While New Orleans remains in a post-Katrina funk, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band is alive, well and in its usual Crescent City state of funk, soul and spirituality. Though their home base of New Orleans is a mess, DDBB is not. All members are doing OK; unfortunately, you can't say the same of their homes and well-being.
The Dirty Dozen is a 10-member aggregation of loose yet highly polished New Orleans musical genre-benders who take brass-band trad to a whole new level. Combining punchy, earthy spirituals with soul-searching dirges, the band is the epitome of Creole soul. Together for decades, the ensemble has joined with the likes of Elvis Costello, Modest Mouse, Dr. John and Dave Matthews. Many other artists, including the Black Crowes, Branford Marsalis, David Bowie, Joe Henry, Aaron Neville, Gov't Mule and Widespread Panic, also have employed DDBB's services.
Speaking by phone last month from his temporary home in Vicksburg, MS, sax player Roger Lewis said he was ready to get back home.
"Vicksburg's temporary. I'm not planning on staying here. We're planning to go back (to New Orleans)," Lewis said.
The Dozen formed in April 1977 as a combination social club and funeral band, providing sober musical arrangements for the recently departed. The minute a casket was out of sight, the band would kick into a second line repertoire of jubilant, thumping, syncopated, marching jazz, creating a parade for mourners and onlookers alike. At the time the musicians were starting out, the funeral band was a dying tradition. So the Dozen began reinventing the music, making up their own rules, combining new influences, picking up the beat and, according to Lewis, "putting all this in one package, like a musical gumbo.
"Thirty years ago, we listened to everything: John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, James Brown and Michael Jackson. We listened to bebop plus the music of our city, which is hymns, gospel, basically everything. We kept an open mind," Lewis said. "We still listen to everything. We jump all over the place. We don't care what it is."
Besides Lewis, band members are Gregory Davis on trumpet, Sammie Williams on trombone, Kevin Harris on tenor sax, Efrem Towns on trumpet and flugelhorn and Julius McKee, Kirk Joseph and Jeffrey Hills, Sr. each on sousaphone. The band also features Jamie McLean on guitar and Terence Higgins on drums. Lewis said after Katrina hit, the band members scattered. "Efrem Towns is in Washington, DC; Jamie McLean is in New York; Kevin Harris is in Baton Rouge and Sammie Williams in Jackson, Mississippi." Other band members are in Houston and Atlanta. "We come together the best we can," Lewis said. "We play a lot. We're always on tour."
Lewis has a unique vantage point regarding what's happened in New Orleans. "At the beginning of this madness, all the governments kind of failed. They didn't act fast enough, didn't respond to the catastrophe fast enough. What would happen in a real terrorist attack? We'd be in a bad way."
Regarding his own property, Lewis said, "My house had four feet of water in it. It's in the Edgewood area. My family's house had four feet of water. We're still trying to dry it out."
For a long time music has been the healer for Lewis and company, and now it's more important than ever. Of the DDBB's dozen-plus recordings, Lewis said he doesn't have a favorite, "I kinda like them all. They're all good," he said. "I really like My Feet Can't Fail Me Now (1984). We practiced hard then. Also, Whatcha Gonna Do For the Rest of Your Life? (1991)."
Lewis said he especially likes last year's Funeral For a Friend (2004), a poignant memorial to fellow musician Tuba Fats Lacen. He described the sound: "It has a feeling of a real jazz funeral. Bringing the coffin out of the church, into the hearse. We play the slow music for that time; a dirge, hymns, too.
"As the last car passes on the way to the cemetery, then it's strike-up-the-band time and it's more uptempo and second line," he continued. "Everyone is dancing all the way back." Songs like "John the Revelator" and "Jesus on the Mainline" are as rapturous as they are redemptive. Besides the pervasive horns are some swampy slide guitar and atmospheric accordion fills.
The Dozen's songs combine brilliant riffs and runs starting in familiar, standard territory; then, in the manner of all African American music, the music invariably takes you higher and higher before miraculously returning you to earth. You hear ghosts of Cab Calloway followed by atonal, Frank Zappa-like horn riffs, all with down-home, bayou textures.
Collection, a relatively recent set of songs, is a snappy overview of the band's various recordings, though Lewis said he wonders why certain tunes were selected: "It's a wide variety of all the stuff we did, though not necessarily the best."
Lewis said he remains unbowed by the calamity of Hurricane Katrina: "New Orleans will come back. There's always someone wanting to go there. I think it'll take 15 or 20 years. Some people aren't coming back; that might be good, you know." And about the city's music: "We try to play something for your mind, your body and your soul."
The Dirty Dozen Brass Band plays at the Visulite Theatre on Friday, Dec. 30, at 10 pm. Tickets are $16 in advance, $18 the day of the show, available at 704-358-9200 or www.visulite.com