Dirty Dozen Brass Band at Jazzfest 2013 - "Blackbird Special"
Edtitor’s Note: This story first appeared in the Dec. 31, 2014 edition of The Aspen Times; the band played a New Year’s Eve show at the Wheeler Opera House.
The Dirty Dozen Brass Band has become a stalwart of the New Orleans brass sound since its formation 37 years ago, and a global torch-bearer for jazz. But early on, the band were looked at as disrespectful interlopers in the Crescent City.
“There was a time when we were the new kids on the block and what separated us from the bands of old was that we weren’t afraid to change and play different styles of music and play it on the streets,” said Dirty Dozen saxophone player and singer Roger Lewis.
The band integrated the sounds of funk and bebop into their exuberant sets, bringing a youthful new energy to the brass tradition of New Orleans. Today, that inclusive sound is heard in bands across the city in popular acts like the Rebirth Brass Band, Hot 8 Brass Band and the Soul Rebels. Today, it is the sound of New Orleans music. But, as Lewis recalled, he and his band mates were criticized in the late ‘70s for desecrating the New Orleans sound.
“Some of the older musicians, the so-called traditional musicians, didn’t care for what we were doing,” Lewis recalled. “They would say we were changing the tradition of New Orleans music. But New Orleans music is always going to be New Orleans music – we were just New Orleans musicians experimenting with different sounds. And we weren’t afraid to bring it to the streets.”
At second lines and on street corners — and eventually in clubs — Dirty Dozen played energetic, party-friendly arrangements of songs like Duke Ellington’s “Caravan,” Jimmy Forrest’s “Night Train” and Charlie Parker’s “Bongo Beep” with trumpet, sax, sousaphone and trombone blaring.
“We’d play all this music along with the traditional music of New Orleans and our original compositions, and picking up the beat slightly depending on what we had earlier before the gig,” Lewis said with a laugh. “The streets are the proving ground. If you can make them dance, you can play anything.”
Those early shows caught on in New Orleans and caught the attention of producer George Wein, who began promoting the band and bringing them around the world, booking their first international gig in 1982 at a festival in the Netherlands. In the decades since, Dirty Dozen has spent most of the year on the road.
Their inclusive approach to music has brought them on the road with jam-band Widespread Panic and seen them guest-playing on albums by rock band Modest Mouse, while Dirty Dozen’s own records have included a varied cast with guest spots from the likes of Dr. John, John Medeski, Robert Randolph and Norah Jones.
Lewis’ enthusiasm for the music hasn’t waned with the decades. When he picked up the phone for our interview, a few stray saxophone notes came over the line. He laughed and said, “I was just blowing my horn – you caught me in the middle of a little jam session with myself.”
He credits the band’s far-reaching sound for keeping them engaged and keeping the shows lively through the years (these days, a Dirty Dozen live set also includes bits of comedy, like the Lewis-led audience participation on “Dirty Old Man”).
“The music will always keep you fresh,” he said, “because there are always so many styles of music coming from people in the band.”
Through the years, Dirty Dozen has made regular swings through Colorado, playing Denver and mountain towns like Aspen. Lewis calls Colorado the band’s biggest fan base in the U.S.
“We love Colorado, that’s one of our favorite places on the planet,” Lewis said. “People love the music up there. It’s something about the spirit in the music. … The people see that we’re real people who are approachable, we like to party, and what can I say? People pick up on that.”
— Andrew Travers
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