Thanks to David Simon, ordinary citizens — or at least the ones with premium cable — are now more likely to know what a second line is. Simon's HBO show Treme shines a light on the lives of working musicians in New Orleans and gives a new kind of exposure to the brassy amalgamation of jazz, bebop, blues and funk associated with the Crescent City. Few bands today embody this sound and lifestyle as wholly as Dirty Dozen Brass Band.
Speaking from his home in New Orleans, founding member and baritone-sax player Roger Lewis recalls, "When we started hitting the streets, of course, we were playing all the traditional music that everybody else was playing: hymns, a march. We started practicing the original music that people had and we started playing that, too. We started playing cover tunes like Michael Jackson. We were also playing a lot of bebop like Charlie Parker. We just kind of mixed it all in. People loved it, but we got a lot of static in the beginning. We just played what we wanted to play and had fun."
Most brass bands at the time employed clarinets, rather than the more burdensome baritone sax. "Who but Roger Lewis would want to carry a baritone sax in a parade for four hours?" says tenor saxophonist Kevin Harris, who was actually making gumbo when The Pitch reached him. "I did it in high school, and that was more than enough. I don't remember the exact weight, but it's heavy enough to give you back problems."
Lewis played with Fats Domino and Irma Thomas and often accompanied other artists on short notice. "We didn't even have rehearsals. You just showed up at the gig," Lewis recalls. "It's not a problem, really. You're a professional musician. You're just supposed to be able to do that. Sometimes you just read the music. Back at that time, they didn't send you a CD; they just sent you a 45. You'd just listen to it and learn it off the record."
Despite the name, the band has never boasted 12 members. Some of its first gigs, which date back to 1977, were accompanying long funeral processions organized by the Dirty Dozen Social and Pleasure Club, an organization that helped poor New Orleanians pay for funerals when conventional life-insurance companies wouldn't. Because of the association, the name stuck.
Three and a half decades later, the band has recorded with Elvis Costello, Buckwheat Zydeco, the Manhattan Transfer, Dizzy Gillespie, Branford Marsalis, Widespread Panic and the Black Crowes. The group is playing Crossroads KC at Grinders — a stone's throw from their hero Charlie Parker's old stomping grounds — in support of two new records.
Dirty Dozen's latest, Twenty Dozen, is its first album in six years. (Somewhat surprisingly, it features the band's first recording of New Orleans standard "When the Saints Go Marching In.") Lewis notes how different the recording process has become since he started out.
"Right now, you can cut a record in two minutes. If you've got a repetitious part in the song, you don't have to play the whole song. You can just cut and paste," he says. "Back then, you had to play the whole song, man. There was no cut and paste, especially back in the '50s. You might cut that one song 99 times! If you play a note and it's a slight bit out of tune, you'd have to go back and do it all again. Now, you can go in Pro Tools and put that note back in tune. It's incredible. ... We try not to do those overdubs. We try to play the whole song because I think the feeling is better than all that cut-and-paste stuff."
Dirty Dozen is also rereleasing its 1984 debut album, My Feet Can't Fail Me Now, which Harris says demonstrates how much the band has developed in the years that followed. "We don't play music that fast anymore," he says. "We can, but the end result would just be a bunch of tired old men. We might be more soulful than we were back then. With age comes that mellowing of different things. Back then, we played fast enough to give a person a heart attack."
But they still have the grit and hustle endemic in working New Orleans musicians. Harris, who lives in Baton Rouge, takes a $5 bus ride to play with the rest of the band in New Orleans. What is it about the city?
"I can just speculate," Harris muses. "For one, being below sea level. The people who colonized New Orleans were not the most dignified or qualified. They were people of the earth. These people tend to live life in a different kind of way. The French — they'd go into battle with brass bands."