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Brass Tacks

Who killed "When the Saints..."? The Dirty Dozen, and don't you forget it.

Until the Dirty Dozen came along, New Orleans brass band music was almost as dead as the corpses it has escorted into eternity for more than a century. The once rollicking second-line parades were by the 1970s doddering on legs weary of the same old "Muskrat Ramble." The white handkerchiefs were not being waved with the same gleeful abandon, the multicolored umbrellas were not being speared into the skies with the same joyful conviction. The spirit with which African-American New Orleanians had uniquely (in America, at least) sent off their lost souls had ebbed almost past the point of rescue.

Roger Lewis's Dirty Dozen Brass Band had dutifully mastered the tired New Orleans canon over countless hours of practice only to discover that nobody -- save tourists and the orneriest sticks-in-the-mud -- was much enticed by their material. Instead of simply breaking up, the Dirty Dozen dared to break the mold. It took to woodshedding works by Monk, Ellington and James Brown. At first, these blasphemous tune-ups took place only in private, but then came a fateful funeral parade on Bayou St. John in 1977.

That parade was shaping up like any other. The newly formed Dirty Dozen was priming for the procession, running through the same old changes on the same old classics that time had, in this case, dishonored. A knot of yawning onlookers was listlessly standing by. As the last trumpet note faded unconvincingly into oblivion, there came a lightning flash in American music history, as vital in New Orleans musical history as Bob Dylan's heretical amplification at the Newport Folk Festival was in its world. Lewis called out "Night Train" to the band.

Under the sign of the bayou maharajah stands a roomful of funk.
Michael Smith
Under the sign of the bayou maharajah stands a roomful of funk.

As Kirk Joseph's sousaphone rumbled the tune's unmistakable bass line, feet started stepping high in the newly piqued crowd. When the bass and snare kicked in, butts started to wiggle. When the rest of the brass joined the fray, hands were thrown into the air. More onlookers thronged to the spot, by then a bedlam of colorful motion. As the "Night Train" chugged into the station, Lewis shouted out "Bongo Beat" to the band, and with this one-two punch the Dirty Dozen killed and resurrected brass band music in the Big Easy. As they might have said there in days long gone, "La musique est morte. Vive la musique."

Lewis, the brass band young turk-turned-elder statesman, laughs when he remembers how the Dirty Dozen funked things up. "We were the first to step up the tempo," he remembers. "It wasn't nothing intentional. But you take a couple tokes, and there ain't no telling how fast or what you might play." Clearly this was just the sort of transfusion the bled-white parades needed, as Lewis relates: "We had those parades jumpin'. We had 'em just hoppin' along like bunnies."

The breakthrough came in a private rehearsal when Lewis urged Joseph to crank the sousaphone up to 11 and fatten up the bottom. In effect, Joseph had "electrified" the bass of brass bands, his loud, rubberized sousaphone freeing the rest of the Dirty Dozen to tackle whatsoever caught their fancy. Previous tuba and sousaphone men had been captive to string bass patterns and were further fettered by Big Easy chauvinism. "We used to get a lot of static. But we've always been about freedom," says Lewis. "Whatever you want, you've got the freedom to play it in the Dirty Dozen. Whatever, it don't matter. It's all music."

It's a sentiment echoed by founding trumpeter/bandleader Gregory Davis in a 1996 interview with Offbeat. Purists said, " 'Oh, man, you're not playing traditional brass band music,' because we would play some Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, James Brown….[They] would put us down because we didn't play 'When the Saints…' 40 times a night….What inspired us to keep going was the people who hired us, who wanted to hear the new music we were playing. And the new music was a mixture of 'Bourbon Street Parade' and Charlie Parker's 'Bongo Beat.' "

The Dirty Dozen has never numbered 12 and did not choose its name. That came instead from one of the many "Social and Pleasure Clubs" that dot the landscape in The City That Care Forgot. The initial spark came from none other than Danny Barker, the legendary guitarist/ banjo player who had just moved back home to the Ninth Ward after a life on the road with the likes of Cab Calloway and Jelly Roll Morton. Frustrated by his inability to find a decent trumpet player, Barker launched the Fairview Baptist Church Band to provide a training ground for young musicians. This quickly secularized into first the Hurricane and then the Tornado Brass Band. By now, Gregory Davis was aboard.

Meanwhile, in the Garden District on the other side of town, Lewis had just come off a decade on the road backing Fats Domino. He was looking to expand his frontiers beyond the Fat Man's signature sound. One by one he assembled the rest of the band that shook the New Orleans establishment. After various false starts and name changes (the Rinky Dinks, the Pet-Milk 6), Davis and Lewis merged bands, and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band was born in April 1977. "It was me and Charles Joseph first. We needed a tuba guy, so we got Charles's little brother Kirk right out of school. I called Gregory for trumpet. He had been an insurance man. Then we needed another trumpet, a high-note cat. That's when we found Efrem Towns. Don't know where we found him, but we got him. Then we found Kevin Harris. Then we started practicing."

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