Dirty Dozen has the brass to update a classic
September 13, 2006
Thirty-five years ago, Marvin Gaye issued what is still the essential cry for social justice from the pop music corner: “What’s Going On” – with songs like “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology),” “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)” and the title track – was a plaintive, beautiful, almost desperate plea for peace and unity.Gaye’s words and music are powerful and enduring enough that two weeks ago the Dirty Dozen Brass Band revisited “What’s Going On.” The Dirty Dozen, the most prominent and long-running of the nationally recognized New Orleans brass bands, updated the original. The album opens with Public Enemy’s Chuck D rapping over a brass arrangement of the title song; new lyrics refer to Hurricane Katrina and failed Bush administration policies like No Child Left Behind; and the marriage of hip-hop and brass band – two elements Gaye didn’t have in mind – give the album a modern, from-the-street vibe.So what does the reworked version of the album reveal? That Gaye’s potent statement is still capable of making a difference? Or is it that nothing ever really changes, that even an artistic triumph like “What’s Going On” doesn’t amount to a hill of beans in the face of political corruption and incompetence and societal indifference to racism and inequality. As guest singer Bettye Lavette asks in “What’s Happening Brother,” “Are things really getting better?”
Roger Lewis, the 64-year-old who has been blowing baritone saxophone with the Dirty Dozen for 30-plus years, says it’s a little of both. The lifelong New Orleanian has witnessed, firsthand, the lack of protection for his hometown and the lack of progress in the wake of Katrina. He blamed class warfare and politics. But, he says, Gaye’s message is one for all times and all kinds of struggle and injustice.”His music wasn’t necessarily about New Orleans, but what was going on in the world,” said Lewis, who is living in the largely spared French Quarter after the destruction of his home in the Gentilly neighborhood. “At that time, it was the Vietnam War, racial segregation. But if you look at what’s going on now, all these wars, Iraq and all that bullshit, the world is not at peace.”He sang, ‘Who’s willing to save the world? Who’s willing to save the children?’ That’s deep. All these titles, all these songs this cat wrote – this man had a hell of a vision.”Meanwhile, those issues Gaye pinpointed in 1971 live on. “What’s Going On” became a classic of classics – and this mean old world kept on spinning.
“Nothing has changed,” said Lewis, who, as a member of Deacon Jones & the Ivories, backed Gaye on a tour of the South in the ’60s. “It’s so much politics being played; who’s looking at the big picture? There were no preparations for [Katrina], from the top of the heap to the bottom. If we have a real terrorist attack, we’re in a world of trouble. As smart as we are in this country, we’re that ignorant, too.”Being from New Orleans, the members of the Dirty Dozen know pain. But they also know the pleasure of turning sorrow into magic. The band’s previous album, 2004’s “Funeral for a Friend,” paid tribute to a band founder, “Tuba Fats” Lacen. With “What’s Going On,” the band expands its reach. (It also expands the brotherhood of musicians the band has collaborated with. On “What’s Going On,” guests G. Love and Chuck D join a list of Dirty Dozen partners that has included Widespread Panic, Modest Mouse, Norah Jones, Gov’t Mule and Elvis Costello.)”This is probably the first one we’ve done with a social message,” Lewis said. “And there’s a lot of strong emotional feeling for the band. A lot of us lost everything. The music has a strong feeling, kind of eerie, real soulful. Because so much stuff has happened.”There is a recognition in Lewis that, even if music can’t change the whole world, it can soothe one soul at a time. Despite being able to work up a good rant, Lewis said convincingly, “I don’t feel angry about anything.”
“I just can’t see what’s going on,” he continued, apparently not even aware of how Gaye’s words have sunk into the vocabulary. “I’m 64 years old, and I just can’t see why we can’t have peace in the world.”And, in a more conscious evocation of Gaye’s timeless message, Lewis concluded:”It makes you want to holler.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org