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Sep 10, 2009

To commemorate the 25-year anniversary of their classic debut release, New Orlean’s biggest brass band is taking fans on a trip down memory lane.

By Drew Stoga

Twenty-five years ago, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band burst onto the New Orleans music scene with their debut album, My Feet Can’t Fail Me Now. Blending elements of R&B and rock with more traditional New Orleans jazz, their seminal release helped define the modern sound of New Orleans brass bands.

To commemorate their silver anniversary, the Dozen is re-issuing the album and hitting the road for a series of concerts in which they will perform the record in its entirety.

It’s a chance to give long-time fans a blast from the past while introducing new audiences to the funky mix of styles that started it all. “We didn’t just put this band together to play a specific kind of music,” says saxophonist Roger Lewis, one of the Dozen’s founding members. “We said we were going to play music. That’s what we are all about: music.

Not any particular kind of music. It doesn’t matter.”

Making Their Mark

 

The Dirty Dozen formed in New Orleans in the mid-1970s at a time when disco reigned supreme and brass bands had been relegated to churches and funeral marches. The group’s eight founding members—of whom Lewis, along with saxophonist Kevin Harris and trumpeters Gregory Davis and Ephram Towns still remain—began rehearsing with the simple goal of landing some local gigs.

But from the beginning, the Dozen veered away from tradition. “It wasn’t necessarily just New Orleans traditional brass band music that we played,” says Davis. “We rehearsed jazz from the ’50s, jazz from the ’40s. We began to add R&B. We were more interested in learning music than we were necessarily looking to get into a tradition or carry a tradition on.”

Once the band made it on stage, their wide-ranging sound quickly found an audience. “They were interested in what we were playing. For them to hear some bebop, some Charlie Parker, some Miles Davis at a brass band function was something new,” remembers Davis.

The Dozen’s funky, marathon-length shows quickly earned them weekly slots at legendary New Orleans clubs like Daryl’s and the Glasshouse. By the early ’80s, they had graduated to some of New Orleans’s biggest and most prestigious stages and were touring across the country and overseas.

In 1984, the Dozen recorded their now-classic debut for the Concord Jazz label. Its mix of funky originals, jazzy covers and daring arrangements of New Orleans standards catapulted the band to new heights of fame and earned them a reputation for successfully balancing tradition and experimentation.

A quarter century later, My Feet Can’t Fail Me Now remains a touchstone record for the genre, which in the years since its release has helped spark a New Orleans brass band revival.

But for a band that built its name by pushing the envelope, the record re-issue and accompanying tour is, in its own way, just another example of them giving their audience what they least expect.

Breaking The Mold

 

Throughout their early years, the Dozen were known for their genre-jumping style and eclectic choice of material, which ranged from Michael Jackson covers to a horn-infused take on The Flintstones theme.

But the band retained a traditional, eight-member lineup. The group’s horn section consisted of two trumpets, two saxophones and a trombone, while a sousaphone player provided the bass line and a pair of drummers—one on snare drum and one on bass drum—kept the beat.

This all changed in 1994, when family issues forced both drummers to leave the band. After an exhausting series of auditions, the Dozen made the unexpected decision to hire Terence Higgins to play a full drum kit. Once they escaped the confines of a conventional lineup, the new percussion helped the Dozen develop a fuller, funkier sound and set off a wave of innovation for the band.

In the years that followed, further experiments saw the band working with keyboard and guitar players, as well as touring and recording with a broad mix of some of the world’s top musicians. To date, the Dozen have collaborated with fellow New Orleans legends like Dr. John, Danny Barker and Branford Marsalis, as well as pop stars like Elvis Costello and Norah Jones, and rock groups such as The Black Crowes and Modest Mouse.

Now, more than 30 years since they began and with over a dozen records under their belt, the Dozen have become standard-bearers for the New Orleans jazz band sound. Their band has inspired a generation of followers who are taking brass band music to a whole new audience.

“There probably are, just in [New Orleans], 20 to 30 clones of the Dirty Dozen,” says Davis. “And each of them is trying to develop their own style.”

Amid all the imitators, there’s still only one Dirty Dozen. And after all these years, the band continues to thrive by giving their fans something only they can provide.

“We do pretty much everything,” says Towns. “So it’s pretty eclectic, and it’s all done in a way where you can actually let it enter your soul. It’s a vibe I can’t explain.”

After the Flood: The Dirty Dozen Post-Katrina

 

Like everyone else in New Orleans, the lives of the Dozen’s members were forever changed in August of 2005 when Hurricane Katrina broke through the city’s levees. The band lost instruments, treasured family mementos, and in some cases, their homes.

While all the members were fortunate enough to survive the storm, they were displaced throughout the South. And they were angry.

“That really just exposed not only the national government, but also the state and local government,” says Davis. “For the levees to break in so many places and flood the city—that’s somebody’s fault, that was not just happenstance…it just showed for all these years, money being paid in the form of taxes to take care of the levees, to take care of city services and to take care of poor people—all that stuff wasn’t really happening.”

In the months following Katrina, the band regrouped to record a cover-to-cover remake of Marvin Gaye’s classic 1971 protest record, What’s Going On? Finding unmistakable similarities between their feelings toward the Bush administration and Katrina and Gaye and his peers’ feelings toward the Nixon presidency during the Vietnam War, the Dozen’s remake ranges from scathing criticism to woeful sadness.

The record is a moving tribute both to the artistry of Gaye and the complexity of our time. While the band does not hesitate to reprimand government leaders who let their city drown, they are just as quick to thank those individuals who are working to bring it back to life.

“The feeling of support that came pouring out after the storm,” says Davis, “the care that was exemplified for the musicians and the music and the arts community—that was pretty special.”


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