During the mid-Seventies, a handful of New Orleans natives armed with kazoos and a small drum earned a reputation, and a few cheap thrills, by tagging along at the end of parades. Initially, this routine was considered a good-timey joke, but over the course of several years, the punchline gave way to something more--the Dirty Dozen Brass Band. An octet armed with brass instruments, not kazoos, the group was named for the Dirty Dozen Social and Pleasure Club, to which the musicians belonged. The reference was appropriate, since the Dozen created a sound pleasing enough to spawn imitators across the country.
"I feel like we made an impact," concedes trumpeter Gregory Davis, who's served as a spokesman for the act since 1977. "Although some people wanted us to just be a brass band, we made a different type of sound that was heard worldwide. I meet people all over Europe and in Japan who know me and know of our music. Sometimes it just floors me. And then there are all the copycat bands--which I don't talk about in a negative way. That's because all the bands now copying what we have done lets me know that we did something good."
Today, however, the combo is clearly at a crossroads, thanks to the most radical changes in its history. Davis, trumpeter Efrem Towns and saxophonists Roger Lewis and Kevin Harris remain with the group, but mainstays Revert Andrews, Keith Anderson, Lionel Paul Batiste Jr. and Jenell Marshall have been replaced by drummer Terence Higgins, pianist Richard Knox, guitarist Carl LeBlanc and sousaphone player/bassist Julius McKee. In short, half the brass section is gone--and so is almost half the outfit's name. From now on, Davis claims, the eight performers will be known simply as the Dirty Dozen.
These alterations happened quickly--so quickly, in fact, that no photographs of the new lineup have yet been taken. Still, Davis notes that the new Dozen configuration already has received criticism from purists. In response, he states that "we were never really a traditional brass band to begin with. Although the original instrumentation leant itself to what the traditional brass band was, we were never cemented in the idea that we could only be a brass band. From the beginning we played other types of music. We played some Charlie Parker, some Miles Davis, Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, Duke Ellington and whatever we wanted."
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Moreover, Davis goes on, the band has experienced significant personnel shifts in the past--most notably in 1991, when founding members Charles and Kirk Joseph departed. "When the Joseph brothers left, I read one critic say that it was all over for us," he recalls. "He said he didn't see how we were going to make it without them. And he printed that stuff in the paper. But now it's been four years, and we haven't collapsed. As a matter of fact, we came up with guys who added some other voices, so that the music continued to be interesting to play and to listen to. So we'll be around."
Probably--but the Dozens' recording status is definitely in flux right now. The last recording from Davis and company was Jelly, a 1993 release on Columbia that paid hip, funky, futuristic tribute to the music of Jelly Roll Morton. Since then the band has been without a record label, but Davis doesn't seem concerned. He points out that the Dirty Dozen is in the midst of a massive ninety-show tour in support of the Black Crowes--a high-profile swing for any group with ties to jazz. "And," Davis says, "a couple of times a month we'll have a record company approach us about maybe doing a record--or else they'll want to hear a little bit more or find out what's going on. But we aren't going to rush head- or feet-first into a deal. We can take it easy because we do work a lot. I'm not looking for a record company to make me. I know that we can do 200-plus gigs a year if we want to. Finding the right combination with a record company that is actually going to work and put the product out when we're on tour--that's what we'll go with."
Once that deal is made, Davis believes that listeners familiar with the Brass Band will be reassured by the sound of the Dirty Dozen circa 1995. "We're still coming from the same place, from the same planet," he insists. "We're always searching for new ideas and new ways to do things--because there are other ways to approach a song. Now, with the new band, I've already heard people say this ain't going to work, and how could we mess around with a good formula. But in the beginning, almost twenty years ago, I got the same stuff. Only in the beginning, I got more of it.
"Besides, we didn't change our whole format." Davis laughs. "We're not dumb."
The Black Crowes, with the Dirty Dozen. 8 p.m. Monday, May 14, Auditorium Theatre, 14th and Curtis in the Plex, $24.50, 830-