Before they were playing jazz festivals all over the world, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band honed their skills in a small bar called the Glass House in one of New Orleans’ toughest neighborhoods. The first time I paid the one-dollar cover and walked into the Glass House, in 1985, it was hard to locate the band. There was no stage, not even any stage lights, and the rumbling music seemed to come at you from all four walls. The living-room-sized club was packed with bobbing, weaving heads and shoulders underneath a low ceiling of Christmas tinsel and Mardi Gras beads.
As I elbowed through the crowd toward the far wall, though, I finally saw that the last two rows of dancers were holding horns and drums. What had sounded like a funky electric bass at the door turned out to be Kirk Joseph’s sousaphone. What sounded like a full drum kit was nothing more than Jenell Marshall’s snare drum and Benny Jones’ bass drum. What sounded like ambitious keyboard arrangements turned out to be two trumpets, two saxophones and a trombone.
“At a concert,” trumpeter Gregory Davis told me two days later, “people are 20 or 30 feet away; you can’t touch them. At the Glass House, though, people are dancing just two feet away, and it makes you want to work even harder. I mean, I’m going to look at you funny if I’m up there working my butt off and you just sit there watching me. I want you to get up and get sweaty and funky too.”
The Dirty Dozen Brass Band celebrates its 35th anniversary this year with a new album, Twenty Dozen, and an international tour. But the musical revolution they instigated was defined by the experiments they conducted at the Glass House in the 1980s, when they took the slumbering tradition of New Orleans brass bands and shook it awake.
That tradition stretched back into the 19th century, but by the 1980s, it seemed frozen in the past, with musicians in white shirts and white admiral caps playing tunes from before Pearl Harbor. The Dozen proved that the format of six horns and two strapped-on drums could do a lot more than that by incorporating numbers by Thelonious Monk and James Brown, even the Flintstones theme song, into their shows, with all the bebop solos and funky bottom those tunes required.
“We give you music for your mind, body and your soul,” says the band’s baritone saxophonist Roger Lewis today. “If you want to come to the gig and figure out what progressions we’re playing, there’s a lot to figure out; that’s the mind. If you come to dance, the rhythm will run through your body. If you come to hear something that might change your life, we have that too. That’s soul.
“New Orleans music is syncopated and it makes you want to make you move your feet. If you think about jazz music, look back to Chick Webb and Duke Ellington and Count Basie, people were dancing to that, they were swinging out and jitterbugging. Later the music got intellectual, more mind than body. But if you add that New Orleans rhythm, you can play ‘Giant Steps’ and people will dance to it.”
The Dozen’s example triggered an earthquake in New Orleans music. Suddenly, every teenager who’d played in a high school band was out on the street corner with his buddies, imitating the Dozen. Some of these bands soon turned professional, including the ReBirth Brass Band (featuring Kermit Ruffins), the Stooges Brass Band (featuring Trombone Shorty), the Soul Rebels, the Hot 8 Brass Band, the Lil Rascals Brass Band, the New Birth Brass Band, Coolbone, Bonearama and many more.
Most of these groups, though, grabbed only half of the Dozen’s innovation; they got the R&B influence but not the jazz. That’s why the Dirty Dozen still sounds like no other New Orleans brass band. Sure, there are dozens of ensembles that can play a Fats Domino or O’Jays song in a brass-band format but very few that can handle a Charlie Parker or John Coltrane number. That’s why Twenty Something is so exhilarating, for it reminds us that it is possible to make people dance to tricky changes and far-flung solos.
“The ReBirth were young kids listening to us,” Lewis says. “The kids listening to the ReBirth now are hearing the Dirty Dozen and they don’t even know it. A lot of the young bands want to take the easy way out, to play this funk riff with one or two changes. They don’t want to sit down and learn complicated music by Charlie Parker and John Coltrane. They don’t want to learn how to play in tune and in balance. Besides the ReBirth, the most original is the Soul Rebels; they’ve got a different twist on things. Coolbone has a whole other thing happening.”
Unlike previous Dirty Dozen releases, Twenty Dozen is neither a concept album (such as 2006’s Marvin Gaye tribute, What’s Going On or 1993’s Jelly Roll Morton tribute, Jelly) nor a guest-star showcase (such as 2002’s Medicated Magic with Dr. John, Robert Randolph and more; 1999’s Buck Jump with John Medeski, or What’s Going On with Chuck D, Bettye LaVette and more). Instead this is an album of mostly original compositions played by the Dirty Dozen itself.
With the Dozen’s first sousaphonist back in the fold, the album’s line-up features five of the original eight members: Joseph, Davis, Lewis, trumpeter Efrem Towns and tenor saxophonist Kevin Harris. Moreover, the band is reunited with producer Scott Billington, who guided four of the group’s best albums in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. The result is the strongest Dirty Dozen album of this century. Whether it’s modern-jazz compositions like Davis’ “Git Up” and the group-penned “Trippin’ Inside a Bubble” or a deconstruction of Rihanna’s “Don’t Stop the Music,” the solos are wild and wooly.
And the best solos come from the unlikeliest instrument: the baritone sax. Though usually used only as rhythmic support, Lewis proves the instrument can sing any melody a baritone singer can—and can bend that melody into the most fantastic shapes.
“You put your own twist on those traditional tunes,” he says. “You can try to emulate the way they did it back then, but I think when someone writes a song they don’t want you to play it the way they did it. You can play it the way they did it 100 years ago or you can develop it in your own style. I once did a gig with the Olympia Brass Band and Fred Kemp showed me this riff on the sax. When I played it the same way on the gig, he got mad at me. He said, ‘I showed you that riff so you could put your own twist on it, not so you could play it exactly like me.’ I learned a lesson there. Now I always try to put my own twist on everything.”
For all its innovations, however, the Dirty Dozen has never neglected the roots of brass band music. A staple of its live show in recent years has been a medley of three traditional tunes: “Paul Barbarin’s Second Line,” “E-Flat Blues” and “When the Saints Go Marching In,” and they’ve finally recorded that medley for the new album. Each tune begins just as the musicians heard it when they were youngsters standing on the sidewalks and watching the traditional brass bands marching by in parades. But as each tune progresses, it grows funkier and jazzier, with corkscrew baritone solos by Lewis and piercing trumpet tangents by Davis and Towns.
“We know we have to get things from people who went before us,” Davis told me in 1985, “but we don’t want to be copycats. We have to make the music so people won’t feel inhibited about getting up on the dance floor. ‘Blue Monk’ was a straight-ahead jazz number, but we turned it into a lowdown funky blues so people could dance to it. We could have played it like Art Blakey, but that wouldn’t have fit the crowd at the Glass House.”