Dirty Dozen serves Big Easy tradition | SummitDaily.com

Dirty Dozen serves Big Easy tradition

Kimberly Nicoletti

KEYSTONE – The Big Easy is all about mouth-watering celebrations, and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band caters to the tastes of the mind, body and soul.

“I always say you get a three-for-one when you come to our concert,” bandleader Roger Lewis said. “You get something for your mind – to think about the music in a technical way; something for your body – you want to move and groove, we’ve got something to make your body move; and something for your soul – to make you feel something. Our music is very spiritual.”

The band’s trademark style is a kinetic hybrid of traditional brass band marches, funk, rhythm-and-blues, bop, gospel and rock.

The Dirty Dozen Brass Band is well known for revitalizing the tradition of brass bands in New Orleans 25 years ago.

In the 19th century, social clubs emerged to provide burial services to member families at a time when blacks couldn’t buy insurance. The clubs employed brass bands to play slow gospel hymns for traditional New Orleans funerals, but once the grieving family was out of earshot, the brass band would kick into a joyous parade.

As the 20th century progressed, jazz moved from the streets into concert halls and clubs, and the brass band tradition began to fade.

In 1977, proprietors of the Dirty Dozen Social and Pleasure Club, one of the few such clubs remaining in New Orleans, hired seven musicians to carry on the tradition of playing at funerals and festive occasions. It took less than a decade for the Dirty Dozen Brass Band to gain international acclaim.

One reason the band has garnered such attention is because it’s not afraid to tamper with tradition.

“We always experimented from the very beginning,” Lewis said. “”Night Train’ is a tune that you just don’t play on the streets in a traditional (parade), but we started playing it and people loved it.

“We got a lot of static from the older musicians, but we didn’t pay that no mind because the people loved it. We had an opportunity to play whatever music we wanted to play, not only sticking with the original New Orleans music, which is gospel music. The freedom … in this band (was), if you had an original composition, you could bring it to the table and get it played. We’ve released nine CDs in 25 years, and they’re all different. Where it’s going from here, I really couldn’t tell you, because the music is constantly changing.”

Kevin Harris on tenor saxophone, Efrem Towns on trumpet and the 60-year-old Lewis have been with the band since it first began, but they’re open to the influences of younger musicians. They even introduced an electric guitar into their all-horn, acoustic sound a few years ago with James McLean – “the first Caucasian to play with the Dirty Dozen, so you know he must be good,” Lewis said.

“One of the reasons we’re keeping it fresh is because of the young personnel we have,” Lewis said. “(Such as) Sammie Williams. We call him “big Sammie Williams, the dancing machine.’ If you don’t know how to dance, all you have to do is watch him, and you’ll know how to dance by the end of the night. And we have Julius McKee, one of the greatest sousaphone players in the world, and I’m not bragging on this. So, you got all of these monster, genius-minded musicians. You can’t help but keep the music fresh.

“New Orleans music is very spiritual and uplifting and happy music,” he continued. “It’s a real uplifting experience, and there’s so many different elements in the music. It’s like our gumbo that we serve in New Orleans. We put avant garde, gospel, reggae, country and classical (elements) in it. That gives it a different twist along with that spiritual background.”

Along with its variety of musical spices, the Dirty Dozen enjoys throwing the audience into its gumbo-like mix.

“We make you want to move something so you can’t stop,” Lewis said. “We let people come on stage and dance and let them do their thing. It’s an exchange. The audience gives us something, and we give them something. We ain’t stuck up. We’re loose. We’re people music. We like to have a good time.”

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