Their feet can’t fail them now
The Dirty Dozen Brass Band play Saint Rocke
It all started at Congo Square.
Every Sunday in New Orleans during the mid-1800s, the slaves would be allowed to congregate at the square. They sang, they danced, they shared sorrow and they tried to create joy. At 9 p.m., a cannon shot would go off, and everyone would return to bondage.
At some point horns entered the equation. Military groups returned from afield and gave instruments to the slaves. Though untrained, the slaves created their own sound, something that was called “jass” early on and jazz later on, when it graduated to bordellos and bars (and a long while later, concert halls). After the emancipation proclamation technically freed slaves, these communal gatherings persisted. Later, social clubs formed as a means of sharing some of the burdens of a meagerly provisioned life.
At the very least, for example, everyone deserved a good burial. Thus was born the jazz funeral, and thus began the long tradition of the New Orleans brass band.
This is the long way around of explaining some of the history that flows through perhaps the finest brass band on Earth, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, who play Saint Rocke this Sunday night. One would be hard pressed to identify theirs as a music borne from sorrow – the utter exuberance of five horns in a careening groove, with funky tuba bouncing along the bottom, a baritone sax giving it real bristle, and that muted trumpet sexing it up – but the Dirty Dozen are deep down a funeral band.
Obviously, they do funerals a little differently in New Orleans. They begin with slow hymns in a church, but after the body is “cut loose” at the graveyard and the gathering heads back to “the repast” – the party – the entire band cuts loose.
And nobody ever cut loose quite like the Dirty Dozen Brass Band. As baritone sax player and band co-founder Roger Lewis noted in an interview, “We uptempo-ed it.”
The band began nearly three decades ago after playing together on the “second line” parades held by social clubs and at funerals and other musical gatherings a little too loose to be called rehearsals. Lewis recalled that he was on break from playing with Fats Domino when he met a trombone player named Charles Joseph, and they started talking about forming a different kind of brass band.
“We started doing a lot of parades and whatnot, but it was a different group of guys and it wasn’t like a rehearsal, it was just a bunch of guys getting together,” Lewis said. “Charles and I got to talking one day, ‘Man, you know what, it’d be nice if we could get some guys involved so we could really make a band out of this band.’ He knew a couple guys…and before we knew it we came up with a winning combination.”
Early iterations of what was first called the Original Sixth Precinct Dirty Dozen included such New Orleans legends as bass drummer Benny Jones and Anthony “Tuba Fats” Lacen. But eventually, Charles’ brother, Kirk Charles, was brought to play tuba. And when tenor sax player Kevin Harris arrived and Lewis switched to baritone, the dirty quotient was upped exponentially and the band was off and running.
Radio personality Jerry Brock later recalled seeing the band at its first regular gigging joint, a place called Daryl’s in the Seventh Ward.
“I’ll never forget the first time I walked in there,” Brock said. “The people were so exuberant – the floor was covered with people, rolling on the floor…the Dirty Dozen had renewed this music to the New Orleans community. The people were going wild.”
What the band did was infuse the brass band sound with a new vibrancy – they brought in bebop, and funk, and soul music while remaining true to the deep old tradition from which the band had emerged. Lewis is quick to point out that there were other brass bands at the time that were carrying that tradition – bands like the Eureka Brass Band and the Pinstripes.
“I didn’t see the brass band dying out,” Lewis said. “What I seen is a style of music that we brought to the table that was different from just playing traditional music. We were playing all these contemporary sounds, you know, bebop, Thelonious Monk compositions, Horace Silver…We were playing music they usually do in clubs, like ‘Night Train,’ and bringing that kind of stuff to the street. And we were doing original material, and we slightly picked up the beat a little bit, which made for a different feel of the music. People loved it.”
Jazz producer George Wein – considered by some the most important non-player in the history of jazz – caught wind of the band. He booked them for a tour of Europe, where the band became immediately popular, and then brought them into the recording studio. Their first record, My Feet Can’t Fail Me Now, was released in 1984, and it was a masterpiece of a sort – it announced the arrival of a new kind of jazz, one that took the tradition back to its very roots and brought it right back to the present. It was a very new old sound.
Lewis compared the band’s sound to New Orleans cooking.
“Good gumbo is a dish that you put everything in, season it up real good, and it tastes so good,” he said. “We just came up with a different kind of musical gumbo, so to speak, and gave a whole new twist on it, a different taste.”
The band has since toured the world and played with an astonishingly wide variety of musicians – ranging from Elvis Costello to Dizzy Gillespie to Widespread Panic and even Modest Mouse – and is just released a 25th anniversary reissue of that first record. My Feet Can’t Fail Me Now, like any classic, sounds even better with time.
“What I think is so astounding about this CD is the music is so fast and accurate,” Lewis said. “A lot of people thought they had speeded it up. They didn’t – we are actually playing at those tempos that are on that CD. That will give you an idea how fast people were dancing in the second line parades! You had to bring your tennis shoes and your sweats back then, because you was getting a real good workout. Because New Orleans music is kind of in between – it’s kind of laid back, where can move as slow as you want and maybe as fast as you want, but we increased the tempo so you had to really be able to step and move. It was so unreal that they were dancing to the tempo we were playing. Really uplifting. High energy, man, high octane.”
The record is indicative of the band’s breadth. An old folk tune, ‘St. James Infirmary,’ is right alongside Monk’s ‘Blue Monk” and somehow they fit right together – ‘St. James’ quotes ‘Summertime’ and that baritone and tuba combination take it to unexpected depths. The album’s title track is damned near rock n’ roll, albeit a rock music that makes its own rules – the song quotes Charlie Parker’s ‘Dexterity’ as well as Horace Silver’s ‘Tippin’.”
Kirk Joseph reinvents the sousaphone (aka the tuba) throughout. Joseph, who left the band in 1991 but occasionally rejoins the Dirty Dozen (including this week), has since dubbed his sound Sousafunk.
“Sousafunk, it’s just a person playing sousaphone who is making it really funky,” said Joseph in an interview with the Easy Reader in 2007. “That’s all it is. It’s like they have funk and usually they have bass guitar. But this is with a sousaphone, playing as funky as I possibly can, with all of my gifts from God, all my blessings from God.”
The Dirty Dozen invariably pull off a trick that one suspects goes all the way back to Congo Square: their music is a riotous party that emerges from a depth of emotion that includes sorrow and an indomitable spirituality and will to transcend. They sound like the city of New Orleans embodied in a band.
“You know, the energy of the band is so spiritual because the spirit of the city, and because the religious background of the music,” Lewis said. “The feeling has a lot to do with suppression and a lot of things black folks went through, and it comes out in the music….The music is imbedded in the people, in the culture, because of the trials and tribulations they went through. That feeling carried on, imbedded in the culture and the music.”
The music is, in a word, hot.
“Yeah, man,” Lewis said. “It’s hot because it’s high energy…It’s getting you moving, your heart pumping, your blood moving inside your body. It’s hot!”
The Dirty Dozen Brass Band play Saint Rocke Feb. 14. See www.dirtydozenbrass.com or www.saintrocke.com for more info. ER