Nearly two years ago, a YouTube video went New Orleans-viral. Against a percolating sousaphone groove, five horn players—two trumpets, two saxophones and a trombonist—form a line under an impossibly low drop ceiling. Dancers crowd a tiny space in front of the band. There is no stage.
The players look vaguely familiar; the melody of the song is instantly recognizable. But everything else about the scene, from the clothes on the dancers and their moves to the low-resolution image, indicates this footage was shot a long time ago. The song is “Bongo Beep,” a modern jazz classic by arguably the greatest bebop composer in jazz history—Charlie Parker, and the band is the Dirty Dozen Brass Band.
This footage was shot in 1982 by the legendary musicologist Alan Lomax at a back o’ town bar called the Glass House in Central City. Incredibly, the Dozen had already been together for five years, and were already changing the concept of the New Orleans brass band by integrating modern jazz, R&B and soul into the traditional sounds. Even more incredibly, half of musicians in the grainy video are still in the band.
Last year, the band began celebrating its 35th anniversary, and released Twenty Dozen, their thirteenth album of new music. Since forming, they revolutionized the brass band idiom paving the way for a brass band revival in New Orleans that began with the formation of the Rebirth Brass Band, and continues unabated with new bands popping up with each new generation of musicians.
Gregory Davis, the trumpet-playing leader and one of the founders of the band, said “To have the opportunity to work with the same group of guys has made it easier to keep the whole thing together. It’s like being married. There are ups and down, but once we get on stage, it’s still those guys.”
Through the years, Davis, along with trumpeter Efrem Towns, baritone saxophonist Roger Lewis and tenor saxophonist Kevin Harris, have been the constants. Sousaphonist Kirk Joseph, a founding member who helped define the band’s sound in its early days with his groundbreaking approach to his instrument, left the band for a period, but is back in the fold.
However, there have been considerable changes in the membership over the years. The first major realignment took place in 1996 when the snare drummer and bass drummer, Jenell Marshall and Lionel Batiste, Jr., left the band. When the group tried to replace the rhythm team they were faced with a quandary. No other percussion duo could replicate their musical cohesion.
“We knew that the drum situation was going to change. We thought about trying to bring in another snare and bass drummer. (But) they were so tight; it was like having a drum kit. So we said maybe the only way is to get one guy to play the kit,” Davis reflected. That led to Terence Higgins’ seventeen-year tenure with the band.
Davis also spent some time as a part-time member. Around 1998 he began working as a booker for the Jazz Fest as well as getting involved in other aspects of the music business. “It got to a point where I got really busy, real fast and realized within a few weeks that I wasn’t going to be able to do (all) the road work,” he said.
The band now has three new members—trombonist David Harris, drummer Alvin Ford, Jr. and keyboardist Kyle Roussel. Davis has high praise for all three young musicians. “We’d been talking about how we were missing that trombone sound. Having David around, subbing, reminded us of that big fat bottom that was part of the signature of the band.
“He’s 23 years old, the age of my youngest daughter,” said Davis about Ford, Jr. “He has such a great energy about him. It reminded us of when we were auditioning Terence seventeen years ago.”
Roussel is also in his early twenties. “The energy that he generates on keyboards…he comes from the church, so he has the whole gospel feeling and touch, plus jazz and R&B chops,” Davis said.
Having a keyboard in the band is nothing new. Richard Knox, a veteran player who was a member of Kermit Ruffins and the BBQ Swingers, logged some time with the Dirty Dozen. He is part of an illustrious list of musicians that have been in the band including guitarist Carl LeBlanc (Preservation Hall Jazz Band), trombonist Sam Williams (Big Sam’s Funky Nation) and guitarist Jake Eckert (New Orleans Suspects).
Roussel has a perfect vantage point to reflect on the tenure of the band. “When you look back on the history of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, and what they have done with New Orleans music, to be a part that lineage is an honor,” he said. He also has a musician’s sense of what makes them so special. “Everyone in the band has a different voice and brings a different energy to the table. All those energies together make a one- of-a-kind sound…it all fits together in a perfect little puzzle. I remember it from the first gig—everyone was different, but fit in perfectly.”
The story of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band that traces a career arc from their birth in the Tremé neighborhood to worldwide fame also includes the canard that the band’s innovations were met with disapproval when they were starting out. “The only backlash, if there was any at all, came from some of the older musicians at the time. It was never from the community,” Davis said. “Danny Barker and ‘Frog’ Joseph supported us,” he added.
The musical developments that eventually changed the face of traditional brass band music, leading to the current day where hip-hop is part of the mix, weren’t planned. “We were rehearsing a lot; we didn’t get a lot of gigs. We weren’t doing it to be radical. We were playing stuff (in rehearsal) like ‘Caravan,’ ‘Bongo Beep,’ throwing in Aretha… Ray Charles, Duke Ellington,” Davis remembered. “The truth is, when we would get a gig, playing for the people who hired us at a parade, (they) loved it so much. (One time) we were just warming up, playing ‘Bongo Beep,’ (and) they asked us to play it, and we ended up playing it eight or ten times on the parade.”
This led to an insight that has driven the band to collaborations with everyone from Dizzy Gillespie and Elvis Costello to the Grateful Dead and Widespread Panic, including the Neville Brothers, the Black Crowes, Norah Jones, DJ Logic, the Manhattan Transfer and many others. They have collaborated since the beginning, and new relationships are always on the horizon. “For us, at some point it became all music. It was not just brass band music or second line music. I wanted early on to have the opportunity to put the music on the stage. If it was only viewed as parade music, then you can’t get in front of a large group of people.”
Davis changed his approach for dealing with the band’s business arrangements. “I started to say, ‘Mr. Promoter, you can book us and you want us to do a parade, and we will. But give us something in return. Give us fifteen or twenty minutes on stage either at the beginning or the end (of the show).’ That way we can present on stage, and let other people hear what we were doing in a stage presentation. It worked, we were able to get the gigs.”
One of the first times that this arrangement occurred was when they appeared with the Grateful Dead. “Because of our connection with the Nevilles, we were able to make that kind of thing happen. We were able to demonstrate that it’s all music, we’re musicians, and eventually we were just playing everything with everybody,” Davis said.
This ability to play it all with anybody has not been lost of the three young musicians that all joined the band within the last year or so. Roussel said, “We definitely have a connection with what we are trying to do with the music. I feel like the Dirty Dozen has always strived to be a cutting edge band. We are bringing in songs (for the band to learn). It will continue to be progressive, and will continue to grow.”
The Dirty Dozen Brass Band has become an institution that represents New Orleans all across the world. Their songs have become standards. The Tin Men do a blazing version of “Blackbird Special” that many young people are unaware is a Dozen original. Roussel said, “I feel that guys my age don’t really know about the contributions of the Dirty Dozen. They don’t really understand where that comes from. They don’t know the history. They are kind of underrated for guys my age.”
Davis for his part is gratified. “I think that I have been very, very blessed to be in a unique position. I got a chance to see the growth of bands that came after us, the Rebirth, New Birth, Stooges. The state (of the brass band) is really, really healthy,” he said.
He does have one request though. “Most people, critics, aficionados, want to classify us as a brass band. My hope is that one day, in my own city, those who are supposed to know will not restrict us to being only a brass band. We started as a brass band…. but what we became is so much more than that.”
View the Glass House video here: