From the first huffing bass notes from Kirk Joseph’s sousaphone tuba on the very first cut off the first album by the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, you know you’re about to be entranced for a lifetime. As a lost voice suddenly cries “I’m going crazy!” amid a background chant of “ooh, ahh,” the tune jumps into a voodoo swirl of New Orleans brass that’s simultaneously familiar and new. It’s party music from the streets of the Sixth Ward, with a detour through a New York bebop club.
“Blackbird Special,” from My Feet Can’t Fail Me Now, is now 27 years old, yet it sounds just as fresh as when it was first released, invigorating a New Orleans music scene that had badly needed some new blood. At the time, there had been plenty of longtime groups like the Greater Olympia Brass Band or the Tuxedo Brass Band still gigging, but with players in their 70s and 80s. In fact, the current Dirty Dozen came together in the late ’70s from a loose set of players called the Original Sixth Ward Dirty Dozen with bandleader Benny Jones, playing parades and the social club scene. But when saxophonist Roger Lewis joined them after years of playing rhythm and blues with the likes of Fats Domino, he had an interest in blowing with a horn-centric band that could take the music to a “whole ’nother level.”
“We were the young kids on the block at the time when we came along,” Lewis says. “We were playing all the traditional songs, but we started adding different influences like the music of Charlie Parker, Duke Ellington, Horace Silver, and Thelonious Monk—mixing it in with the traditional music of New Orleans. So we changed the music without trying to change the music. All we were trying to do is play the music that we probably didn’t have the opportunities to play in other bands, because when you play in some bands you gotta play whatever the bandleader wants to play. In our band, we could play whatever kind of music we wanted to play.”
Luckily, they caught the ear of George Wein, the legendary jazz music promoter who had founded the Newport Jazz Festival; he produced that first album in 1984. Recently re-released, it’s a testament to raw talent and new directions. It also brought the idea of pure dance music back to jazz after decades of exploration along the fringes of free improv and rock fusion. Listening to My Feet Can’t Fail Me Now today, even Lewis is struck by its frenetic energy.
“It was extremely fast—we couldn’t believe people were really dancing that fast off that music, man,” he says. “It was incredible how fast we were playing at the time, and people were actually dancing that fast. When people come out to hear the Dirty Dozen, they had better have their tennis shoes and jogging suits on because they’re gonna have a good workout!”
After that impressive debut, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band reinvented itself several times over, with a string of albums that jumped between labels (Concorde, Columbia, Rounder) and collaborators (Dr. John, Dizzy Gillespie, Guru). Some of the experiments hit (covering the Meters’ “Cissy Strut” with Robert Randolph, say) while others miss (adding DJ Logic’s scratching on the same album, Medicated Magic), but there’s nevertheless much the same energy there that propelled the group from the beginning. Today, though, they’re veteran players in a rejuvenated brass-band scene with younger groups following in their footsteps, like Rebirth Brass Band or the Youngblood Brass Band.
“When we were the freshest thing out there, all the kids followed our lead. And it still holds true even today,” says Lewis. “What I like about them is that everybody has their own thing. Even though they play Dirty Dozen, they have their own style of what they do. It’s just like when people listen to Charlie Parker—you’re not Charlie Parker, all you can do is borrow from Charlie Parker and mix in how you feel about the music.”
According to Lewis, not even a hurricane can knock out New Orleans’ musical spirit.
“Oh, the New Orleans music scene is fine! A lot of musicians have come back to the city, and it’s thriving. They’ve got a whole new street in New Orleans called Frenchmen Street—shhh, man, you can go down there and get some real good music, real good music, unamplified music, you know. All kind of hip groups play there, at Snug Harbor, one of the jazz clubs; you’ve got the Spotted Cat, the d.b.a., all these new clubs. It’s just a two-block strip. Good music, man, every night of the week.”