released in 1987 from Sony / Columbia

liner notes by Scott Billington

Six decades ago, when he barnstormed the world with his new sound, Louis Armstrong offered music that set the course for jazz yet to come. For musicians, his virtuoso instrumental breaks defined the very idea of the jazz solo. For listeners, his presence inspired the first mainstream recognition of African American music as art. Yet, for all the depth, majesty and innovation of his sound, Armstrong was first and foremost an entertainer who made it easy for audiences to have fun with his music.

At its heart, New Orleans music has never let go of this attitude -- that a great musician will make people shake and shout back at the band, that the music will draw the listener in. Go ahead and be the baddest cat in town -- play over any kind of changes they throw at you. Make serious music, if you want, but make it funky and make it fun.

And so it is with The Dirty Dozen Brass Band, the ensemble that renovated and rejuvenated the New Orleans brass band sound. As bandleader / trumpeter Gregory Davis puts it, " I always tried to think first of whether people would be entertained without thinking they had to figure it out." With this precept, the band achieved the sublime balance you'll hear on this album: challenging compositions, great musicianship and the exuberant energy of some of the best party music in the world.

In the early 1970s, when most of the players in The Dirty Dozen Brass Band were in high school, the New Orleans brass band scene was in a moribund state. There were still the jazz funerals and second-line parades and bands to play for the tourists, but the music seemed tired and was certainly not attracting young musicians. Jazz guitarist and historian Danny Barker, who had just returned to New Orleans after a long career in New York, where he played with everyone from Cab Calloway to Jelly Roll Morton, sought to remedy the situation when he "couldn't find a decent trumpet player."

The result was the Fairview Baptist Church Band, which he founded in an effort to bring young musicians back into the music, and his first star trumpeter was Leroy Jones. At age 15, Jones started the Hurricane Brass Band, which included his St. Augustine High classmate Gregory Davis. When Leroy left to play on Bourbon Street, the band metamorphisized into the Tornado Brass Band and finally melded with a percussion group led by bass drummer Benny Jones to become The Dirty Dozen Brass Band. The basic lineup remained intact for over a decade, with Lionel Batiste eventually replacing Jones.

As Davis recalls, "We were attempting to learn the traditional repertoire, but there were no gigs, so the guys started bringing in other stuff -- Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, and James Brown. One day, we were rehearsing before a parade, standing around up by Bayou St. John, and Roger Lewis shouted, 'Let's play "Night Train."' Once we saw how the people dug it, we played 'Bongo Beat,' then had to play it nine or ten times more before the parade was over."

The impact of the band was both immediate and controversial. If the people responded enthusiastically to the new songs and the band's aggressive attack, older musicians found the sound threatening. At their long-standing gig at the Glass House in Uptown New Orleans, the Dozen became even more ferocious as they developed new grooves for dancers who imbibed the music until possessed. Players even younger than the Dozen flocked to the music, drawn by its high spirits, by the fluid funk bass lines of sousaphonist Kirk Joseph, and by the attitude that any song could be remade as brass band music.

Even with today's thriving brass band scene, perhaps no other group has imagined such possibilities in the New Orleans street sound. Listen to the opening track, "Charlie Dozen," and you hear jazz-derived, contrapuntal lines of reeds and brass over an intensely funky bottom, then a collective improvisation that suggests both the ancient polyphony of King Oliver and the fury of 1960s free jazz. Gregory Davis' suite, "The Lost Souls (Of Southern Louisiana)" is another ambitious and wholly successful work that shows the band joyfully reinventing itself. The song "Voodoo" is my favorite performance of all; the frightening intensity of the track culminates with Roger making his baritone and soprano saxophones, played simultaneously, speak in tongues.

Several of the Dozen's most memorable recordings involve contributions from Crescent City musicians of an earlier era. There was a great deal of mutual respect shown in these sessions, with the Dozen listening and learning as intently as possible, and guests duly impressed by the band's tight, in-tune playing. Jazz pioneer Danny Barker prefaces his "Don't You Feel My Leg" with his inimitable storytelling, while Dr. John reprises the Valentinos hit, "It's All Over Now" with a parade beat. In the spirit of so much New Orleans rhythm and blues of the 1950s and 1960s, "The Monkey" would be downright goofy if it weren't delivered with such panache by composer Dave Bartholomew, who caps the song with the kind of trumpet solo that would have been heard for miles if the recording session had been a second-line.

It was a real thrill for me to work with the Dozen on these recordings, as there was always the feeling that something new and unexpected was about to happen (and it often did). We became familiar faces at the musicians' union hall on Esplanade Avenue, which became the regular Dirty Dozen Brass Band rehearsal space. After songs had been road-tested and the arrangements had settled to a reasonably stable state (for Dirty Dozen arrangements are ever-evolving -- a spontaneous riff from any player may become the basis for an arranged part or even a whole new section of a tune), we would take them to the recording studio, often repeating this scenario several times before we finished each album.

The Dirty Dozen Brass Band has managed to sustain what few modern jazz ensembles are able even briefly to achieve, playing high-quality music for popular audiences who dance and shout back at the band and have a great time. And perhaps this is the band's greatest strength, for the music it plays has the substance simultaneously to nourish mind, body and soul. It's a noble achievement that would likely cause Satchmo himself to smile on this particular group of his musical progeny.