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Dirty Dozen’s Essence Lies in Celebrating Life

In a traditional New Orleans jazz funeral, what starts in sadness ends in celebration. The sorrowful procession to the cemetery reverses itself and becomes a buoyant parade on the way home.

“A life is over, but on the way back you’re celebrating the life that is still there,” said Gregory Davis, trumpet player for the Dirty Dozen Brass Band. “You’re happy to be alive. Things are still going on.”

The Dirty Dozen, which plays Friday night at Bogart’s in Long Beach, has paraded in many a New Orleans funeral since forming in 1977. The eight-man band can play the dirges, but its essence lies in that celebratory line snaking and gyrating on its way home. The Dirty Dozen’s signature sound is founded on pulsating, quick-stepping parade rhythms designed to motivate beholders toward carefree movement, in keeping with a New Orleans jazz tradition that extends back into the late 19th Century. Kirk Joseph’s amazingly punchy and supple sousaphone playing gives the band a lot of its bounce. The Dirty Dozen’s other hallmark is trumpet and saxophone soloing that emphasizes the sense of freedom and wild exploration of be-bop, a tradition foreign to the old New Orleans parade masters.

Speaking over the phone from an Oakland tour stop this week, Davis, 34, recalled that the old New Orleans parade-band tradition seemed headed for extinction in the early ‘70s, when he and most of the other Dirty Dozen members were learning to play.

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“By the time I got to be in my teens or early 20s, the parades had almost faded out, mostly because there were not any young people involved” in playing brass band music. “A generation had missed it. By the ‘60s, electric R & B was in full swing. Rock ‘n’ roll was happening. By the ‘70s came the funk and the disco music.” And that’s where young musicians were directing their attention. Davis’ own early favorites were such soul stars as Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, James Brown and Marvin Gaye.

A turning point, Davis said, came when one of the old-line jazz musicians, Danny Barker, began to instruct younger musicians in the traditional brass band styles. It was through Barker’s Fairview Baptist Church Band that some of the Dirty Dozen’s members got their early training. Davis himself came to traditional brass band music through a classmate, Leroy Jones, who had been one of Barker’s Fairview pupils.

“He asked me to come and play in his band, and I recognized it as an opportunity to play more than I would in any of the funk and R & B bands,” where no trumpet player was going to command much of the musical space.

Barker’s efforts weren’t always appreciated at first by older jazz players who may not have wanted an influx of new bands infringing on their stylistic territory, Davis said.

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“He took a lot of heat from the musicians’ union and other musicians for bringing these inexperienced kids around. What he saw, and they didn’t see, was that no one would be around in New Orleans to continue the tradition.”

A neighborhood association called the Dirty Dozen Social and Pleasure Club was the first home for the young band, which played picnics, parades, and funerals for the organization’s membership. If the functions were characteristic gigs for a New Orleans brass band, the Dirty Dozen band brought an uncharacteristic approach to playing them, one that didn’t always sit well with old-line musicians.

“We took some heat for being different,” Davis said--for not staying within the borders of convention. “We were playing the music that interested us. We were not trying to be like the bands of the ‘20s and ‘30s. There’s one Louis Armstrong, so why should we imitate Louis Armstrong all the time? We took what we could from that music and learned from it. But our goal was not to sound like the bands of the ‘20s. Had we just been a copycat of those bands, we would not have come this far.”

Audiences weren’t complaining about departures from tradition that allowed the Dirty Dozen to bring Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk compositions into a party and parade-band repertoire.

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“By early ’79 we were doing six or seven nites a week, sometimes two or three gigs a day. We went on like that for 2 1/2 years, going from gig to gig, until we almost suffered a burnout,” Davis said. These days, he said, New Orleans has a flourishing brass band scene, with about 30 bands, to take up some of the slack.

The directors of the high-profile New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival began showcasing the Dirty Dozen in 1979, and the one-time neighborhood band began to get national attention. The Dirty Dozen made its recording debut in 1984; since then, it has traveled widely--not only from state to state and country to country, but from musical setting to musical setting.

Phil Alvin of the Blasters hired the Dirty Dozen to play on his 1986 solo album, “Un ‘Sung’ Stories.” Elvis Costello wandered into a Dirty Dozen club gig in New York one night, and extended an invitation to work on his 1989 album, “Spike.”

“He knew about us before we knew about him,” Davis said. “Someone had given him a tape--I was told it was Tom Waits.” At the New York show, Davis said, he noticed one listener “just standing there, while the rest of the place was jumping and shaking.” While the Dirty Dozen much prefers to see an audience “jumping and shaking” rather than standing still, “I could tell by the way he was looking that he was interested.” Davis said he approached the stolid observer during a break, and quickly had an invitation to record with a well-known British rocker.

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“I didn’t expect anything to come of it, but about a year later he did call,” and the Dirty Dozen wound up backing Costello for three songs on his last album. Costello returned the favor by singing a comical jump-R & B number, “That’s How You Got Killed Before,” on the Dirty Dozen’s 1990 release, “The New Orleans Album.”

On that album and its predecessor, “Voodoo,” the Dirty Dozen focused extensively on collaboration. Dr. John, Dizzy Gillespie and Branford Marsalis turned in guest solos on “Voodoo.” With “The New Orleans Album,” the Dirty Dozen paid tribute to some lesser-known jazz and R & B influences--Eddie Bo, Dave Bartholomew (best known as a key force in creating Fats Domino’s sound) and Danny Barker, the singer-guitarist who helped instigate New Orleans’ brass band revival.

The Dirty Dozen is close to finishing its fifth album, Davis said, with the emphasis on original material, and no plans for using outside musicians.

With the band playing about 200 shows a year outside New Orleans, there isn’t much opportunity for playing jazz funerals these days, Davis said. But the Dirty Dozen keeps its reputation in that line of work--when Muppets creator Jim Henson died last May, the Dirty Dozen was called in to help fill his wish that his public memorial service be a happy occasion.

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With war shadowing the public mood these days, the Dirty Dozen continues to pump out music that is most often joyous.

“We think about (the war). I do a lot,” Davis said. “I have friends and family that have to participate in this war. At some point in the show you may dedicate a song to those people over there. But I think life should go on as close to normal as you can be, and not dwell on the sadness that this is going to bring. Some day this is going to be over. Life is going to go on.”

* The Dirty Dozen Brass Band and Kevin Doherty play Friday at 9:30 p.m. at Bogart’s, in the Marina Pacifica mall, 6288 E. Pacific Coast Highway, Long Beach. Tickets: $15. Information: (213) 594-8975.

ON THE WAR WAGON: Huntington Beach folk-rocker Vinnie James was in Washington last week to tape a performance and interview segment for the CBS news program, “Nightwatch.”

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The occasion was the release of “War Song,” a somber, solo-acoustic protest against militarism that James wrote more than two years ago but rushed to radio and television stations with the outbreak of the Persian Gulf War.

“If a song I wrote about war is going to have any effect, the best time to put it out is now,” James said. “The wound has been ripped open and it’s raw, and people are totally aware of what’s going on. It doesn’t pass a sleeping ear. They’re wide awake, and it can have the most effect.”

The song’s refrain, “But if I could write a song that could end all wars, I bet they wouldn’t listen,” seems forlorn and pessimistic, especially in comparison with an idealistic statement such as the recent remake of John Lennon’s “Give Peace a Chance.” But James says his method is reverse psychology, and that his song’s purpose is to prod listeners to reject pessimism about the prospects for peace.

“It’s totally the opposite,” he said. “It’s a dare. The song challenges people who write songs and poetry to write that song (that could end war), and it dares people in the audience to listen.”

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“I hope (‘War Song’) is a soothing thing, something that helps people to think and be quiet for a minute. There’s a lot of dissension now. We all support the same objective, although we may not support the method. I believe we can go beyond the propensity for war and try something new.”

As of Wednesday, CBS had not set a time slot for airing the “War Song” segment on the late-night “Nightwatch” program, said Kim Kaiman, a publicist for James. Aside from airplay, “War Song” won’t be available to the public until May, when James’ much-delayed debut album, “All American Boy,” is due for release by RCA Records.


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