A dozen years ago, I was hanging out in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park at a Ben and Jerry’s Fest — one of those hippie wet dreams with free ice cream and a day’s worth of live music.
At one point, the smoke cleared enough to reveal a rowdy group of New Orleans horn players loaded onto a flatbed truck. As they made slow progress across the grassy field, a crowd formed behind them, dancing in a laissez faire parade to an undeniably funky brass reverberation. It was my first encounter with the Crescent City party machine, but introductions seemed unnecessary, so I did the only reasonable thing — fell in line.
Here’s what’s weird: Ever since the day I trailed the Dirty Dozen Brass Band across the park, they’ve been following me. Seriously. Everywhere I go, the Dirty Dozen warms up their horns and plays a show. Every time I move, they roll into my new hometown. And to prove my point, they’ve grabbed this year’s final Downtown after Five slot.
If you need further evidence of the Dirty Dozen’s omnipresence, consider their current schedule: This fall alone, they’re making stops in Wyoming, Indiana and Oregon before heading east to play Charlottesville, Asheville and Charleston. Then it’s out west again to Colorado, Wisconsin and Vegas before jetting off to Turkey and France (well, why not?). They’ll make it back from Europe in time to play a few dates in L.A. before joining Widespread Panic for their Halloween shows in New York City.
And just how long has the band kept up this inhuman schedule?
“For more than 25 years,” reports original member Roger Lewis. And does it get old?
“No!” he protests. “That’s just what musicians do — and I’ve been a musician for 50 years.”
On stage, he drips super-coolness — but only metaphorically. Wearing sunglasses and often a jacket (everywhere north of New Orleans, apparently, is frigid), Lewis winds his way through a crowd, simultaneously invoking complex, syncopated jazz rhythms from his baritone sax and grooving with college-aged girls.
Break a sweat? Doesn’t even occur to him.
Before joining the Dirty Dozen, Lewis played with Fats Domino. That’s right: On Oct. 5, he’ll turn 62.
“Everyone can send me a present,” he announces. “[Getting older] is great. Both of these [newer] guys in the band, I’m old enough to be their father.”
Actually, “I’m old enough to be everyone’s father,” he admits. “For me, it keeps me sharp. For them, they get to gain some music experience from me.”
At the other end of the spectrum stands trombone player Sammie Williams, the baby of the group, who’s just now entering his early 20s. The newest member, guitarist James McLean, is also a comparative youngster (he’s not yet 30). And while McLean’s been with the Dirty Dozen for only about a year, Lewis points out that the band has been experimenting with guitar since the early days.
Better by the Dozen
Trumpeters Efram Towns and Gregory Davis, tenor saxophonist Kevin Harris, and Lewis came together in 1977 when the Dirty Dozen Social Aid and Pleasure Club decided to install an old-school brass band as a permanent fixture. Since the late 19th century, social-and-pleasure clubs had played an important role in New Orleans’ black community — serving not just as hangouts, but also as a sort of makeshift life insurance.
The clubs made expensive funeral arrangements unnecessary. Instead, brass bands accompanied the mourners to the cemetery, playing dirges and hymns along the way — a tradition known as the “first line.” After the ceremony was over and the mourners went home, though, it was time for the “second line,” when the band, on the way back from the cemetery, would burst into jaunty dance tunes (an early form of Dixieland jazz) and casual onlookers would party in the streets.
By the ’70s, however, musical tastes had turned to rock and disco, and only a few such clubs remained. Clinging to tradition, the Dirty Dozen Social Club hired seven local musicians to resurrect the brass-band sound.
And though the group has never, in fact, numbered 12 members, they permanently borrowed the club’s name.
The band bases its music on traditional instrumentation — but by incorporating modern jazz, pop and R&B, it continually strives to produce a fresh sound.
In the beginning, Lewis recalls, “We were strictly acoustic. We didn’t need electricity. If the lights went out, we still played.” But the Dirty Dozen never stuck to any one way of doing things.
“We keep reinventing ourselves,” admits Lewis, though he scoffs at the lofty description on the Dozen’s Web site — “The most prolific modern New Orleans Jazz Band” — to the extent that it suggests a group of radical innovators.
“This music has been played for hundreds of years,” he notes. “The only new thing is technology; there ain’t no new music.
“We don’t,” he points out, “say we’re playing rock or jazz. We just play music. The only thing we mighta did was pick up the beat a bit.”
By the ’80s, the Dirty Dozen had signed to a major label and were traveling the world. Lewis attributes the band’s success to pianist George Ween, who started (among other prestigious musical gatherings) the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. The Dirty Dozen first played the festival in ’79 and have returned almost every year. They’ve toured 21 countries, appearing with everyone from the Grateful Dead to 2LiveCrew.
Recently, the band’s horn section laid down tracks for the song “Dodo” on Dave Matthews’ upcoming solo album, Some Devil. They’ve also been invited to play the Bourbon Street Jazz Festival in Sao Paulo, Brazil, this November — and then there’s the JamCruise planned for January, when fans will have a chance to sail the high seas with the Dozen, Mofro, Galactic and others.
It’s my party, and I’ll jam if I want to
“That’s the new age,” Lewis says about the jam bands with whom the Dirty Dozen is more and more frequently linked. “I’m glad to be a part of it. That’s the hippest people on the planet.
“[It’s] an underground thing, a hip thing,” he insists. “People get a chance to hear good music.
“One of the guys from Widespread was at one of our gigs — I think that’s how [that connection] came about. You never know who’s in the audience.”