The number of bands in the world that have worked with both Dizzy Gillespie and Modest Mouse stands at an even "dozen" - the Dirty Dozen.
For nearly thirty years, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band has defined and redefined the New Orleans sound on sparkling, genre-busting albums; in thousands of concerts in all parts of the globe; and as in-demand collaborators for everyone from traditional revivalist Danny Barker to space-age rock star David Bowie. Just listen to the first few notes of pretty much any song included here. Kirk Joseph's extra-funky sousaphone, the skittering percussion and the way the brass ensemble shifts from loose conversational play to massive power in the span of a chorus and there's no mystery to why so large and varied a roster of stars has come a-calling.
In the course, the Dirty Dozen have bridged the traditions of brass bands stretching back a century with the most modern of musical ideas taken from jazz and even classical formats. They've become the godfathers to several younger generations who have made the scene more vibrant than ever with their own unique twists. And they took New Orleans music to places it had never gone before.
"The most amazing thing was I heard our music in Papua, New Guinea," says trumpeter Gregory Davis. "It was 1991 or '92; we were there on a United States Information Agency tour. First stop was Papua and we heard our own music on the radio there.Took damn near two days to get there and here I was in the jungle and someone is listening to my music."
But flash back to New Orleans in 1977 and you could never imagine any of that happening.
"It was a dying tradition," says Davis, who at the time was a music student at Loyola University. Sure, there were a few groups the Olympia Brass Band and the Onward Brass Band carrying on the brass band styles that had developed over as much as a century ago, all playing the standard repertoire of second-line jazz funeral and parade standards, mostly hymns and party tunes. But even for them, the opportunities to play seemed to be drying up.
"Disco was happening and the country-western craze," Davis recalls. "Bourbon Street had gone disco and country-western."
So trumpeter Davis, saxophone player Roger Lewis, tuba boomer Anthony "Tuba Fats" Lacen and others, inspired by the traditional brass bands but also wanting to explore various forms of modern jazz, found a rehearsal space and started playing.When they were ready to go public with it, they took what they could get. The first gig: a softball game. The pay: five bucks in tips over the course of about five hours.
Soon, though, they found themselves being asked to play some birthday parties and eventually some jazz funerals, the latter under the aegis of the Dirty Dozen Social & Pleasure Club, one of New Orleans' African-American organizations that oversaw such occasions.
"We were hired to play a funeral and were doing some regular traditional brass band things: 'When the Saints Go Marching In,' 'Bourbon Street Parade,' stuff like that," Davis says. "But I had brought in a song, 'Bongo Beep' (a Charlie Parker song), and said, 'We've rehearsed it, so let's try it. And on that parade route we probably played it ten or twelve times people wanted to hear it again!"
But the real story isn't so much that they took New Orleans music to the world, but that they brought a lot of music back to New Orleans. Bebop? Third stream? New York cool? Modern funk? It all branched from music originated in the Big Easy.
"What made the difference in what we did was we interjected contemporary sound, like Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, Horace Silver and even Michael Jackson and James Brown, all those elements, and avant-garde like John Coltrane, putting all this in one package like a musical gumbo," says Lewis. "And then we picked up the beat a little. New Orleans music is laid back, so we stepped up the beat. People would come to our second-line parades we played and had to have their jogging suits on to get in step! We took it to a whole other level."
Listen to what they do with Parker's "Bongo Beep." They take the bebop classic and give it the Crescent City swing in a way that sounds like the piece actually spawned from New Orleans. Then move to their rendition of Marvin Gaye's "Inner City Blues (Makes Me Wanna Holler)," and there seems to be no question that it, too, was made for second-line steppin', as if it sprung from the same well as "Cissy Strut" or the blues-gospel "John The Revelator" or the ancient hymn "Just A Closer Walk With Thee" (the latter two coming from the band's moving tribute, Funeral For A Friend, to cofounder Tuba Fats after his death in 2003). And that's the point. They all did come from the same primordial stew that is New Orleans.
But it's not just how they New Orlean-ize outside material, it's what they do with the things that actually do come from there as well, like transforming Jelly Roll Morton's "Freakish" into a harmonically stunning funk-brass workout or deepening the groove of The Meters' "Cissy Strut" or building an entire Fat Tuesday experience on stage at Montreux with the live version of Professor Longhair's "Mardi Gras In New Orleans."
The real revelations in the context of this album's slice of the DDBB come in the originals, though. Roger Lewis' tricky "Use Your Brain," Kevin Harris' "Unclean Waters" and Greg Davis' mighty "Hannibal" set new standards for what a New Orleans brass band could do and for what it could even think of doing.
"One of the unique things from the start was if you had a composition you wanted to get played, you could get it played because the other guys in the band were open to it. Everybody would work on your idea and make it work. Keeps the band fresh."
Against all that, the guest stars can seem almost incidental. Little, though, tops getting to record with Dizzy Gillespie, one of their heroes.They both recall the trumpeter coming to see them one night at the funky (in both senses of the word) and tiny New Orleans club the Glass House.
"That was a personal favorite accomplishment," says Davis. "Someone brought him to the club and he hung out the whole set and I remember talking with him.He said it reminded him of his days back in South Carolina where they had to put these bands together with just drums and horns."
That led to a relationship that saw the Dirty Dozen sharing bills with Gillespie all over the world, and a friendship developed that lasted the rest of the great musician's life a mutual respect that is captured in the frisky bebop scat workout of "Oop Pop A Dah."
Through it all, Lewis sees a very simple formula keeping it moving.
"I always say this:We try to play something for your mind, your body and your soul. We try to cover all bases intellectual, physical and spiritual. We want you to shake something and bring joy and happiness to the world."
- Steve Hochman