Dirty Dozen Brass Band to open JAS Café summer season over Food & Wine weekend
IF YOU GO …
Who: ‘A New Orleans Feast’ with Dirty Dozen Brass Band
Where: JAS Café at the Aspen Cooking School
When: Friday, June 15, 6:30 & 9:30 p.m.; Saturday, June 16, 6:30 & 9:45 p.m.
How much: $125
More info: The show includes dinner from Galatoire’s Restaurant in New Orleans.
It has been more than 40 years since the Dirty Dozen Brass Band broke the mold of New Orleans jazz and began its run as one of the Crescent City’s most cherished exports. But Dirty Dozen isn’t resting on its laurels.
“We want to keep improving and not just settling for the status quo, because when you do that the music gets stale,” Dirty Dozen singer, trumpeter and co-founder Gregory Davis said in a recent phone interview from New Orleans.
Stale music, in fact, is what inspired the iconic band to invent the euphoric, genre-bending sound of the contemporary brass band.
“We heard what it was like when the music, to a certain extent, stopped growing and when the traditional New Orleans jazz was stagnant when we got going,” Davis said, referring to the band’s origins in the mid-1970s. “There were not any young people involved in jazz. The guys playing it when we got involved were in their 50s and 60s. And disco had come in and the traditional New Orleans jazz wasn’t even being played on the radio.”
Davis traced the band’s groundbreaking sound to its early rehearsals in disco-era New Orleans, when — though this is hard to imagine — opportunities for jazz musicians were hard to come by in the city. Davis, then a student at Loyola University in uptown New Orleans, was gigging with funk bands and R&B acts but was itching to play the jazz he’d been digging into.
“We were saying, ‘Man, what a shame to study all this stuff and not be able to perform it,’” Davis recalled. “So the Dirty Dozen became that. It was a laboratory for us to be able to play and experiment.”
He and a crew of fellow college students from around the city started hanging out and rehearsing the material they wanted to play but for which they didn’t have a venue.
“Once we got comfortable in the rehearsals we started bringing other stuff — bebop, some modern jazz from Miles Davis or some Marvin Gaye or Aretha Franklin,” Davis recalled. “Whatever anybody wanted to bring to the rehearsals, that’s what we rehearsed. That ended up being what turned out to be Dirty Dozen.”
They took their name from the Dirty Dozen Social Aid and Pleasure Club, which started putting the young band to work at jazz funerals and second-lines.
The Dirty Dozen sound — with trumpets, saxophones, sousaphone and drums blaring — connected with audiences from the moment Davis and company started playing it in public. Davis pointed to an early second-line parade as a turning point. He and his band mates were rehearsing on the street, getting ready for the parade to roll, and one of the band mates called for “Night Train” — the jazz standard reinvigorated and popularized by James Brown — and it sent the crowd into frenzy.
“That encouraged us to say, ‘Well, it works, people like it, so let’s continue doing it,’” Davis recalled.
Then they busted out their take on Charlie Parker’s “Bongo Beep,” which convinced Davis they were on to something.
“We probably ended up playing it eight or nine times,” Davis said with a laugh. “That was unusual to play it that many times over and over. But we got tighter and tighter and the crowds — these second-liners — it was something new for them to hear, so we kept doing it.”
It was a shot in the heart for brass music, connecting it to the contemporary sounds of funk and R&B and, before too long, hip-hop. In the years that followed, the band became an in-demand act around the world and made classic records like their 1984 debut “My Feet Can’t Fail Me Now,” they inspired new generations of brass bands — from Rebirth to the Hot 8 — and teamed with collaborators from Dizzy Gillespie to Elvis Costello to Widespread Panic and Modest Mouse.
Over Food & Wine Classic weekend in Aspen, the legendary band will play a two-night, four-show stand at the JAS Cafe, opening a 15-artist summer lineup at the multi-venue jazz series running through Aug. 19.
Billed “A New Orleans Feast,” the shows will be paired with dinner from Galatoire’s — the world-renowned Bourbon Street restaurant — with signature dishes including shrimp remoulade, crab Maison, duck and andouille gumbo and bread pudding.
The core of Dirty Dozen remains with original members Davis, Roger Lewis, Kevin Harris and Kirk Joseph. Keeping the band going, and keeping its members creatively fresh, Davis said, relies on working on other projects and solo material.
“By getting involved in other stuff, you are exposed to new things, so when we do come together it keeps it fresh and puts a new spin on whatever we’re playing — even if it is one of the old songs,” he said.
These days, the legend of Dirty Dozen precedes the band on its frequent world tours. Audiences in far-flung locales like Aspen show up ready to party. But that wasn’t always the case, Davis said. In the days before the band’s international reputation was solidified, those shows could be dicey.
Dirty Dozen began touring beyond New Orleans in the mid-1980s. Davis recalled their first gig in London, opening for Fats Domino at Royal Albert Hall. Despite their usual high-energy, crowd-friendly blast of brass, the show flopped.
“The audience may have applauded for all of 10 seconds,” Davis recalled. “We couldn’t believe it.”
Those kinds of experiences fueled the band’s showmanship and its notoriously crowd-pleasing shows. They’ll still do whatever they can to win over a crowd.
“We don’t have to work as hard to get people involved as in the beginning,” Davis said. “But of course if that’s what it takes to get people involved, that’s what we are going to do. I want to make sure that people are having a good time the whole time. I want to be exhausted and sweaty and wet by the time it’s over. And when they’re having a good time, so am I.”
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