I am beginning a new feature here on HOTG. When the spirit moves me and a record company sends me a new or re-issue CD, I will review it, so that I can keep what we learn about the past here connected to the present and future in New Orleans music. And what better place to start than with this:
"What's Going On", featuring Chuck D
Windows Media Stream courtesy of Shout Factory
"What's Going On", feturing Chuck D
Quicktime Stream courtesy of Shout Factory
from the new CD, What's Going On, The Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Shout Factory, 2006
How’s this for a concept? The Dirty Dozen Brass Band, elder (NOT elderly!) statesmen of the contemporary brass band movement in New Orleans, emerge from the devastation of their hometown with a brilliant new CD that takes Marvin Gaye’s 1971 soul/funk/socio-political masterpiece, What’s Going On, and recasts it to address Gaye’s burning questions and observations in 21st Century terms: new wars, new disasters, but the same old unresolved, underlying human problems. The band filters Gaye’s music through their own collective 30 years of experience as the city’s most well-known, influential second line instigators to render a work that stays true to the spirit of Gaye’s message, while re-grooving it. There’s an inspired amalgam of funk, jazz, soul and hip-hop styles at work with the added guest voices on various tunes of Chuck D, Betty Lavette, G. Love, Guru and New Orleans’ own, Ivan Neville, re-interpreting Gaye’s words and feelings. The Dirty Dozen’s What’s Going On will be released Tuesday, August 29th, the anniversary of Katrina’s disasterous landfall and the start of the events that followed from the failure of critical New Orleans levees and floodwalls. Shout! Factory is donating a portion of the proceeds from the sale of each copy of What's Going On to Tipitina's Foundation, benefiting the music community of New Orleans.
Of all the moving New Orleans-related music that has been issued since Katrina, this record, as a whole, is both the most profound (Marvin’s message is universal and timeless) and the most enjoyable. These are grooves to be reckoned with; and you will be physically and emotionally moved by this seductive recording. The music pulls you into it rather than putting it in your face. Yet it is still powerful, infused with anger, sadness, concern, revelation and, ultimately, love.
Admittedly, I am often wary of records with lots of guest artists sitting in. The fit’s not always comfortable and can distract from a band’s own distinctive sound; but the extremely flexible players in the Dirty Dozen have a good track record integrating guests into their recording projects; and What’s Going On is no exception. The vocals are all spot on and heartfelt. Also, when I first read what they were up to with this project, I was a bit skeptical, thinking Gaye’s album was virtually untouchable. Well, touch it they did, caressed, undressed and re-assessed it. I should have known, since it’s not the first time these adventurous, amazing musicians have tackled material from outside the brass band genre, made it their own, and made it work in new and exciting ways. They have been doing it since their inception.
Yesterday, I got the chance to talk with one of the founders of the DDBB, baritone sax player Roger Lewis, about the new CD, music, life in New Orleans after the 2005 flooding, and the origins of the group. Although my call woke him up, he very generously agreed to talk to me and spoke freely about - what’s going on – what else?
As Roger explained to me, the concept for the CD was a collective decision by one of the producers of this project, Shawn Amos, and the band, who have a profound appreciation for Gaye’s music and message on What’s Going On. In the course of discussing doing some of Gaye’s material for the CD, the idea evolved to cover the entire album to honor both the 35th anniversary of the original and the one year anniversary of Katrina. It just seemed like the right thing to do. Here are some excerpts from our conversation.
HOTG: After you all decided to re-do What’s Going On in its entirety, how much of a stretch was it to wrap the Dirty Dozen sound around it?
Roger Lewis: It was quite a project, believe me, because James Jamerson, the bass player on those Marvin Gaye albums – this cat was an incredible bass player. Kirk Joseph did a fantastic job of emulating – not playing exactly what Jamerson played – but what he did on tuba was incredible, because it was like what Jamerson did on bass. I was trying to figure out how we were going to cover these tunes. I mean, we’ve recorded a lot of CDs in our day; but taking on Marvin Gaye’s music is quite a challenge! And not only that, our arrangements were created in the studio. Usually, we take the music out on the road for a couple of months and play it before we record; but we worked so much, we didn’t have a chance to do that. So, we just went into the studio and put our heads together, the band and producers, and everybody had input on arrangements; and that’s how it came out.
HOTG: It came out well. I commend you all for doing such a fine job on it. If you’re going to do that album, you don’t want to do it wrong, or not do it justice. But I really think you all did.
RL: We hope that Marvin, wherever he’s at, has a big smile on his face.
HOTG: You mentioned Kirk Joseph’s good job; and it’s great to hear him back playing with you all.
RL: Well, he’s not playing gigs with us. Our regular tuba player, Julius McKee, is back. About every time we recorded a CD, Kirk managed to be on the CD. He did some touring with us for a little while – came back for a minute – made the record and made a few gigs; but he’s doing his own thing, Backyard Groove
HOTG: He sure sounds good on it. I know you all have a long history with Kirk, so I’m sure it was a comfortable fit.
RL: Oh yeah, it was very comfortable.
HOTG: It is coming up on the anniversary of Katrina; and, needless to say, New Orleans is not back in any way like it was before culturally or otherwise.
RL: Oh, no, man, culturally it will never be back, as far as that.
HOTG: How endangered do you think the brass band scene and movement is in New Orleans with all the upheaval and relocation?
RL: Oh, it’s not in danger at all. They’re still second lining there. You got the Treme Brass Band, the Rebirth, the Hot 8. A lot of these bands are back in the city. I don’t think it hurt the brass band scene at all; but you’ve got a lot of musicians that’s scattered all over the country.
HOTG: Yeah, a lot are having to commute in, like from Houston, to make their gigs.
RL: Just like our band. the drummer’s in Atlanta, Efrem’s in Virginia, Kevin’s in Baton Rouge, the trombone player’s in Jackson, MS, one guy’s in Slidell, I’m back in New Orleans, and Gregory Davis is back in New Orleans. People are still scattered.
HOTG: I read that a number of you took a really big hit.
RL: Yeah, our trombone player [Revert Andrews] lived down there in the lower Ninth Ward. His house is totally demolished from the storm. I had 15 or 16 feet of water in my house; and Gregory had about 10 feet of water in his house. In another house, I had 5 or 6 feet of water in it. That had to be renovated. Now, Efrem lives about 8 blocks from me; and he didn’t have any water in his house; but he had wind damage from Rita. Everybody took a major hit except our drummer who lives in Algiers [New Orleans neighborhood across the river on higher ground]. He had some wind damage from Rita, but it didn’t flood over there. I lost all my history, because the [first house] was the house I grew up in; and I had a lot of pictures from when I first started playing music in junior high and high school. . .all the family pictures. All that’s gone. All that stuff you can’t replace. You know, a lot of people lost their lives, all their worldly possessions. You know, older people who retired off these bullshit jobs they’d been working all their lives and finally got some retirement money where they could sit down on their porch and have friends over for gumbo, you know how we do in New Orleans, and get together on Thanksgiving and Christmas – these people got to start all over, man; and some of these folks in some areas didn’t even have flood insurance. People are committing suicide and just stressed out. My little brother just had a stroke from all the stress, you know, trying to figure out, waiting to see how they’re going to do, what they’re going to do. I mean, New Orleans is in a bad way emotionally. . . .
[Like with any conversation down here these days, we got into it a whole lot deeper on the fate and hopes for New Orleans, what is being done, and what needs to be done. The injustice inherent in the benign neglect that precipitated this catastrophy and in the plans to rebuild and re-populate the city. It’s not surprising that much of our conversation mirrored what Spike Lee covers in When The Levees Broke. I asked Roger if he had seen the film, yet; and he had not.]
HOTG: You’re one of the founding members of the Dirty Dozen. How did you get started playing in the brass bands?
RL: I came up playing in regular bands with guitars, bass, piano, and stuff like that. I started playing music in 1965, somewhere around up in there. I never played brass band music. I played in marching bands in junior high school; but I had always seen cats marching up and down the street in brass bands; but I had never played in a brass band, because my thing was always rhythm section, big bands, rhythm and blues, rock ‘n’ roll, some jazz, that kind of thing. That’s what I came up doing. . .
[Around 1971] I was playing with Fats Domino’s band. The first time Fats took a year off [the mid-1970’s], I moved to Las Vegas and lived up there and in California for about a year, year and a half, then I came back to New Orleans and went back to Southern University and took some music classes under the direction of Kidd Jordan, and met a guy named Charles Joseph. He was taking some classes back there, also. So, one night I was hanging out in the Treme area; and I ran into a guy by the name of Darryl Adams. Darryl was playing alto with the Olympia Brass Band at one time; and he had a contract for a second line parade. I think it was a Sunday or Saturday parade; and he asked me, just hanging out with some cats, “What’re you doing? Would you like to participate in a second line parade?” I said, “Yeah, I ain’t doing nothing. I just got into town. Fats is on break again; and I’m hustling some gigs.” So that was my first time playing a second line parade. That’s before the Dirty Dozen got together.
So, through that, and meeting Charles Joseph. . .when I saw bands marching down the street, I’d just pick up my horn and go play with them and got to meet some of the cats. One of the dudes I met was Benny Jones. His band was the Original Sixth Ward Dirty Dozen Brass Band, they were calling themselves. He had connections with a lot of Social Aid and Pleasure clubs – everybody knew Benny Jones. Charles [Joseph] was a part of that Original Sixth Ward Dirty Dozen Brass Band; and one day Charles and I got to talking. A lot of guys don’t really know this story because, first of all, they weren’t there [laughter]. Everybody involved with the Dirty Dozen has a different story to tell; but they don’t know this story. So, Charles and I got to talking, and I said, “Man, we’ve got all these cats and Benny’s got all these gigs. Why don’t we get together and just organize the band and start rehearsing.” Charles [trombone] knew Gregory Davis [trumpet], so he called Gregory. Kevin Harris [tenor sax] lived down the street from his house. He called Kevin and Benny Jones [bass drum] and Jenell Marshall [snare drum]; and we started rehearsing at his daddy’s house. Tuba Fats [Anthony Lacen] was the first tuba player, but he didn’t stay too long. He decided he wanted to do his own thing, the Chosen Few [Brass Band], because we had different ideas about what we wanted to do musically. We wanted to play all the music. We wanted to do blues, bebop, avant-garde – so we just started rehearsing all different kinds of music.
Charles got his little brother, Kirk Joseph, who as in high school at the time, to play the sousaphone. We just rehearsed and rehearsed; and, later on, I think Jenell found Efrem Towns [trumpet, flugelhorn] and brought him into the band. So, we kept rehearsing and coming up with our own original music and playing music like Duke Ellington, Horace Silver, Thelonious Monk, Michael Jackson – you know, not trying to change the traditional music of New Orleans, because we were still rehearsing music like “South Rampart Street Parade”. . .and all this traditional march music that they played in these parades along with the gospel music. All we did was add these other contemporary sounds to the music, for which we got a lot of static in the beginning from a lot of the older brass band musicians, ‘cause they said we weren’t a traditional brass band; but we were playing traditional music. We just added other contemporary sounds to the music which made a different feeling and a different beat, kind of picked the beat up a little bit. And the people loved it! [laughs]. I mean the jazz we were playing caught the ear of the producer and director of jazz festivals, the great George Wein, who recorded our first [album] on the Concord label and we took it all over the world.
HOTG: I’ve got that. It’s a great record.
RL: Yeah, My Feet Can’t Fail Me Now
. So, he took us all over the world; and we got to be known among the jazz community and started recording with everybody. The horn section was so tight that some of the other artists wanted us to perform on their records; and we recorded over the years with Elvis Costello, David Byrne, Dizzy Gillespie, Branford Marsalis, Buckwheat Zydeco, the Neville Brothers, Widespread Panic, Dave Matthews, you know the list goes on and on. We like what we do; and we’ve been together 30 years, four of us, anyway.
HOTG: And behind you came all the younger brass bands.
RL: There was the Pinstripe and the Rebirth Brass Band, the Algiers Brass Band; and later on there was the New Birth and others. You know, a lot of these guys who came out after us play our music, but they play it a little different. They got their own style. But a lot of them don’t even know they’re playing the Dirty Dozen. [laughs] They keep playing all this stuff; and a lot of the young people don’t even know they’re listening to Dirty Dozen music.
HOTG: You’ve become traditional!
RL. Yeah. They don’t really know the history of the music they are listening to and how that came about.
HOTG: You all have inspired a lot of players down there and brought it to the world. So, you’re going to keep on going. Do you have big plans after the CD comes out?
RL: We hope the record will be successful. It’s making a real strong statement politically; and we hope that it has an impact and may even change some things and make some people aware of some things. We hope it gets that kind of airplay. We don’t want people to forget what’s going on, not just in New Orleans, but in the world as we know it.
I am truly grateful to Roger Lewis, the Dirty Dozen, and their record company for giving me the chance to have this conversation and share it with you. I wouldn’t have done the interview and reviewed the CD if I weren’t already a huge fan of the band and totally impressed with the new release. The creative energy, talent and faith that the Dirty Dozen have put into this project gives me hope that the people of New Orleans, the state, the Gulf Coast region, our country and and the planet can work to keep our heads above water, do the right thing, and make a positive difference in what’s going on. This one’s another keeper.