When death pulls into most towns, sadness permeates everything and everybody it touches. In the Big Easy, however, grief is as unwelcome as a vice cop in a brothel.
"In New Orleans, we celebrate death," says Efrem Towns, the exuberant trumpet and flugelhorn player for the Dirty Dozen Brass Band. "People don't want no sad-ass funeral with nobody cryin', nobody wearin' black. It's a whole different thing 'round here. People say, 'Don't come to my funeral with no sad shit.'"
In the Crescent City, funerals are known as "homecomings," and Towns has entertained at his fair share.
"Anybody who wants a jazz funeral can have one," Towns goes on. "We played a whole buncha strange ones. We played a stripper's funeral. We played a funeral for nuclear weapons. And one for Jim Henson, the Muppet man. That was a little different. We did a memorial service and got the church filled: Big Bird, Kermit, Cookie Man -- everybody was there. Matter of fact, Big Bird was sadder than most of 'em."
Baritone saxophonist Roger Lewis vividly remembers that teary-eyed spring day fourteen years ago in Manhattan's Cathedral of Saint John the Divine. The Dirty Dozen Brass Band played an upbeat rendition of "When the Saints Go Marching In," offering comfort to thousands of devastated but colorfully dressed Muppet family members, including Henson's seven-foot-tall feathered friend from Sesame Street. "Man, that bird looked so sad comin' down the aisle," 63-year-old Lewis recalls. "You could really feel the spirit. It made your skin crawl. It was strong."
Though most Dixieland-enhanced funerals don't include a eulogizing frog puppet singing "It's Not Easy Being Green," the Dozen's moving tribute to Henson was rooted in a sacred tradition unique to Louisiana, one that dates back to the evolution of jazz itself. As America's ethnic and cultural melting pot for every strand of music from ragtime to gospel to zydeco, New Orleans remains as famous for pioneering icons like Professor Longhair and Louis Armstrong as it does for voodoo, Tabasco and the bordellos of Storyville.
"We got a very mystical city," Lewis notes. "We got a bar room on one corner and a church up the block, from one extreme to another, which is probably why our music has so much feeling in it. You get three for one, really -- something for your mind, your body and your soul."
With a career that spans nearly three decades, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band has perfected its three-pronged vocation worldwide by touring 65 countries on five continents. The recent departure of longtime trumpeter Gregory Davis leaves Towns, Lewis and tenor saxophonist Kevin Harris representing the band's original core. Its current lineup proudly features trombonist Sammie Williams, sousaphonist Julius McKee, guitarist Jamie McLean and drummer Terrence Higgins. Each, by historical extension, is linked to a tight fraternal organization once known as the Dirty Dozen Social and Pleasure Club.
"It wasn't a building, just a group of guys," Towns explains. "That was like seventy years ago in New Orleans. If someone got sick in your family, or killed, or buried, that particular social club got together and tried to raise money. Most people either couldn't afford insurance or weren't even offered insurance -- 'cause you're a poor black man or whatever. That kind of shit went down."
On its tenth studio album, Funeral for a Friend, the act harks back to the social-club days by rallying around a fallen comrade: Anthony "Tuba Fats" Lacen, who died at age 53 from a sudden heart attack last January, five weeks after the completion of the record.
"Tuba Fats was the first sousaphone player with the band," Towns says. "The songs that are on the album, we had been playing since the inception of the Dirty Dozen. In fact, some of 'em are the first songs we ever played. So it was a good way to pay tribute to him."
Composed solely of spiritual songs, Funeral re-enacts a jazz funeral from start to finish. Mostly instrumental, it opens with "Just a Closer Walk With Thee," guiding the listener through cobblestone streets where a crowd of mourners in their Sunday best follows a casket high atop a horse-drawn carriage. As the procession rounds corners en route to the gravesite, the horn men burst into "I Shall Not Be Moved," proclaiming the joyous, brass-driven news that another soul has left earth's confines. Los Lobos' David Hidalgo, accordion in hand, joins the parade on "Please Let Me Stay a Little Longer." While balconies in the French Quarter sway under the weight of drunken revelers, the Davell Crawford Singers erupt with a deliriously syncopated call-and-response rendition of "Jesus on the Mainline." After the dearly departed is finally deposited in New Orleans's famed St. Louis Cemetery No. 1, the disc winds down with an impromptu version of "Amazing Grace."
"A lot of that material we did in one take," Lewis enthuses. "It was created on the spur of the moment, which is what jazz is really all about. Sometimes I think that's how you should do a record anyway."
"We had a week to do it, but it took three days," adds Towns. "Unfortunately, Tuba Fats is not on that album. That would've been great to have him."
In his place, the Dozen used sousaphonists McKee, Kirk Joseph and Jeffrey Hills Sr., bringing three separate styles to the rhythm section's deep end. Producer Craig Street expanded Funeral's overall sonic dimension to capture the outdoor feeling of an urban parade -- something that the players experienced in the flesh when the City of New Orleans invited them to honor their fallen brother with a celebration that lasted more than four hours.
"Tuba Fats had one of the greatest funerals ever in New Orleans," Towns says. "It was like a Mardi Gras parade, and that's some special, special stuff. I seen some big funerals, but not like that. We had people come from all around the world. He was a real famous cat.
"We have a lot of legends that came before us," he adds. "And they always share information, all the time. That's one of the real cool things about New Orleans: You got so many bad cats. Just an everyday John Doe who might not play no more might be one of the baddest dudes you ever did see in your life. And they don't hold their head up high, like, ŒI'm the number-one saxophonist in Germany.' You just another musician."
With an exotic sound built upon the individual talent of each member, the collective has never showcased a frontman -- and probably never will.
"When we were coming up, there were a lot of bands in New Orleans that all had leaders," Towns remembers. "It seemed like the leader was always fuckin' the band up. So we got together with that in mind, to stop that kind of stuff. Everybody know what they got to do. They just be responsible. We always sharin' shit, and everybody just do their thing."
Along with the democracy and rich musical heritage that shaped the Dozen's group dynamic, however, were the arbitrary forces of a public education.
"We all came up through the school system," Towns says. "Tuba Fats wanted to play trumpet, but he was so big, you know. A lot of times, when they give you the instrument in the school band, you get the instrument for how you look, whether you like it or not. I look like a trumpet player, so I got my trumpet."
Such capriciousness seems to have worked out fine. From their R&B-influenced debut, 1984's My Feet Can't Fail Me Now, to funky experiments like 1992's Jelly, a tribute to Jelly Roll Morton, the group has flaunted tradition while earning a reputation for daring and dynamic interplay. Whether stretching performance boundaries with the Ohio-based Dayton Contemporary Dance Company or backing up the likes of David Bowie, Elvis Costello or Robert Randolph, the Dozen always welcomes a new challenge.
"I guess we just keep on trying to play good music," says Lewis. "A lot has to do with our collaborations with other bands, like Widespread Panic, Gov't Mule, Modest Mouse, Norah Jones, Dizzy Gillespie. All that adds to your longevity, and it keeps the music fresh."
Rappers and turntablists would agree. Along with DJ Logic, artists like the Soul Rebels are mixing funeral marches with the aesthetics of hip-hop to create something that sounds like street-parade music filtered through a ghetto-blaster.
"Away from New Orleans, hip-hop fans don't know what to make of us," Lewis says. "But down here, a brass band is a whole different vibe. It's one of them little cultural things that you gotta see to believe."
Even if jazz purists cry foul, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band is helping breathe new life into a dying tradition. They're having a fun time of it, too -- before skipping off this mortal coil themselves one day, for better or worse.
"There gotta be a better place than this," says Lewis. "Your deeds and thoughts gonna determine where you go when you die. There gonna be two doors, I'm more than sure. Your spirit get there, you might have to go to that other door -- and that's forever."
"We're not laughin' in the face of death," Towns adds. "When death comes, you go full cycle, you know. We actually celebratin' that person. They can't help you're dead. Matter of fact, in New Orleans, a lot of people might be glad when somebody die. But even sad music sounds happy. So we actually go to the funeral home jumpin'."
Get the Music Newsletter