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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

same respect."

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

my kids."

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

to performing.

"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

The Dirty Dozen, Raritan Valley College, Nash


North Branch, 908-725-3420. gumbo. $15 & $20. Saturday, February

14, 8 p.m.

The Dirty Dozen, Old Bay Restaurant, 61-63 Church

Street, New Brunswick, 732-246-3111. Friday, February 20, 9:30


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