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Dirty Dozen, Plus or Minus
This article by Richard Skelly was published
in U.S. 1 Newspaper on February 11, 1998. All rights reserved.
If you go to see the Dirty Dozen and expect the old
Dirty Dozen Brass Band, you’re in for a surprise. Gone are the
pumping bass drum and snare drums, replaced instead by mellower —
but decidedly more funky — keyboard treatments. And yes, you can
still dance to the Dirty Dozen’s "My Feet Can’t Fail Me Now,"
heard on their latest recording "Ears To The Wall," for
Although they’re no longer the Dirty Dozen Brass Band — just call
them The Dirty Dozen — their sound still oozes with Southern-fried
soul and sanctified New Orleans funk.
Band leader and trumpeter Gregory Davis, who was born and raised in
the Crescent City’s tough Treme neighborhood, near Louis Armstrong
Park, says the original band took a lot of heat in the late 1970s.
Some older musicians and critics accused them of "not being in
the brass band tradition."
Three years ago, after having toured for nearly 20 years as the Dirty
Dozen Brass Band, the band members felt it was time to give the brass
band genre a rest. To keep challenging themselves as musicians,
adopted a less brassy repertoire.
"We had come to a point where my two drummers had to leave the
band for different reasons," he continues, "one because his
wife was sick and the other because he had spent all of his children’s
life with the band. His daughter was graduating from high school and
entering college and his son was entering high school," Davis
"We knew we couldn’t find two drummers who were gonna gel as
as these two guys had gelled over 20 years." So Davis and the
other seven members of the Dirty Dozen decided to add keyboards and
acoustic and electric bass. The band’s sousaphonist doubles on
and electric bass, giving "Ears To The Wall" more of a
jazz sound, while still retaining that all essential New Orleans funk.
After all, he adds, the band members are fans of all kinds of music,
and they have to be versatile in a city like New Orleans, bursting
as it is to the waterfront docks with musicians. "Every time we
put on a record, it’s not necessarily a brass band record," says
Working through several rehearsals without their two long-time
Davis and his band mates weren’t so sure their new format would work.
"So we said, `Let’s take it on the road and see what happens.’
That was in 1994.
"We didn’t want to deceive the talent buyers," Davis adds,
"because there’s enough deception already in this business, so
by changing the name to the Dirty Dozen, we figured they’ll realize
it’s a different group."
The eight-member band — named after the Dirty Dozen Social and
Pleasure Club — includes Davis on trumpet and vocals, Efrem Towns,
trumpet, Roger Lewis, baritone and soprano saxophones, Kevin Harris,
tenor sax and vocals, Revert Andrews, trombone, Richard Knox,
Julius McKee, sousaphone and acoustic and electric bass, and Terrence
Higgins, drums and vocals.
The Dirty Dozen spent a good part of 1995 touring with the
roots-rock group, the Black Crowes, exposing a whole new audience
to their music. Davis regards this as critical to ongoing success
for any musician or group. Chris Robinson, the Black Crowes’ lead
singer, is such a fan — he contributed the liner notes to
To The Wall."
"Look at Miles Davis and how many times he changed his style over
the years. Each time he was going back and attracting a different
audience," Davis argues. "As the Dirty Dozen, we’re always
trying to attract different audiences. For example, we’re doing a
school gig later this week ’cause it’s important to keep exposing
young people to our music."
Although some critics may have been predictably shocked,
and maybe less than thrilled with the band’s new sound, Davis and
the others have been through this before. That was in 1977, when they
began playing New Orleans nightclubs as the Dirty Dozen Brass Band.
At that time, there were no brass bands in New Orleans clubs, he
except "maybe some older guys who you’d see once or twice a
Some critics and older musicians were dissing the band, claiming they
weren’t part of the brass band tradition. "Because we were a brass
band playing Duke Ellington, they were saying we weren’t part of the
tradition," Davis says.
"We weren’t conscious about being a brass band, but we played
the music we were rehearsing, and it happened to be all this other
music," he says, referring to compositions by Duke Ellington,
Aretha Franklin and James Brown.
"We had a choice: listen to the people who were criticizing us
or play music for the people who were hiring us. The people who were
hiring us were telling us `We wanna hear the stuff you’re playing,
we’re tired of hearing `When the Saints Go Marching In’ 20 times a
night.’" The band’s renditions of classic soul and jazz tunes
— played by a brass band — gave them an edge and a refreshing
sound. Within a year, they were off and running.
When the band began rehearsals for fun in 1977, it was at the height
of the disco boom, Davis explains. Eighteen or 20 musicians showed
up for the first few rehearsals. As Davis and others began to organize
a repertoire, that number was whittled down to eight. And besides,
he notes, eight musicians fit neatly into one large van or two small
The disco era, even in New Orleans, Davis recalls, "meant we
get many jobs, so when a gig would come up, you would take it."
The band started out in a now-defunct club on Cleveland Avenue,
while the DJ took a break. Within a matter of weeks, as patrons began
dancing along to their music, the group replaced the DJ and the DJ
would spin his records while the band took a break.
"We were really just playing music that had been played before,
but these people hadn’t heard it before," he says, "all they
were hearing was the disco stuff in the clubs and on the radio, and
then here we come playing Duke Ellington, James Brown, and Aretha
Franklin, Dinah Washington, Charlie Parker. A lot of people hadnt
heard it, and they took a liking to us."
With as many tourists as there are in New Orleans at any given time,
it didn’t take long for the band to establish a national and
reputation. The Dirty Dozen Brass Band played the prestigious New
Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in 1979, he recalls. That helped
further cement their growing reputation as a band that was offering
fresh new sounds.
"Friends of ours would bring people from out of town up to this
club, the Glass House, to hear the Dirty Dozen Brass Band. From there
it just started to take off for us, as far as touring was
Within several years, the band could no longer hold
down its Monday night residency at the Glass House because they were
on the road so much. In the early days, Davis recalls, the band would
play as many as 220 nights a year.
"Now, we try to keep it to 180 shows a year. My birthday was just
last week, I’m 41 now," he says, laughing.
So how does one keep eight guys from a tough neighborhood on the road
together for 180 nights a year without getting on one another’s
"We ride in two separate vehicles. The guys who like to stop along
the road and have big dinners, they ride in one van. I happen to like
getting to the destination first and then taking a break for sleep
or eating, so I and a few others ride in the other van," Davis
"From being together for so many years, we tend to respect each
other’s likes and dislikes. Some guys smoke and some don’t, and a
lot of times, if we have to, we eat dinner together, but if we don’t
have to, we don’t."
"It’s good to give each other the space, because we spend more
time together than we do with our wives and children. It’s about
the other guy’s space and his preferences and him giving you that
When he’s off the road, Davis says he attends church
almost every Sunday morning. Born and raised in what used to be known
as the red light district, Davis says his neighborhood, near the famed
Congo Square in Louis Armstrong Park, has been fixed up now. He notes
with pride that the police station in the middle of Armstrong Park
helps keep the riffraff away.
Davis’ father worked as a taxi driver and drapery installer, while
his mother worked in a neighborhood school cafeteria. Davis has three
children, ages 8, 13, and 16. He thinks of them often and calls them
from the road.
"That’s the hardest part about being a musician. I’m facing now
what one of my drummers faced: my daughter is getting ready to go
college. For all of my children’s life, this is what I have done.
I can take all of the travel, physically, I can just do it, but from
day one of the tour, my biggest goal is to just make it to the end
of the tour and go home. The worst thing for me is being away from
The problem in the blues and jazz business, he explains, is you reach
a certain standard of living as a musician, and you want to maintain
that, and the only way to do it is to by doing more shows out on the
Because they spend so much time touring — overseas and
— it’s been a long time putting together the band’s second album
for Mammoth Records, which should be out as early as this summer.
Although "Ears To The Wall" is a natural shift in musical
direction for this band of virtuosos — they all take extended
solos on various tracks on the album — their live shows still
pack a punch.
"We just go out on stage and play one or two songs and see how
the audience reacts," Davis says of the Dirty Dozen’s approach
"Depending on how they react, or don’t react, we decide what to
go into next. I wanna see my audience sweating while I’m there, and
the other guys feel the same way. If I can see you dancing and you’re
up and participating, then I’ve done my job!"
— Richard J. Skelly
North Branch, 908-725-3420. gumbo. $15 & $20. Saturday, February
14, 8 p.m.
Street, New Brunswick, 732-246-3111. Friday, February 20, 9:30
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