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Play Dirty 

New Orleans band adds sass to the brass

New Orleans: a city of life, a leading city for death, the birthplace of jazz, a bastion of voodoo and a celebrator of the Savior. The Crescent City spins on a loose wheel of possibilities. Fortunately for the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, the wheel has maintained its integrity. But that doesn't mean they're not ripe with colorful contradictions. Some of their musical roots are secular and jazz-based, while their name is a dirty fabrication.

Dirty Dozen's music stems from the funeral tradition of New Orleans' black residents. When a member of the black community died, the body was led to the cemetery by a procession fronted by a marching band that played what was then New Orleans' most popular music: gospel. The tunes' tempos were slow and sad.

"It's a sad occasion," explains Roger Lewis, Dirty Dozen's baritone saxophonist. "You want to play it with a lot of feeling. You want to make it as sad as possible." As the procession reached the gates of the cemetery, the band parted, the coffin passed through, and the band picked up the tempo. The idea was to send the departed to heaven with a party behind them.

Funerals weren't the only parties that needed music in New Orleans. Street festivals were frequent, and musicians were in close contact with one another. Lewis met Charles Joseph and Benny Jones under those circumstances. In 1975, Jones, a snare drummer who was dialed into the marching community, assembled an early version of what would later become the Dirty Dozen. Lewis and Joseph wanted to take that music to the next level. "We started rehearsing by Charles Joseph's dad's house (Fred Waldron Joseph... famous trombonist... played with Satchmo)," recollects Lewis. "All day sometimes. We'd take a little chicken break, come back and hit it again. Everybody got a chance to play that music we'd always wanted to play. So we threw it in the pot. After a couple of months of rehearsing, it came out to what it is today."

"We never been a dozen," confesses Lewis. In fact, the band's name was derived from gigs at the Dirty Dozen Social and Pleasure Club. The Dozen has only seven members: Efram Towns plays trumpet; Kevin Harris, saxophone; Lewis, baritone sax; Sammie Williams, trombone; Julius McKee, sousaphone; Fredrick Sanders, keyboards; Terrence Higgens, drums; and James Mclean, guitar. The last three came along later in the band's history. Traditional brass bands don't have set drums, keyboards or guitars because they're primarily acoustic. Normally, there's a bass and snare drum in place of the set drums. This isn't the only liberty the Dozen take. When they first started performing, they added Duke Ellington and Charlie Parker ornaments inside traditional hymns. Over time, they added James Brown and Michael Jackson nuances to their tunes.

Deviation from traditional brass-band style was what catapulted the Dirty Dozen into world fame. Actually, some of the loft came from George Ween. Ween was the man responsible for the Dozen's first record, which was released under the Concord Label. Ween founded the New Orleans Heritage Jazz Festival, which later became the biggest music festival in the world. New Orleans wasn't the extent of Ween's domain; he ran festivals throughout the world and booked the Dozen on them. During the 70s, this gave the Dozen the exposure they needed to take their music to a global level.

Since then, the Dozen have performed in over 30 countries spanning five continents. Their success has also spawned groups like the ReBirth Brass Band, the New Birth Brass Band and the Hot 8's. They've shared the stage with Miles Davis, Elvis Costello, the Squirrel Nut Zippers, Branford and Wynton Marsalis, the Black Crows, Widespread Panic, Herbie Hancock, Dr. John, David Byrne and Dizzy Gillespie, to name a few. Meanwhile, their latest album, Medicated Magic (Ropeadope Records), includes guest appearances by Robert Randolph, DJ Logic, Olu Dara, Dr. John, Norah Jones and John Bell, and is produced by Craig Street (Madonna; Lucinda Williams; Cassandra Wilson).

"As musicians, you want to play everything that you've been exposed to," explains Lewis in regard to the band's innovative ways. "Hey, you in a band, you can do what you want to do. If you want to keep it the way it was for a hundred years, do it. If you want to change it, change it. If the people like it, roll with it. In our case, the people liked it." *

The Dirty Dozen Brass Band will perform Thursday, May 16, at the Visulite Theatre. Tickets cost $14. Call 958-9200 for more info.

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