Dirty Dozen updates New Orleans street-band music

Dirty Dozen Brass Band

by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., November 27, 2001) – When the Dirty Dozen Brass Band first started out playing picnics, barbecues and parades in the mid-1970s, the musicians ran into trouble with members of other New Orleans street bands who didn’t appreciate the liberties the Dirty Dozen took with the traditional repertoire.

The Dirty Dozen mixed bits of modern jazz by John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk and influences from contemporary funk and soul music into the basic street hymns and marches that comprised most bands’ repertoires.

The other musicians may not have appreciated the Dirty Dozen’s innovations, but audiences certainly did, and within just a few years the group began getting offers for recordings and concert gigs that took the band out of its native habitat and created a pop phenomenon.

It also spawned a whole new genre of modern New Orleans brass band music, with others like the Rebirth Brass Band, the Pinstripes, the Hot Eight, the Storyville Stompers and the Nightcrawlers all similarly updating the traditional parade-band style sound for contemporary audiences.

But after a quarter-century, the Dirty Dozen remains the best-known and loved of the New Orleans street bands. After years of performing and recording on its own, as well as collaborating with the likes of Miles Davis, Elvis Costello, Branford Marsalis, the Squirrel Nut Zippers and the Black Crowes, the band has recently found a whole new audience in the jam-band set, which will undoubtedly be out in force to cheer on the Dirty Dozen when the group brings down the curtain on Club Helsinki’s month-long celebration of its second anniversary on Friday, November 30, at 9. Call 413-528-3394 for reservations.

“We got a lot of static from musicians, oldtimers especially, who said we weren’t playing traditional music,” said Roger Lewis, a founding member of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, remembering the early days of the band in a recent phone interview from New Orleans.

“But the people loved it, because we were picking up the beat. You come to our show, you got to wear your jogging clothes. We almost had them back in the jitterbug days. You just had to dance.”

In the beginning, the group – named after a social club at which it often played -- formed as a traditional street band playing picnics, baseball games, house parties, parades, funerals and concerts. The group boasted a mostly traditional lineup of snare drum, bass drum, trombone, two trumpets, two saxophones, and a sousaphone.

One thing that distinguished the group from the beginning was the use of the baritone saxophone, which isn’t usually found in street bands.

Lewis was the anomalous baritone saxophonist and also the prime instigator behind the group’s modern outlook. “We played traditional music of the city, street hymns, the traditional music of the parades,” he said. “But what we did, we started to interject in this contemporary sounds like Charlie Parker, Ellington, Thelonious Monk, Michael Jackson, James Brown-type funky stuff, all kinds of complex rhythms.

“It was my idea when we started this band to play whatever music we’d been exposed to. Whatever composition you had you could bring to the group. We didn’t stifle anyone musically.

“I always wanted to play Charlie Parker and Coltrane. I had been playing that with other bands, so why not mix it in? We were just trying to have fun and play what we wanted to play.”

The group’s forward-looking approach caught on, and before long they were recording for jazz, pop and folk labels like Concord, Columbia and Rounder, and touring far beyond the confines of the Big Easy, even to China. Along the way, they variously teamed with the likes of Bonnie Raitt, Al Green, Robert Cray, Ray Charles, the Grateful Dead, Herbie Hancock and Los Lobos.

Recently, the band received a double infusion of new energy. The group’s last studio album, Buck Jump (Mammoth) was produced by keyboardist John Medeski of Medeski, Martin and Wood. Medeski’s imprint gave the Dirty Dozen instant cachet with the jam-band set, which only grew larger with their collaboration with the arena-headlining jam-band Widespread Panic, as captured on the live album, Another Joyous Occasion.

“We’re all musicians, and when you’re musicians you play music,” said Lewis about the group’s recent collaboration with Widespread Panic. “A musician can play any kind of music. All he has to do is sit down and learn it.

“What’s so interesting about Widespread and the Dirty Dozen, you have these two different groups, two different styles, and sometimes that doesn’t work. You’ve got a jazz band and a jam band, which is two different styles. But our band is so flexible that we can fit in any situation.

“To play with them wasn’t hard to do. Two of the guys in Widespread are so hip, really nice people, which makes for a good vibe, which is very important because musicians are so sensitive. But if everybody’s cool and they’re really nice people and good musicians, it works, like a marriage.”

The group’s next CD will be produced by Craig Street of Cassandra Wilson and K.D. Lang fame and features a guest appearance by Dr. John.

But in the end, no matter what they do, says Lewis, Dirty Dozen is still a roots-oriented band.

“It’s still a street band,” said Lewis. “You have that basic instrumentation, the tuba, the trombone, still basically a street band, but just playing contemporary music. Playing ‘Blue Monk’ or ‘Night Train’, coming down the street.”

[This article originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on November 30, 2001. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2001. All rights reserved.]

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