The Dirty Dozen Brass Band performs at CSPS in Cedar Rapids on May 26. (photo: Michael Weintrob)
You might think that New Orleans’s Dirty Dozen Brass Band (DDBB) needs math lessons. After all, the group named its latest disc Twenty Dozen, even though the album only contains 11 tracks. DDBB have been together 35 years and this is only their 15th record. And then there is the fact that despite the band’s moniker, DDBB is only a septet, and there have never been 12 people in the act.
Baritone sax player and group co-founder Roger Lewis laughed at these remarks. He and the band are currently rehearsing in New York City before launching on their latest tour. (DDBB will perform at Cedar Rapids’ Legion Arts CSPS Hall on May 26.) As he spoke over the telephone, one could hear the sounds of musical instruments tuning up in the background. He apologized for the noise, and then explained the new record’s name.
“Our sousaphonist Kirk Joseph came up with the album’s title. Write twenty dozen out in numerals, and you will see 2012—it stands for today. This album is the Dirty Dozen right now,” Lewis said.
And as for the name of the band, the word “dozen” has a different meaning. “The Dirty Dozen was a NOLA (New Orleans, Louisiana) social and pleasure club with a long and storied history. A social and pleasure club is a type of benevolent organization. It’s a place where black folks would go for help for everything from paying for a funeral when a family had no money to getting a basket of food to the hungry,” Lewis said. The place also served drinks and featured live music. DDBB began as the house band of the club. “We were the pleasure part,” Lewis noted.
The Dirty Dozen Brass Band live on stage in Las Vegas, 2009
While the venue may seem grand to the uninitiated, Lewis said it was a very small place that could only hold between 25 to 35 people. “We regularly had 60 and more come to hear us play and cram into a place the size of two living rooms with a front door and a back door. But you never knew who would show up. I remember the day I saw Dizzy Gillespie perched on a chair. You could have knocked me over with a feather,” Lewis said. DDBB has since toured with the (now deceased) jazz legend.
DDBB currently consists of Lewis and Joseph, in addition to trumpeters Gregory Davis and Efrem Towns, Kevin Harris on tenor sax, drummer Terence Higgins, and guitarist Jake Eckert. While the band’s sound is firmly embedded in the New Orleans jazz tradition, DDBB is best known for taking musical risks. They have incorporated everything from R&B, funk, rock, pop, and Latino grooves into their self-described “musical gumbo.” Not only has the band backed up non-jazz luminaries such as Norah Jones and Elvis Costello in the past, DDBB recently backed-up hip hop artists Galactic and Juvenile on the HBO program Treme.
Treme concerns New Orleans during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Treme is the name of the part of the city known for its music and for suffering some of the worst devastation. It should be noted that the members of DDBB have their roots in that section of town.
“I love the television show Treme,” Lewis said with a strong voice. “It offers an accurate representation of the place and its people. The great city of New Orleans needs that kind of exposure, plus the program really showcases the music.” Lewis paused and added with a chuckle. “Besides, it gives and gets us work. I want the show to continue and to be on whenever they need us.”
I told Lewis that the place DDBB would play in Iowa was a building that had been destroyed in a flood and only recently had been renovated. He was glad to hear about the recovery efforts. However, he noted New Orleans has suffered through another hurricane after Katrina and was in need of further assistance.
“DDBB is on the road a lot,” Lewis said, “and I mean a real lot. We hear the stories from the people back home even when we are not there. New Orleans is always in the spirit of our music. I don’t mean in the sound, but in how we feel about the place.” He noted that many people view the band as the city’s cultural representatives.
On Twenty Dozen, DDBB performs a trio of classic, traditional New Orleans songs: “Paul Barbarin’s Second Line,” E Flat Blues,” and “When the Saints Go Marching In.” The group revisits the past and makes it contemporary through their improvisations and stylizations. The band also covers Rihanna’s “Don’t Stop the Music” and makes the pop hit sound like a blast from the past.
After 35 years, the 70-year-old Lewis has a spiel about the act. You can tell by the smoothness of the delivery that he has said this many times. “The Dirty Dozen Brass Band has got music for your mind, body and soul. We cover all three. We play sophisticated for your intellectual side and inspire you to use your brain. We create rhythms for your body that will make you want to move and dance. And the feeling our music puts out will clean your soul.” Lewis wanted people to know that DDBB is not a nostalgia act, but a living, breathing entity that will excite one in every way possible.