Playing The Numbers

Playing The Numbers


35 Years of Hearing New Orleans Through The Horns Of The Dirty Dozen Brass Band

New Orleans. The name itself evokes a feeling of mystery and euphoria, wrapped up in endless revelry and strings of colored lights. Known as “The Big Easy”, it is the birthplace of some of America’s most fertile culture, from jambalaya to hot jazz, where everyone is welcome and the first thing they offer you is a cool beverage. Even the funerals are a party, with brass bands ushering the dead into the hereafter, before turning into a second line party down Rampart Street. A rebirth in the popularity of brass bands took hold in the late 70s when a group of young New Orleans musicians came together to form what is now the Dirty Dozen Brass Band. Hot off the release of their twelfth studio album, Twenty Dozen,

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their high-energy live show and genre-bending repertoire have kept both the city and it’s second line grooving for 35 years.

“The slaves got the instruments from when they came back from fighting the Civil War; they had all these instruments”, says Roger Lewis, baritone sax player of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band. “People got ahold of the instruments and learned how to play them, and I think that’s how the brass band thing got started.”  Brass bands have been a staple of the New Orleans music scene since the end of the Civil War, providing entertainment in conjunction with local benevolent societies and pleasure clubs. Before the Civil RIghts Act of 1964, benevolent societies were established to help the African-Americans of New Orleans cover healthcare and funeral costs, while also tending to the general well being of the community. A part of this included providing entertainment, via street parades and pleasure clubs. Brass bands lead parades through the streets of town that lasted for hours, while spectators gathered along the sides of the street to sing and dance. The establishment of pleasure clubs brought the party indoors, where people paid yearly dues to come in and get a drink and plate of food, while dancing the night away.

“Now, the Dirty Dozen, back in 1976…Dirty Dozen has a long history; first it was the Original Sixth Ward Dirty Dozen Brass Band, which really, the originator was a guy by the name of Benny Jones”, explains Lewis. Jones, along with Lewis, trumpet player Gregory Davis, trombonist Charles Joseph, Anthony “Tuba Fats” Lacen and Andrew Green began jamming together, often playing gigs at the Dirty Dozen Social and Pleasure Club. It wasn’t until Lewis approached Joseph, while the two were enrolled in some music theory classes, that the final Dirty Dozen line-up would take shape. “I said,‘Man, we always playin’ together, man’. We always playin’ regular gigs, you know, we’ve been in them and what not”, remembers Lewis. “I said, ‘We oughta get together and try to organize this thing, try to get somethin’ happening’, you know? So he said, ‘yeah that sounds like a good idea’, so him and I got together.”

The two gathered some of their friends from around town: Charles’ younger brother, Kirk Joseph, was recruited to play sousaphone. Kirk’s friend, Kevin Harris brought his tenor sax, while Gregory Davis was brought in to play trumpet and sing. The new line-up, along with Lewis and Jones, played it all; they rehearsed everything from traditional brass music to Count Basie, Charlie Parker and even Michael Jackson. They played anything they liked to listen to, working up intricate arrangements of everything from jazz to funk. Each musician brought his background to the mix, and nothing proved to be off limits. With arrangements that were tight as a drum, the band was rehearsing religiously, sometimes all day, everyday.

As they picked up gigs, the Dozen’s popularity around town caught on. Daryl’s gave them their first steady gig, and every week they brought the party, attracting more and more people as time wore on. From there, they moved on to The Glass House, which would prove to be their turning point.

The Glass House was off the beaten path. A small neighborhood dive, it offered patrons a drink and a plate of red beans and rice for a dollar. The price of admission also let them into the best party in town. “We used to have so many people in that place, we used to take chairs and put up in front of us to keep the dancers from running into us”, reminisces Lewis. Not just tourists, but locals and fellow musicians would pack into the little bar, hoping to catch a stray groove. On any given night, you could walk in and rub elbows with Fats Domino, while bumping into Dizzy Gillespie out on the dance floor. Folks in full New Orleans regalia- costumes, silks and feathers- were all there, dancing and enjoying the Crescent City’s easy-going camaraderie.

Though the Dozen were packing the Buy Cialis house every night, their popularity didn’t come without a price. Some members of the community considered it near sacrilege for a brass band to stray from it’s traditional roots. The idea of a second line playing jazz and Fats Domino tunes pitted some of New Orleans’ musical purists against Lewis and his comrades, but as is always the case, things continued to change. Innovators are those who shape the future by re-imagining the past, recreating it for the present. What separated the Dozen from every other band in town was not only their ability to freshen up the second-line tradition, but to pull together every sound that each member brought to the group, whether it be jazz, blues, rock and roll, gospel or caribbean influenced. “Before you know it, people said ‘you all changin’ the music of New Orleans’, not thinkin’ about tryin’ to change anything, just tryin’ to play the music we enjoyed and loved playin’”, says Lewis. Without realizing it, they were creating a whole new sound for New Orleans to call their own, and before long, they were taking it to the world.

Since 1984, The Dozen have gained international acclaim, having appeared on a number of European tours organized by legendary promoter, George Wein. They have wowed audiences throughout the US, touring with bands such as Widespread Panic and The Black Crowes. On top of their rigorous touring schedule, they have also put out numerous albums of original material, along with tribute albums to Jelly Roll Morton (Jelly, 1993) and both Marvin Gaye and the city of New Orleans, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina (What’s Goin’ On?, 2006). The roster of artists they have worked with over the years attests to their importance in the evolution of popular song: Elvis Costello, The Black Crowes, Dave Bartholomew, and Wynton and Branford Marsalis to name a few. 2012 marks their 35th anniversary as the Dirty Dozen, and their twelfth studio album, aptly titled Twenty Dozen. Though their personnel, which now includes drummer Terrence Higgins and guitarist Kyle Roussel, has changed over the years,  their sound is just as vibrant as it was at their first show.

The first downbeat sets the tone for the entire album, marked by the smash of Higgins’ drum kit. The group launches into an energetic caribbean groove, punctuated by multiple sax and trumpet solos. The second track, “Jook” sets the course further southward, with a driving latin pulse. Lewis, Joseph and Harris dance around the driving melody of Davis’ and Towns’ unison trumpets. Whether it’s original compositions, such as “Git Up” or worked up renditions of old standards, the Dozen bring out the flavor in every ingredient. Their version of Rihanna’s “Please Don’t Stop The Music” is as danceable as the original, and their overall interpretation made it sound like a song never heard before.

Each song is a combination of choices by each member; take Lewis’ melody and add a solo by Davis. Punctuate Kirk’s sousaphone with a counterpoint melody by Efrem. Everything about the album, from the song choices to the construction and flow is a testament to the musicianship of each member and the flow of New Orleans culture. “It’s a little something, you know, then a little something. Pretty much, that’s how the album took shape. We kinda covered all the bases, we got the funk, we got the Caribbean thing happenin’, which is, New Orleans was a meltin’ pot of different cultures.”, explains Roger. “It’s a meltin’ pot of music, it’s a big ol’ musical gumbo, that’s what it really is, you know?”

The Dirty Dozen Brass Band continue to carve a niche for themselves and their city in popular culture. In the 35 years since they got together, similar bands have taken up their mantle, bringing fresh ears and hearts to a form of music that could have simply been relegated to funeral processions and antiquated memories. Thanks to them, bands such as the Soul Rebels and The Rebirth Jazz Band have been able to carry the torch further into the younger generations, while the Youngblood Brass Band have brought the Crescent CIty sound into the heartland of Wisconsin. There’s something about New Orleans that has gotten into the blood of her citizens; the food, the nightlife, the music- it’s contagious. Lewis lays it out like this: “You come here, you eat the food, talkin’ to the locals. Before you know it, you’re listenin’ to the music. Before you know it, the best night life and it’s 24 hours; you can always hear some music, there’s always somethin’ goin’ on. So what happens? You wind up stayin’; you never leave. You’re stuck, like Chuck! This place like a magnet!”

Before you know it, you’re part of the second line. You’ve caught the Dirty Dozen’s groove. You’re part of the New Orleans’ gumbo, so eat up. Lord knows, there’s plenty to go around.

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