“I have an experiment that I do in all of my classes, both high school and college, where I tell this fictitious story about the first governor of Louisiana—Abraham Lincoln,” Dr. Brice Miller says from Spotted Cat’s green room before a gig on a sweltering July Saturday night.
“I tell the students of how Lincoln was the first governor of Louisiana, how before that he was mayor of New Orleans, and how he had to do those things to become president of the United States,” Miller continues. “Very few students would challenge me. And I would put on the first test, ‘Who was the first governor of Louisiana?’ ‘Abraham Lincoln.’ Every time. And what that tells me is that, we as Americans, if we hear the shit enough times, it’s true.”
A sad parallel to today’s Trump-era notion of “fake news,” Miller’s example is given in context of the concept behind his funkified trad-jazz band, Ecirb Müller’s Twisted Dixie (EMTD). Musically swinging and sensual in a style dubbed “NuTrad,” the rising Frenchmen Street staple has its origin in a conversation Miller had on the set of HBO’s Treme with EMTD bass/piano player, Dr. Jimbo Walsh. Miller’s inter-disciplinary PhD from the University of Alabama is in higher-education administration with a concentration in socio-cultural anthropology. Discussing how his dissertation research into brass bands in post-Katrina New Orleans (work leading to his forthcoming book, Feet Don’t Fail Me Now), Miller says he “shared my frustration with these false narratives” with Walsh surrounding the written history of jazz.
Miller, who in seventh grade began playing alongside his father Dwight in the Pinstripes Brass Band, explains “In doing my research into New Orleans jazz bands and brass bands, and its intersection with everyday geographies, I realized none of this stuff had been written by black folks. One of the few things people of color are given credit for is the creation of jazz. I’m really big on history and this history was all second- and third-hand insight.”
Thus, Ecirb Müller was born.
“So the idea with Ecirb Müller is he’s this fictitious character who’s done all these great things for America,” say Miller of a jazzman who, according to EMTD’s Facebook page, was the first one labeled “baby daddy” (due to his 669 legitimate/369 illegitimate children and 21,169 great-grandchildren). He also introduced Palm Sunday customs to Seventh Ward creoles. “Anything that’s made America great, Ecirb Müller did it.”
“It’s about challenging our belief systems,” he continues on the concept, “while also being entertaining. Like Danny Barker, who I love. Ecirb Müller allows me to be as crazy as need be.”
Trumpeter and bandleader for EMTD, Miller adds that the name represents “a total democracy” and thus avoids the star-attraction status in the New Orleans tradition of Louis Armstrong and the Hot Five, Kermit Ruffins and the Barbecue Swingers, etc.
“It really comes down to the beats Frog [drummer David Wallace] makes with his drums that allows for our range of songs,” explains guitarist Ed Barrett, seated next to Miller in the Spotted Cat green room. “Frog is a pretty happening drummer, so with him we’re a jazz band, but we have these funky, rocking beats.”
“We aim to be not archival, but authentic,” adds Walsh, “playing the sound that’s coming out of New Orleans right now.”
Miller then explains that EMTD’s song ideas “come from me at 2 a.m. listening to music and sending out texts.” The far-ranging inspiration can vary from Michael Jackson songs applied with a go-go beat, featuring the bass line from “Down by the Riverside” to the rhythm guitar riffs in James Brown’s “I’m Black and I’m Proud.”
“During our cover of ‘All of Me,’” [Ruth Etting’s 1931 jazz/swing classic] Miller boasts, “somebody is going to twerk.”
“When you think about it,” he continues, “none of these things, musically or rhythmically, make sense. It’s the band’s objective to make it work—not just us riffing, but organized and composed. We take four measures and stretch it to eight measures, all as we rely on Frog to take it to a whole new sphere. It’s a challenge for everybody—but it’s a challenge we want.”
Spontaneous narratives—fantastically tall tales spun by Miller in the spirit of Ecirb Müller—separate each song, always beginning with the standard New Orleans BS starting point, “What had happened was …” with that phrase also forming the title of EMTD’s forthcoming debut album.
All acknowledging their sense of humble honor to play EMTD’s second Satchmo SummerFest—“It’s a privilege to do anything associated with Louis Armstrong,” Barrett says—the group’s approach to tackling the tunes of the jazz icon mirrors their overall social philosophy and musical vibe.
“Our set will ask: ‘What would Louis say in 2017?’” Brice explains of the gig, which will feature trombonist/vocalist Robert Harris (who was touring Europe at the time of this interview). “Yes, ‘What a Wonderful World,’ but also, ‘Hello, Brother,’ a powerful song of Louis’s from the late ’60s that’s still so relevant today. When I think about those lyrics, as an educated black man, sometimes I begin to cry. What he was saying is that we’re all brothers. And that’s what the essence of this band is.”
Ecirb Müller’s Twisted Dixie plays Satchmo SummerFest 6:20-7:30 p.m. Friday, August 4 on the Red Beans and Ricely Yours Stage.