Hear, and dance to, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Friday night (Dec. 20) at George Street Grocery.
A Big Easy moment: Wandering down Decatur Street toward the Café du Monde, I pick up the sweet refrains of a brass band. The band is standing on the corner, kickin' it in high gear, each member firing out a hot solo, daring the next to improve upon the moment. A crowd gathers, swaying, clapping and singing along, and soon the whole group is groovin' like a Tuesday night at the Maple Leaf Bar. Finishing the song to thunderous ovation, the band spreads out in a line formation. "Y'all wanna second line?" the tuba player asks. Handkerchiefs and umbrellas whip out of nowhere, and we play "follow the leader" toward the Moonwalk overlooking Big Muddy.
Jacksonians won't have to go to New Orleans this Christmas season to experience the exhilarating joys of a brass band. One of New Orleans' classic groups, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, will perform at George Street Grocery Dec. 20.
I first heard the Dirty Dozen more than a dozen years ago in my own living room in Ridgeland. I was listening to WJSU one sunny spring day, when suddenly the room filled with the strains of the Rolling Stones' "All Over Now. " But it was all done in brass and featured a Dr. John vocal. I'll never forget the feeling it gave me. I danced right out the door to buy their album, "Voodoo."
Brass bands have been a part of Southern Louisiana culture for more than 150 years, chronicled as early as 1850. Every small town has had its brass band, made up of firemen, police officers, high school and civic groups that gather and play to commemorate patriotic holidays. In the Big Easy, brass is a way of life.
A brass-band funeral is one of the rituals of everyday life in New Orleans, giving a dearly departed a rousing sendoff and spreading joy among the mourners. For the recent jazz funeral of R&B great Ernie K-Doe, most of the city's brass came together to give Mr. "Mother-In-Law" a heavenly hello. I've had more than a few friends wish for an authentic New Orleans jazz funeral when they pass. Horror novelist Anne Rice has already had a couple of them on her way to book signings from Lafayette Cemetery No. 2 to the Garden District Bookshop.
New Orleans' social aid and pleasure clubs depend on the men and women of brass to lead them in their annual parades throughout their neighborhoods. Brass bands herald Mardi Gras parades, Mother's Day marches, Mardi Gras Indians, grand openings, festivals and even Mal's St. Paddy's Parade here in Jackson.
In the early days, members of a marching unit dressed alike in white shirt, black tie, and black or white captain's hat with the band's name across the front. Black pants and coat completed the uniform. Groups like the Camelia, The Hurricanes, The Eureka, The Excelsior, The Onward, The Reliance and the Young Tuxedo Brass Band are just a trickle of the entertainment served up Crescent City-style in the first half of the 20th century.
While there are still several dignified "old school" groups like the Liberty and the Treme, the brass-band renaissance begun in the early 1970s is a whole other matter. T-shirts, jeans, sneakers, and a funky attitude now define the look and sound of the contemporary New Orleans brass band. Though well received by music lovers in the '70s, it took another 20 years for the Big Easy music scene to erupt in an epiphany of brass.
The Dirty Dozen Brass Band recently celebrated 25 years of burning a hole in the stereotype. The group borrowed its name from the Dirty Dozen Kazoo Band, a group of Sixth Ward Mardi Gras revelers who played kazoos and beat drums at Carnival time and at house parties. Utilizing brass-band standards and injecting them with modern jazz, R&B and funk, the Dozen created a legacy that has influenced and spawned some of the finest next-generation groups since the 1920s.
Teaming up with local heroes like Dr. John and the Neville Brothers, the Dirty Dozen created new standards like The Stones' "All Over Now," "Blackbird Special," "The Flintstones" theme and "Little Liza Jane." Many listeners were skeptical at first with the break in tradition. But the more the Dozen played and toured, the more the world caught on to this electrifying new sound. With each album, the Dirty Dozen experimented with blends of old and new, further cementing their mark on the brass band block.
Although members have changed over the years, saxophonist Roger Lewis, trumpeter Efrem Towns and sousaphonist Julius McKee still hold the threads of the Dozen together. The Dirty Dozen has played in 30 countries on five continents, and boasts nine albums. Wherever the Dozen play, audiences rarely leave the dance floor.
These days, more than a dozen brass bands play clubs throughout New Orleans. The Rebirth, The Soul Rebels, Little Rascals, Trombone Shorty, The New Birth, The Algiers, The Pin Stripe, The Potholes, The Pinettes, Bob French's Original Tuxedo Brass Band, The New Orleans Nightcrawlers, Bonearama and others keep New Orleans hoppin'.
But my favorite will always be the Dozen. They're the guys who brought brass front and center and fired up a brass band renaissance that shows no signs of fading. For my brass bucks, you can't beat The Dirty Dozen.
JC Patterson is the author of "Big Easy Dreamin'," a collection of New Orleans essays and photos. He is currently working on Volume 2.