To describe the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, trumpet player Gregory Davis employs a tried-and-true New Orleans–centric analogy: “It ends up being like a pot of gumbo—you drop in a little okra, drop in a little shrimp, you drop in some crabs. Before you know it, you’ve mixed in all these different ingredients and you’ve got a beautiful soup. That was our approach to music early on and it still is today.”
Baritone sax player Roger Lewis—who, like Davis, has been with the combo since its inception in 1977—echoes that sentiment: “It’s a big old musical gumbo, and that probably made the difference, separating us from other brass bands out of New Orleans. It put a different twist on the music. We were not trying to change anything, we were just playing the music we wanted to play and not stay in one particular bag.”
An appetite for musicological adventure, a commitment to honor tradition while not being constrained by it, and a healthy sense of humor have brought the world-traveling Dirty Dozen Brass Band (DDBB) to this remarkable juncture in an already storied career.
While traditional numbers infused with a DDBB flavor have always been crowd-pleasing staples of the group’s repertoire, it is the Dirty Dozen Brass Band’s willingness to look beyond the New Orleans songbook and find connections among a wider range of music that has endeared them to critics, fellow musicians, and a multigenerational, global audience. They have been embraced enthusiastically by the jam-band followers at Bonnaroo as well as by the devotees who flock to the yearly New Orleans Jazz Fest. Acts such as the Black Crowes and Widespread Panic have taken them on tour, and artists from Dizzy Gillespie to Elvis Costello and Norah Jones have joined them in the studio. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, DDBB participated in the benefit concerts, titled From the Big Apple to the Big Easy, held at New York City’s Madison Square Garden and offered its own response to the aftermath of the disaster with an acclaimed 2006 song-by-song remake of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On”. Their music has been featured on the HBO television series Treme, named after the New Orleans mid-city neighborhood where the band had formed, and the group performed on screen with Galactic and rapper Juvenile in season 2. New Orleans remains a wellspring of musical inspiration and DDBB is a living, breathing embodiment of the continued vitality and evolution of the sounds of the city.
But, Davis cautions, “We’ve never been the norm, even though we started out as a traditional New Orleans brass band. In the beginning we weren’t getting work of any kind, so we thought it was okay to explore other music. That allowed us as individuals to bring ourselves into the rehearsals and that’s where we started to experiment. At the time the band started, I was a student at Loyola University and we were all being introduced to other music—to jazz from the twentieth century and so on. It’s impossible to think that you can be exposed to the harmonies that Duke Ellington was making, the rhythms coming from Dizzy Gillespie or the funk being done by James Brown, and then ignore it when you’re playing New Orleans music. New Orleans music is all of that. If we had chosen to just put in the music presented to us then as traditional, it would have stunted our growth. Being more than what we heard is what the band was about.”
They hurl styles together with cavalier optimism, play with relentless bravura, and have zero patience for navel-gazing of any sort.
The Dirty Dozen Brass Band continues to be a national treasure: steeped in both the past and the present, impossible to categorize, and mighty funky.
—New York Times
New Orleans’ most passionate and well-known brass band that finds the funk regardless of which genre they decide to delve into