To describe how the Dirty Dozen Brass Band has arrived at its 40th Anniversary, trumpet player Gregory Davis employs a tried-and true New Orleans-centric analogy: "It ends up being like a pot of gumbo - you drop in a little okra, drop in a little shrimp, you drop in some crabs. Before you know it, you've mixed in all these different ingredients and you've got a beautiful soup. That was our approach to music early on and it still is today."|
Baritone sax player Roger Lewis - who, like Davis, has been with the combo since its inception in 1977 - echoes that sentiment: "It's a big old musical gumbo, and that probably made the difference, separating us from other brass bands out of New Orleans. It put a different twist on the music. We were not trying to change anything, we were just playing the music we wanted to play and not stay in one particular bag."
An appetite for musicological adventure, a commitment to honor tradition while not being constrained by it, and a healthy sense of humor have brought the world-traveling Dirty Dozen Brass Band to this remarkable juncture in an already storied career. The current Dirty Dozen lineup includes Davis, Lewis, tenor-sax man Kevin Harris, trumpeter Efrem Towns, sousaphonist Kirk Joseph, drummer Terence Higgins and guitarist Jake Eckert.
While traditional numbers infused with a DDBB flavor have always been crowd-pleasing staples of the group's repertoire, it's the Dirty Dozen Brass Band's willingness to look beyond the New Orleans songbook and find connections amongst a wider range of music that has endeared them to critics, fellow musicians and a multi-generational, global audience. They've been embraced enthusiastically by the jam-band followers at Bonnaroo as well as by the devotees who flock to the yearly New Orleans Jazz Fest. Acts like the Black Crowes and Widespread Panic have taken them on tour and artists from Dizzy Gillespie to Elvis Costello to Norah Jones have joined them in the studio. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, DDBB participated in the From the Big Apple To The Big Easy benefit at New York City's Madison Square Garden and offered its own response to the aftermath of the disaster with an acclaimed 2006 song-by-song remake of Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On." Their music has been featured on the HBO series Treme, named after the New Orleans mid-city neighborhood where the band had formed, and the group performed on screen with Galactic and rapper Juvenile in Season 2. New Orleans remains a wellspring of musical inspiration and DDBB is a living, breathing embodiment of the continued vitality and evolution of the sounds of the city.
But, Davis cautions, "We've never been the norm, even though we started out as a traditional New Orleans brass band. In the beginning we weren't getting work of any kind, so we thought it was okay to explore other music. That allowed us as individuals to bring ourselves into the rehearsals and that's where we started to experiment. At the time the band started, I was a student at Loyola University and we were all being introduced to other music - to jazz from the twentieth century and so on. It's impossible to think that you can be exposed to the harmonies that Duke Ellington was making, the rhythms coming from Dizzy Gillespie or the funk being done by James Brown, and then ignore it when you're playing New Orleans music. New Orleans music is all of that. If we had chosen to just put in the music presented to us then as traditional, it would have stunted our growth. Being more than what we heard is what the band was about."
For mainstays like Davis and Lewis, 40 years have passed in the blink of an eye, as Lewis, who also sits in with several other NOLA combos, acknowledges in an interview from 5 years ago: "Check it out - I'm 70 years old, I'm the oldest dude in the band - I'm the oldest dude in everybody's band, now that I think about it. I don't know where the time went. I guess it's just the music, man, you don't be thinking about all that. I've been in it 35 straight years. The reason why the band stayed together for so long, despite all we've gone through, it's the right chemistry. We're trying to make it do what it do. If we have this conversation when I'm 80, we'll still be trying to make it do what it do."
"As we continue to do live shows," Davis concludes, "the challenge is still going to be, how am I going to entertain these people that are in front of me tonight? You have to make that happen at the moment, and that's what we do best."
- Michael Hill
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