Jumping, jiving and wailing with the Shaun Johnson Big Band Experience

Growing up, any reference to big band music made me think of Saturday nights at my grandparents’ house, where the television was always tuned to “The Lawrence Welk Show.”

The tuxedoed host would dance with members of the audience, make the sound of a popping champagne cork with a finger in his cheek and lead a collection of brass players who looked as bored as I felt having to watch it. Shaun Johnson, leader of the Shaun Johnson Big Band Experience, gets it.

“I didn’t know what big band meant, to be honest, for a very long time,” said Johnson, who will bring his ensemble to the Nutt Theatre stage at the Clayton Center for the Arts on Thursday, March 9. “I thought it was the music of my grandparents. I grew up listening to a huge variety of music passed to me from friends, family, etc., but I realized that the voices I gravitated towards and the emotions of the songs I loved to listen to on repeat came from a big band sound and from big band arrangements.

“I took a deep dive into all things big band out of curiosity and out of passion. I am learning daily. And I think I mix what I’ve learned in the swing and jazz world with the pop and R&B I grew up with.”

Big band, in case you’re unfamiliar with the term, is a jazz ensemble most closely associated with swing music that consists of roughly 10 musicians on saxophones, trumpets and trombones, along with a rhythm section. The narcotized Lawrence Welk version aside, big bands were designed to make people dance, and when Brian Setzer—former frontman of the ’80s rockabilly band the Stray Cats—put together his own in the 1990s, that’s when I “got” it. 

Big band music is hip. It’s a freight train of joyful noise led by a guy (or girl) who serves as both an emcee and a conductor, and some groups, like the Shaun Johnson Big Band Experience, go the extra mile by dressing snappily on stage as well.

“I’m an old soul, so I live for old studios, YouTube videos of performers dressed to the nines, and cities with a history,” Johnson said. “It’s important to me to incorporate some of the ageless pieces of a big band you might have seen decades ago and mix what can be a retro feel with technology and various genres.”

By the same token, the Shaun Johnson Big Band Experience is competing for fans in 2023, a time when success is defined through innovation. His group can’t live in the past, he added, and there’s a glass ceiling for straight-up tribute acts. Such attention to technique and originality are what made groups like the Brian Setzer Orchestra, Squirrel Nut Zippers and Big Bad Voodoo Daddy insanely popular, at least by the 1990s standards of everything-and-the-kitchen-sink getting a shot at chart success.

For Johnson, who got his start with the pop a cappella quartet Tonic Sol-fa at St. John’s University in Central Minnesota, keeping his big band relevant means recruiting top-shelf players from across the spectrum of popular music. In addition to Johnson—whose work with Tonic Sol-fa won him both an Emmy and two Grammys—the band includes members who have performed with everyone from Aretha Franklin to Robert Randolph and the Family Band to New Kids on the Block.

“When I started this band, I looked for musicians of all ages and of all interests, as I like the textures different backgrounds bring to stage,” he said. “I talked with studio musicians and visited clubs, went to schools and chatted with band mates. I wanted to bring something new to a type of music that nearly died years before any of us were born.  

“I’d like to think that my bandmates love that I’m trying something new and trying to bring something back. Most of the musicians perform in small jazz rooms or are teachers at universities, and I think outside adventure—in playing to people most would never otherwise play to—may also be a big part of their enjoyment. Or it could be my sparkling personality.  But I’m guessing one of the others.”

Taking the stage at the Clayton Center will be a first for the former Nashville resident, but his love of Tennessee makes it an exciting stop. Plus, getting to work a room like the Nutt Theatre is a treat for an ensemble that needs room to… well, swing.

“I wanted to bring music to under-served communities for a very long time, and I wanted to push myself with regards to what could be achieved with a music not well-known to most people,” he said. “I started the big band solely to raise money for charity. I pay the performers, but I truly do this only for the adventure, for the fun. I feel like I’ve literally made more memories in the last few years then in a previous decade of constant touring.”

Student tickets to the Shaun Johnson Big Band Experience performance at 7:30 p.m. March 9 are 10% off regular ticket prices ($27.50 to $43.50), or $10 for the back three rows of the Clayton Center balcony. For more information, contact the Clayton Center box office at 865-981-8590 or www.shaunjohnsonmusic.com. 

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