In Sweet Home New Orleans’ recent State of the Music Community report, it found that while musicians in general were struggling, the brass band community was in relatively good shape. The mainstays are playing regularly and new brass bands are emerging. It wasn’t always that way. Recently, Tulane Assistant Professor in Music Matt Sakakeeny conducted an oral history session with members of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, who remembered the brass band tradition as one that was endangered when they started in the mid-1970s. This is an excerpt from that oral history, part of the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities’ series “As Told by Themselves.”
What was the brass band scene like as Dirty Dozen was forming?
Gregory Davis: As I remember, there weren’t many brass bands happening. When we got started, it was kind of the height of the disco era. Right after disco started dying out, everybody wanted to be an urban cowboy. So there really wasn’t much happening for wind instruments. Danny Barker put his hand on it to get the Hurricane Brass Band started; the most prominent person in that band at that time was Leroy Jones. He came from the Fairview.
Kevin Harris: Fairview was a Baptist church. And Rev. (Andrew) Darby was the preacher. I think Mr. Barker went through the church so we could have the permits to be able to play in the French Quarter.
Davis: I grew up in the St. Bernard Housing Project, which was near Fairview Baptist Church. Danny Barker lived near that area, and so did Leroy and Kevin.
Roger Lewis: I was in the first Fairview Baptist Church band with Leroy and few other people, people who don’t play music these days. The whole idea was to get the kids involved in something as well as anybody who really wanted to play the music because the music was starting to die off and there weren’t too many people involved. His idea was to get everybody involved, get the church behind the bands and different things like that.
Davis: When I was in high school, everybody was in some kind of R&B and funk band. When Fairview started playing, people started gravitating toward that. The disco and urban cowboy started trickling and led to the Dirty Dozen. It was like a rehearsal effort that was happening all the time. We could get a gig every now and then. It wasn’t about getting gigs or trying to make any money; it was about playing music.
Lewis: I think we’re different than traditional New Orleans music. You know we wanted to play the music that we were growing up with. We were listening to avant-garde bands, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, things like that. We wanted to learn that kind of music and open up the music thing for some of the people. So they could hear something a little different and see how that works on the street. And basically, it just took off from there.
Efrem Townes: In New Orleans we have a great culture out here. The music is just one side of it. So we were always able to have a market to play due to the culture. We once had a card that said, “Anything from birthdays to funerals,” so there was always some kind of avenue to be able to perform. We’ve played baseball games, baby showers, everything back in the day.
Funk and modern jazz was in the air and it seems like you guys were grabbing onto that and bringing it out to the street I’m guessing.
Davis: We were rehearsing a lot of stuff, but didn’t have anywhere to play. Guys started bringing different songs to rehearsals; whatever anybody wanted to play, that’s what we rehearsed. Most gigs at the time were the Sunday afternoon second line parade, or we would get a funeral every now and then. But obviously, we couldn’t book funerals in advance.
I recall—and I could be wrong—one of the first tunes that we played that was not a traditional song. I think Roger brought “Night Train” to the rehearsal. I think we were getting ready to do the Saint Joseph Day parades on the bayou, and we were warming up and played that. People thought that was amazing that somebody was playing “Night Train.” We added a bongo beat and stuff like that. To us, it was just music that we wanted to play.
Townes: New Orleans music tends to grow. It constantly evolves. I think our crowd evolved along with us playing the music, so we all grew up together. And to this day, music still evolves as we speak.
Harris: One of the first places that we did play was this club called Daryl’s that was on St. Anthony. I stayed just a few blocks off, and every time I got off work—I used to drive a tow truck—Charles would come grab me and pull me and say, “Come on, man. You ain’t doing nothing. Come on out there!” That’s basically what got me into the band. I would just pull up in a tow truck to Daryl’s, and go straight in there with my horn.
Some say Dirty Dozen helped bring brass band music from the streets to the stage. Was there brass band music in the clubs?
Davis: Not really. At the time—
Harris: —most bands had to travel.
Davis: Actually, the only brass band that was doing anything was the Olympia Brass Band, you know, as far as traveling around the U.S. and internationally. And I know I was hired—I’m sure some of these guys too—as a sideman with Olympia every now and then. I never made any of the international trips, but I made some of the regional stuff with them. For a lot of the other guys who had any idea about wanting to play in a brass band, the standard was the Olympia Brass Band.
But here in New Orleans, it wouldn’t necessarily be a regular thing to see Olympia playing at Daryl’s.
I can’t remember how we ended up in Daryl’s. But the Glass House, we ended up in there because one of the clubs had a parade, and after the parade, they wanted us to play a little while longer. So we did on a Sunday, and they sold all the alcohol they had in the place. So after we had done the parade, that Monday they asked us to come and play a few numbers after they had their meeting where they would serve red beans and chicken and whatever. We played that, and they sold everything again on that Monday. So that led to us getting that regular Monday night gig at the Glass House.
Tell me about the Glass House.
Townes: It’s Uptown on Saratoga between 2nd and 3rd streets. And at the Glass House, it was always Christmas time. Christmas year ’round, 365, seven days a week. The Christmas ornaments never came down. It was a small place, but I tell you, I’ve seen some legendary stuff go down in the Glass House. Davis: New Orleans had the Blue Room at the Fairmont, and that was the place that would bring in national acts. But when they would finish their gig up at the Blue Room, a lot of them would come hang out at the Glass House.
Lewis: Fats Domino came.
Davis: Fats Domino came through there, even the Red Hot Chili Peppers came through there. Everybody used to come to the Glass House. It could probably hold 25-30 people. But it ended up being that we’d do 150, 200 people on a Monday night.
Townes: This group of dancers— Smitty and Sugar Slim—these guys used to do some dances with the music, and whoooo, their knees were parallel to their chin! It was a very physical form of dancing, but it was beautiful to watch because they coincided the dancing with everything we played. You were actually relating to someone, speaking to them, and they would respond to it by persuading their body to do different things, and it was very beautiful to watch.
(To the audience) You might be able to get a little taste of it because Alan Lomax came and shot a documentary back then. 1988 maybe. (Documentary plays) (To the band) We can see Kirk and Charles (Joseph) in there. You’ve already mentioned how the front line brought this modern jazz, I don’t know if people understand how revolutionary that was, but what the rhythm section was doing was really rewriting the brass band and really making that more prominent.
Harris: Well Kirk played rhythm changes on the bass. It wasn’t typical BOOM boom BOOM boom. And the horns, we pretty much do what the vocalists do. We did the melodies, and the rhythm was constantly enhanced by what we were doing. But it’s definitely different from what had been happening because Kirk had the concept of playing those rhythm changes, playing the moving bass parts.
Davis: What set the direction was the selection of the repertoire. Since we didn’t have any gigs that were really happening, whatever we wanted to rehearse, that’s what we rehearsed. When we started to play some of the other music, yeah some people were upset because it wasn’t the socalled traditional New Orleans brass, or traditional New Orleans jazz music. But what encouraged us were some of the older guys like “Frog” Joseph encouraged us—we used to rehearse at his house—and Danny Barker encouraged us. It was that younger generation at the time wanted to hear what they were terming “new music,” but we were really just playing some of the music that had already been played by other people. And that rhythm section that existed then—on that clip was Kirk Joseph, Jenell Marshall, and I think Lionel Batiste—once they were able to jell, that just pushed us even further.
Townes: We did learn a lot of traditional New Orleans tunes, but the clientele we were working for liked what we were doing, so we didn’t play a lot of those traditional tunes that we have heard over the years. But many times, and to the day we still play a lot of traditional songs.
You’ve also added to the tradition yourself. As far as I know, one of the first recordings you ever made included two great songs: “My Feet Can’t Fail Me Now” and “Blackbird Special,” which are Dirty Dozen through and through. Am I right?
Davis: Yeah, some of those songs that we developed. “My Feet Can’t Fail Me Now,” I think we started doing that at Daryl’s on Thursday nights, and it wasn’t that we said, “Okay, you play this, you play this.” Somebody started something and then we added to it. Maybe the second or third time through, we put it together, but a lot of the stuff we did was really spontaneous.
Townes: I think Tool Man had a lot to do with “Feet.”
Townes: Tool Man. He’s a guy in a wheelchair who danced. He couldn’t stand up and dance, so he said his feet couldn’t fail him now. You might see some guys in wheelchairs do their stuff, but this is the first guy I’ve actually seen keep rhythm in a wheelchair, dancing right in the middle of the Glass House. You had to see it to believe it.
(Plays “Blackbird Special”) Can you second line that fast?
Townes: They were doing it at this speed!
Harris: The guys at the Glass House, it was almost like if you saw the Charlie Brown cartoon—I can’t remember the cat’s name—but he’s dancing and running and you can see his feet flashing. That’s how they used to dance. We did play a show one time at the Municipal Auditorium.
Davis: Don’t talk about that! (Laughter)
Harris: There was a guy who was beyond 40. He actually had a heart attack on the floor. Now we try to laugh and joke about it, but people were actually moving that fast trying to dance to it.
That whole record is very energetic. Maybe you could tell us why this is the record that maybe not only broke Dirty Dozen but also broke brass band music to the world.
Davis: George Wein of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival had a series on the Concord labels, and we were one of the acts that he signed. He gave us the money and said, “Go make a record.” We picked songs that we had already been playing, so we didn’t have to spend a whole lot of time figuring out what we were going to play.
Harris: Took three days in Bogalusa.
What happened when this record broke? Dirty Dozen seemed all of the sudden to be not just a New Orleans band but a touring band.
Davis: Doing the record for George Wein didn’t hurt because at that time Festival Productions were probably doing 60-65 festivals worldwide. They were doing stuff all over the place.
So the deal was we were going to go out for two weeks, two-and-a-half weeks. A few dates in New York then go to Europe for a few dates and then go back to New Orleans. That two-week trip turned into about a seven or eight-week trip. We spent about six weeks at the famous Village Gate, and stayed at the Edison Hotel at 47th and Broadway, we stayed up a long time. Stuff kept happening. By the time we got back to New Orleans after staying in New York six seven eight weeks, there was another call to go out to California to do a tour. That tour was three or four weeks, then by the time we got back from that there was a call to go over to Europe to do something. It started rolling, and it kept going.
One of those famous early gigs was recorded, Live: Mardi Gras at Montreux.
Townes: Which was about three o clock in the morning.
Harris: I think we got in there about eleven?
Townes: It was one of the marathon days, “Tour de Switzerland”.
Davis: I remember that at the time we started all this traveling, my oldest daughter was in kindergarten or something, and all the kids had to tell what their parents do. My daughter told her teacher that I worked at the airport. (laughter) Because it was always a situation where they were either dropping me off or picking me up. It was happening just that fast.