking, Kiowa and Barnabus insist on playing chess throughout our interview. Kiowa is in a shit-talking mood. His is perhaps the most volatile relationship with Ben and Michael, the Marbles leadership. Despite his seemingly effortless virtuosity on the guitar—and his Django-esque flights of fancy which Ben and Michael regard as overly flashy—Kiowa acts cavalier about the whole traditional jazz trip. His first and true love, he claims, is metal. “I still love it,” he says. “I’ve got an amp and everything. It’s my favorite kind of music.” Indeed, on his occasional vocal turns with the Loose Marbles, Kiowa does a sort of death metal-Louis Armstrong take on songs like The Sheik of Araby and Chicken Ain’t Nothin’ But a Bird. In recent days, he’s been tangling with Michael and Ben over the issue of taking his dog on an upcoming tour—they consider it a smelly hassle. “I make no attempt to stay on their good side,” Kiowa admits. “I’m not going to walk on eggshells.”
Kiowa and Barnabus have strikingly parallel upbringings. Both were raised in small-town upstate New York; both left home in their mid-teens, Barnabus to live in a junkyard in nearby Fishkill (“It was a nice joint,” he shrugs) and Kiowa to occupy a squat outside of Woodstock. “My mom was going nuts—literally,” he says, “and I was working to help pay for this shitty house that we were already on welfare to pay for, and it was just too much—I couldn’t take it.” Both rode a lot of freight trains and ended up in New Orleans, where they struck up a rocky friendship and formed, along with several other future Marbles, the Dead Man Street Orchestra. The group played a beggar’s banquet of gypsy, country, metal and ragtime repertoires—it was, as Shaye describes it, a hodgepodge. “There was nothing authentic about the music we were making,” she allows, “Except that we really loved it, and were playing honestly.” The group toured extensively by freight before meeting Ben and Michael in New Orleans in 2006, where, gradually, all were drawn into the Marbles’ orbit. 

 When I first saw the Marbles in 2008, playing in the hot Royal Street sun, I was most struck by Alynda Seggara, who was playing the banjo and singing. She was bleached blond, wearing giant, dollar store-diva sunglasses, and, if I remember rightly, chewing a wad of gum, carrying herself with a fuck-all casualness that bordered on glamour. But when she opened her mouth to sing, out came a haunting voice: one part Bessie Smith, one part sensitive, Puerto Rican punk kid from the Bronx. I’d first met Alynda several years ago, shortly after she’d run away from home at age 17. “I decided I should go and find out what I wanted to do with myself,” she remembers; she told her aunt and uncle she was spending the night at a friend’s apartment and then snuck off to California, where she met Todd and started riding freight trains.
Alynda had never played an instrument before ending up in New Orleans, where she found a washboard in the garbage and began showing up at proto-Dead Man Street Orchestra sessions held by the railroad tracks. Shortly after Kiowa and Barnabus began hooking up with the Marbles, Alynda followed suit, teaching herself the banjo and eventually assuming vocal duties, replacing the recently-ousted Meschiya Lake. Singing with the Marbles was heady stuff for a scrawny, 20 year-old punk girl. “One of the first times I sang with them was at the Abbey, the shittiest bar in New Orleans,” she recalls. “They let me sing Careless Love, and it was the best feeling in the world.”

Like her bandmate Kiowa, Alynda harbors musical passions beyond the scope of traditional jazz. “I go through phases throughout the year when I just want to listen to rock and roll,” she says. “And when I’m in my rock and roll phase, I try to just hide from the Marbles—go on the lam.” In addition to her off-and-on stints with the Loose Marbles, she also fronts the woozy, parlor-folk trio Hurray for the Riff Raff and plays percussion in the ominously-titled Why Are We Building Such a Big Ship?, an accordion-led mini-orchestra that could only have emerged from New Orleans’ thriving hobohemia.

And, like Kiowa, she has her issues with the Marbles dynamic—not the least of which is being the only woman, aside from Shaye, in what’s otherwise something of a boy’s club. “It’s really hard for me to be around a bunch of men all the time,” she says. “And I’m an interesting case because I’m not just a woman—I’m also a weird-looking punk kid.” Her relationship with Michael and Ben, she says, is “up and down, all the time. I have to figure out how to play with them and not go crazy.”

By Sunday evening, having doggedly followed the Marbles around town for several days, I’m beginning to get antsy—I’m leaving early Monday afternoon, and have yet to pin down Michael or Ben for an interview. Ben is incommunicado—other Marbles speculate that he’s off gambling at Harrah’s riverfront casino, one of his favored haunts. Nor have I had much luck reaching Michael; his preferred mode of communication is the text message, which my phone won’t allow. If all else fails, Todd has suggested, Michael can often be found, in the late mornings, outside the Community Coffee Shop at Royal and St. Louis, a locale that he describes as Michael’s outdoor office. While I don’t mind this sort of low-grade detective work, I’m relieved when Michael finally returns my call, late in the evening, and agrees to meet at a croissant shop in the Quarter bright and early Monday morning.

He shows up a half-hour late on his brightly-polished cruiser, wearing, as per usual, a well-pressed Brooks Brothers suit and natty, tortoise-shell specs—looking, for all the world, like the Mayor of Royal Street. And indeed, as we settle into Michael’s street-corner office, seemingly every other passing cyclist slows to greet him. Despite his gregarious public persona, Michael is disconcertingly standoffish about the prospect of bring interviewed. “So,” he sneers, eyeing my tape recorder suspiciously, “You gonna ask a bunch of questions, like how did the band start and shit like that?” 

But once he starts talking, Michael is absolutely unstoppable. For the next two hours, on the sunny corner of Royal and St. Louis, he holds forth on everything from the books of Hunter S. Thompson to the early Baroque works of Claudio Monteverdi and Henry Purcell, riffing with easy virtuosity and chainsmoking all the while; he doesn’t notice when I run out of tape, and eventually, mindful of my Chicago-bound train, I have to politely excuse myself from his loquaciousness—otherwise I’m certain that he would continue orating late into the afternoon.

 I suspect, at first, that Michael is putting me on; he answers my questions obliquely, and peppers his narrative with innumerable diversions and embellishments. But as I acclimate to his jazz-inflected cadence, a colorful but credible life-story begins to emerge. Michael was raised outside of Philadelphia, “across the street from a movie theater.” He offers me little of his early years; he spent his teens listening to Public Enemy and running with a seedy-sounding crowd. “I had some friends that eventually went on to kill people,” he shrugs—“Wannabe thugs.” Disenchanted with the suburban thug lifestyle, he began listening to classical music. Traditional jazz was hardly on his radar, though a childhood experience of the music, as heard in the Droopy Dog cartoon—“This Dixieland jazz band of fleas gets on Droopy Dog, and they start playing ‘Tiger Rag’, and whenever they start playing he starts running,” Michael remembers—left an indelible mark.

He first left home in 1994, just out of his teens, having signed up for concession-stand work at the Woodstock ‘94 festival selling ‘Woodstock Money’—a scheme cooked up by the festival promoters that Michael says failed spectacularly, leaving him out of work and adrift in New York. He bounced around the East Coast for a while, dabbling in acting classes at a community college and working a series of deeply stultifying jobs—waiting tables, counting merchandise, the proverbial ditch-digging (“I spent a whole summer digging a hole, in front of this lady’s house,” he says). He wound up getting married and moving to Rhode Island, where he found work as an artist’s model at Providence art schools, an occupation he enjoyed and stuck with for several years, eventually moving to Manhattan where he sat privately for numerous painters and sculptors.

Michael’s account of how he came to play the clarinet has an especially apocryphal air to it. A friend in Harrisburg offered, out of the blue, to sell him an old clarinet that had been collecting dust in her attic. Michael—who at the age of 26 had never seriously played an instrument—decided to give it a shot, and asked his mother to buy him the clarinet for Christmas. She agreed, but had her purse snatched shortly thereafter and lost all the clarinet cash. Sympathetic co-workers took up a donation to recoup the cost, investing Michael’s new horn with a moral weight that compelled him to take the instrument seriously. He’d had, by this point, further encounters with traditional jazz—he’d been especially taken with Woody Allen’s soundtrack for the movie Sleepers, and had seen the Preservation Hall Jazz Band play in Hershey—and began studying up on the music, poring over old George Lewis and Bunk Johnson records and hooking up for a short while with a Dixieland band in Providence made up of graying professionals. ”One guy was a doctor, one guy was a real estate lawyer,” he recalls. “They were all older guys.”

In 2004, fed up with the life of a New York artist’s model—one eccentric sculptor with a studio near the World Trade Center site insisted on listening to Rush Limbaugh during their sessions, and got his kicks firing a BB gun at paper Saddam Hussein targets—Michael moved for the first time to New Orleans. While the pre-Katrina street life was lively enough, there was little in the way of traditional jazz, he says, outside of the touristy club circuit. He lived for several months in an allegedly haunted apartment in the Quarter, working with his girlfriend on a graphic novel that he says drew heavily on the ideas of Raymond Chandler. At night he’d go out on the corner and do a little one-man-band bit, backing up his clarinet with a toy piano and what he calls the Time Machine, a small, foot-operated percussion kit that he’d recently designed and built.

 After his girlfriend kicked him out of the apartment Michael returned to New York, where he found work building instruments (“I was building a way to play the tuba and the banjo at the same time, getting paid, like, $10 an hour to be an inventor,” he recalls) and began busking in the subway with a guitar player named Jake Sanders. It was around this time that he met Ben Polcer. Michael explains: “I met Ben through circumstance, really—just going and hanging out at a café, and waiting—paying attention, seeing what happened. This girl came in, and she was like, ‘You should meet my boyfriend—you guys would really get along. He used to play music, and he really loves this kind of stuff, but he quit because he was sick of the bullshit.’”

Ben not only “really loved” traditional jazz—he had the music in his blood. His father, Ed Polcer, was a well-known cornetist who’d toured with Benny Goodman in the 70s and was later co-owner of Eddie Condon’s jazz club in New York. Ben had been immersed in traditional jazz for virtually his entire life. He’d played the trumpet since early childhood, and held a degree in music from the University of Michigan. However burnt-out on jazz he might have been at the time, his newfound partnership with Michael had a revitalizing effect; soon the two were playing all over New York, busking frequently in Washington Square Park and playing swing dances at the Telephone Bar in the East Village. Within a year the two had relocated to New Orleans, settling into a spacious two-flat on Royal Street that would come to be known as the ‘Marbles Mansion’, where Ben still lives and where the Marbles stow the piano-on-wheels which they use while busking.

Soon the Marbles were in full swing, having incorporated into their ranks not only the train-hopping Dead Man Street Orchestra contingent but also an ever-mutating menagerie of New Orleans musicians, as well as a couple of swing dancers from California named Chance Bushman and Amy Johnson. The Marbles’ true home was in the street—usually on Royal, sometimes on Decatur or Frenchmen—but as the group grew and developed they began playing at clubs like Fritzel’s, flying out of town for the occasional lucrative gig (a swing dance in Minnesota, a wedding in upstate New York), summering in New York City, where they busk regularly in Washington Square Park, and even touring Europe. Only Michael and Ben remained an absolute constant in the group. As their role as bandleaders solidified, they began having to choose between would-be players. By various estimates, anywhere between 40 and 100 people have played with the Loose Marbles over the last few years (there’s a list of players on the Marbles’ Facebook page, worth reading if only for the variety of colorful pseudonyms—Doc Sweet, Steamboat Willy, Blue Beverage, Mary Go-Round); the traditional jazz lineup consists of only six or seven musicians, thus many aspiring Marbles have found themselves, at least temporarily, kicked to the curb in favor of other players.

While Michael asserts that musical concerns are paramount when making these decisions about who will and who won’t play with the Marbles at any given time, the very personal sense of frustration he sometimes feels toward his younger protégés clearly plays a role as well. He and Ben demand stringent professionalism from their players—showing up even five minutes late to a gig can earn a young Marble lasting demerits. This professional code of honor, while a virtual given among gigging jazz musicians, can only seem foreign to long-time hobos like Barnabus and Kiowa, for whom trains, and life, rarely run on a tight schedule. Kiowa especially, with his fiercely independent streak and impudent sense of humor, frequently finds himself in hot water with the Marbles’ leadership. Michael doesn’t mince words when voicing his exasperation with some of the younger players. “They’re not pushing the music, advancing it—they’re just waiting to go out into the street and goof off, or go to the gig and goof off,” he grumbles. “The biggest problem is the feeling that you’re playing with a bunch of kids who don’t want to wise up and realize that nothing’s going to be handed to them. They lose this sense of being humble about it.”

Michael insists that he and Ben do their best to at least give everyone a fair shot. “People want to play with us—you can’t say yes to everybody,” he says.  “But our group, as far as traditional jazz goes, is the least shut door in this town. And there are still people who play with us and act like assholes to us—who think we’re giving them a bad break.” Yet, for a sensitive, 22 year-old kid like Alynda, the fair-weather nature of playing with the Marbles can be vexing and hurtful. Although she played steadily with the group throughout 2008, she hasn‘t been getting called out to play recently, and is open about her frustration with the Marbles’ leadership. “It gets really sad when you start to connect and you’re like, we’re a group, we’re working together, we’ve played together for the last three months—and then you stop getting called out,” she says. “And what I hate about this group is the feeling that I’m supposed to be tougher than I am. Because I don’t like playing that game.” Several long-time Marbles insist on referring to the group as they or them rather than we or us, clearly not feeling much ownership of their own band. Even Shaye, who often plays with the group for day and night for weeks on end, dismisses the notion of full-fledged membership. “I think of the Loose Marbles as Ben and Michael,” 

 Left to their own devices, many intermittent Marbles have formed their own subgroups, plying Royal Street in various incarnations with names like Little Bighorn Jazz Band and Tuba Skinny and His Tiny Men. The traditional jazz repertoire forms a universal enough language that players can drift in and out of multiple groups, often within the course of a single day; I recall a Saturday during Jazz Fest when Shaye played all afternoon on Royal Street with both Little Bighorn and Tuba Skinny, headed over to Fritzel’s for a couple of evening sets with the Loose Marbles, and then joined the Marbles again for a late-night set back on Royal Street to cap a 14-hour piano-playing marathon. While Michael is happy to see the younger musicians out busting ass, he’s leery of what he sees as a competitive aspect to their frenzied busking--there are only a small handful of decent spots to play in the Quarter, and during the busy tourist season, groups will often hire a friend to go out to Royal Street at the crack of dawn and hold down a spot until the early afternoon. “They’re all going out, calling each other to go out and play—but they’re stumbling all over each other, jockeying for position,” he says. “Making plans four days in advance.”

But, there’s money there to be made. During Jazz Fest, the bands draw reliable crowds and a street performer can rake in hundreds of dollars a day. The younger musicians seem ambivalent about their Royal Street audiences. “Sometimes I hate the tourists so much,” admits Alynda. “Other times I’m like, Man, you’re just some working-class people from Mississippi who came to New Orleans to have a good time, and now you’re watching this amazing band, and you might never get to see another band like this, so that’s awesome for you. And then sometimes I’m like, You’re a drunk asshole, get away from me.” Michael has little patience for this sort of griping. “I’ve played with people who come out here, they sit down, and they bitch—they make fun of tourists,“ he says. “People come out here and make a living off other human beings, and then look at tourists like they’re lost souls or something. To me, that borders on disrespectful.”

A few days after I leave New Orleans, the Marbles are doing the same, traveling through the Southeast up to New York. Their first stop is the tiny town of Conway, Arkansas, where they’re featured guests at the annual Toad Suck Daze street festival. The mayor of Conway fell in love with the Marbles’ music on a 2008 trip to New Orleans, and hired them to play on the street during the festival; this will be their second year playing at Toad Suck Daze, and they’re being paid a handsome $8,000. From there, they’re traveling northward, playing the swing-dance circuit in towns like Asheville, North Carolina.

It will be their first time touring swing dances. The tour was set up by Chance Bushman, one half (with dance partner Amy Johnson) of the band’s dance contingent. Chance and Amy dance regularly with the Marbles in New Orleans; they shake a mean leg, and their dancing is often the focal point of the band’s street performances. They’re treated as musicians, and get an equal cut of the tips.

Chance grew up in California, and started dancing lindy-hop in college, for simple enough reasons—“It’s social, you get to dance with girls, you get to listen to jazz music,” he says. “There’s a huge jazz culture in this country—I was a history major in college, and this was one of the only things I found that I really liked.” When the Loose Marbles passed through California a couple of years ago, he and Amy basically dropped everything and followed the band to New Orleans. “I went from working 40 hours a week in a office in California to dancing in the street 5 hours a day here,” he says. “It’s pretty awesome.”

Others have followed. “There are so many swing dancers that have moved here because of the Loose Marbles,” Alynda says. “I always say that they’re like the Grateful Dead, for swing dancers.” Chance has started teaching donation-based swing-dance lessons at venues around New Orleans, often with live music by the Marbles. He has the radiantly fulfilled look of someone who’s doing what he truly loves. “I pretty much always want to dance,” he says.

 Everyone seems to agree that the dancers are a huge part of the Marbles’ allure. “I really like playing with the dancers, because we feed off of each other,” says Shaye. But sometimes, says Alynda, playing swing dances can have a peculiar, time-warping effect. “You see tourists walking by and looking inside, like, ‘What the fuck is going on?’… There are all these people swing dancing in old outfits, people playing music in old outfits—you feel like you’re part of this weird revival, this nostalgia thing,” she says. “But then the music ends and everyone is texting and talking about Facebook.”

I’ve known Todd, the tuba player, and Shaye, the piano player, for a long time. I’ve known Todd since he was in high school, actually, and have watched him morph from a pot-smoking, Sonic Youth-worshiping private school kid into a vegan abstract painter—growing dreadlocks, alternating semesters at the School of the Art Institute in Chicago with seasons of riding freights—and then into a dapper, carefree, tuba-playing New Orleans jazz musician, with the nickname Tuba Skinny, living in a shotgun shack and raising chickens in his backyard. More than anything, I’m captivated and mystified by Todd’s path, trying to figure out what it is about New Orleans jazz that’s capable of enchanting a modern kid who might have gone in a million other directions.

The answer he gives me is frustratingly simple. I want him to talk to me about culture, race, America, history. Instead, he offers a purely musical explanation. “People can relate to the basic melodies of the music. You’ve got all the right ingredients: a good beat, meaningful melodies that are coherent to the ear… it’s very simple. But also very complex.” It is, I decide, a perfectly reasonable answer.

But, he allows after a moment’s thought, “I have moments where I’m like, I’m relating to my heritage and culture. And that’s a nice feeling.” Todd actually takes this stuff extremely seriously. When Michael suggested he listen to some George Lewis and Bunk Johnson, Todd dutifully trudged out to the Louisiana Music Factory and bought their CDs. While his not-quite-mastery of the tuba—he’s been playing seriously for less than a year—is such that he’s often called out in favor of a more polished player, Todd seems to be one of Michael’s favorite acolytes. “Todd’s a thoughtful guy,” Michael says approvingly. “He’s humble.”

 I’ve also known Shaye for several years. She lived in Chicago at a time when most of my friends there were playing in noise-rock bands, and was definitely the only person I knew who could sight-read Gershwin, or Chopin. Like Ben, she comes from jazz lineage. Her grandfather, Al Cohn, was, Shaye says, a “slightly famous” tenor sax player and big-band arranger. Her parents are both jazz musicians, her father a jazz guitarist and her mother a singer and piano player originally from Japan. The bebop and modern jazz she heard around the house growing up failed to move her. “I just wasn’t interested,” she says. Having played piano from early childhood and reached concert-level by the time she graduated from New York University, Shaye felt compelled to follow her own path. She took up the accordion, and later the trumpet; she, like Todd, took to the rails, playing music wherever she went. This past winter she traveled through Turkey and Greece, playing with the unfortunately-named Cyclowns, an international group of circus performers and gypsy-jazz musicians who in 2006 toured across Asia to Beijing on tall-bikes. But she seems to have found a true calling in playing traditional New Orleans jazz. Out on the corner, playing the Marbles’ well-worn street-piano—it’s painted green and purple, and covered in stickers—she seems absolutely at home. Like Todd, she offers a simple, musical explanation for her love of traditional jazz. “These songs still have the capacity to move people,” she says. “To make people feel something.”

None of the Marbles I’ve spoken with feel, yet, like full-fledged New Orleanians, but they all seem to have found a real home in this city. Their lives here, granted, are not exactly glamorous; most live in ramshackle double-shotguns where crowded, communal living is a given, and where the doors remain studiously locked to prevent theft. They drink copiously, and seem to subsist largely on artery-clogging po-boys. But the Marbles make enough money that they don’t need day jobs, and can devote their waking hours to doing what they love best—playing music.

And, in many ways, the city has embraced them. They’ve found a community among their fellow street-performers—who are numerous—and everyone in the Quarter seems to appreciate what they’re doing, tourists and locals alike. Train-hopping ragamuffins though they may be, the Loose Marbles are, oddly enough, doing their part to make post-Katrina New Orleans a viable tourist destination. Almost unanimously young, white and northern, they’re nonetheless staking a perfectly credible claim to the city’s cultural heritage. Scores of digital cameras emerge whenever the band appears on Royal Street, the French Quarter tourists thrilled to have found a living specimen of New Orleans history.

There are, it’s true, very few black New Orleanians still playing traditional jazz, a fact that the Marbles have pondered at length but haven’t quite gotten to the bottom of. “Why are there hardly any white bounce musicians?” Kiowa muses. “There are a lot of theories, most of them probably wrong and ignorant.” But, in a city that lives and breathes music, the question of race can seem—almost—beside the point. When Todd rides his bike through the mostly-black Bywater, enthusiastic passersby call out, “Hey! Tuba Man!” If Bunk Johnson is not at the top of most New Orleanians’ playlists—it’s 2009, and Li’l Wayne reigns supreme—there is at least a tacit appreciation here of traditional music. “I don’t think I could do this anywhere else,” says Shaye, recalling a failed attempt to kick-start a Dixieland jazz venture in Chicago. “Most people there had the response of, this stuff is old, this stuff is dead. And I beg to differ. It’s definitely alive down here, and that’s why I live here.”

Shaye, like many of her fellow Loose Marbles, says she’s into traditional jazz for the long haul. “I don’t really think I’ll just get over it one day,” she says. “I could go on playing this forever.” While she says her jazzbo parents aren’t as crazy about the traditional New Orleans style, they’re proud and happy that she’s playing jazz and following her own path. Ditto for one-time runaways Barnabus and Kiowa. “I’m the family success story, actually,” grins Barnabus. Kiowa still hopes to put together a metal band, but for now he’s still playing with the Marbles out on Royal Street, and, shit-talking aside, he seems to be having the time of his life. “I don’t even know what I’m going to be doing tomorrow,” he demurs when pressed about his future. “Probably this.”

(Originally published in Secret Beach #1)


  1. Enlightening, to say the least. The Loose Marbles/Tuba Skinny connection I never knew. Following Shaye led me to this article and a blended and yet competitive subculture. This was fun to read. The music and personalities harmonize.

    Good job. I'd like more. milnerwm@cyberport.net

  2. It's good to learn about Shaye Cohn. I wasn't surprised to learn that she's a trained musician and graduate of NYU. I discovered Tuba Skinny while surfing the web during lockdown. Wonderful and inspiring!