Brass Tacks

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

Strength in numbers: The Dirty Dozen redefines New - Orleans brass band music.
Strength in numbers: The Dirty Dozen redefines New Orleans brass band music.

Until the Dirty Dozen came along, New Orleans brass band music was about as dead as the corpses it has escorted into eternity for more than a century. By the 1970s, the once rollicking second-line parades were 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.

Enter saxophonist Roger Lewis. His Dirty Dozen Brass Band had dutifully mastered the tired New Orleans canon over countless hours of practice, only to discover that nobody -- except for 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. A knot of yawning onlookers was listlessly standing by. As the last trumpet note faded unconvincingly into oblivion, there came a lightning flash as vital in New Orleans music history as Bob Dylan's heretical amplification at the Newport Folk Festival was in its world. Lewis called out "Night Train" to the band.

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," and with this one-two punch the Dirty Dozen killed and resurrected brass band music in the Big Easy.

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 whatever 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."

Indeed, the Dirty Dozen is not a band that's ever been fettered by convention. The troupe 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 on board.

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 was to shake 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.

Fast-forward a quarter-century: The brass band scene that the Dirty Dozen once found in intensive care has now checked itself out of the hospital altogether. The Rebirth Brass Band, to name but one that has followed in the Dirty Dozen's wake, has been booked to back up artists as diverse as N'Dea Davenport and Robbie Robertson. Nightclubs from Chalmette to Metairie, Algiers to Lake Pontchartrain, pack with dancers ready to sweat out a good time to the Rebirth's modern variations on the sounds that made the city famous.

But to Lewis, as fresh as the Rebirth may sound, there is nothing new in the band's approach. It's simply an update on the Dirty Dozen's melding of time-honored New Orleans ritual with the sounds of blackness from further afield. Lewis is aware that bands like the Rebirth are doing essentially the same thing that he and his bandmates once did. But oddly enough, he soon comes across as conservative and a bit curmudgeonly. "The Rebirth has no clue about the history of the music," he grouses. "They are too one-dimensional. We do more than that."

The point is well taken. While the Rebirth revs hard, it's almost always in one gear: pedal to the metal. The Rebirth is about a good time, all the time. The Dirty Dozen, by contrast, is a far more sophisticated engine. A band that takes on Ellington, Monk, and entire albums of Jelly Roll Morton material clearly has more on its mind than just big fun on the bayou -- tunes like its crowd-pleasing take on "Meet the Flintstones" notwithstanding.

While bands like the Rebirth have much to do with keeping the flame burning as the music enters its third century, it shouldn't be forgotten that they are, in fact, performing in the same mold that the Dirty Dozen once shattered and recast. The Rebirth is a mere evangelist of a faith that the Dirty Dozen delivered from on high.

And they plan to go on, though Lewis is not sure for how much longer. "It's steady change. We're dropping like flies now," he laughs. "I got a two-year-old daughter. The road is unforgiving. But we'll keep it going, God spare life."