"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."