Throw Me Some Second Line, Mister
As I mentioned last week, Carnival season 2010 has begun in New Orleans and elsewhere in South Louisiana; and what better way to get in the mood than to hear some brass band throwdown. First up is Dejan's Olympia Brass Band doing their take of Professor Longhair's Carnival classic "Mardi Gras In New Orleans" a/k/a "Go To The Mardi Gras", which he created in the late 1940s and first recorded in 1949 for the Star Talent label and for Atlantic a little later. Certainly the version most heard in New Orleans has been the one he cut for Ron Records back in the early 1960s, which I featured here several years ago and is still in rotation at the HOTG webcast).
In contrast, the second number features a high energy track recorded six years later by the forefront of the next generation of brass bands, the Dirty Dozen, destined to become the city's premier outfit for many years, The parties have already started, y'all. . . .we've got some catching up to do.
"Mardi Gras In New Orleans" (Roland Byrd)
Dejan's Olympia Brass Band of New Orleans, independently released, 1978
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Those of you hearing the Olympia for the first time may be a bit under-whelmed by this take, especially if you've listened to any of the newer New Orleans brass bands of the last few decades, who play things much more in-your-face (sometimes literally, if you are in a tight club) and way funky. By comparison, these guys were more rooted in the traditional sound, which goes back over 100 years and encompasses the early days of jazz. The Olympia still pushed that good second line groove; but played it down a few notches from full-tilt. Maybe part of that was being in the studio confines with the obvious limitations that entailed; but mostly, they just did not attack their material with the powerful thrust of the new bands who came after them.
For reference, look at the date of this record. 1978. The new wave of the contemporary brass band movement was just coming together, spearheaded by the Dirty Dozen which formed about 1977 and took a few years to move from the street parade tradition to playing more adventurous material, including many outstanding originals. The Olympia's single appeared at a transitional time just before their style was about to be supplanted, revitalized and transformed by exuberant new blood.
What caught my ear when I was listening to this side was the tuba (or sousaphone) lines running through it. I thought the patterns sounded familiar, especially on the opening; so, I pulled out my copy of the Dirty Dozen doing their own take of this song live in 1986, from their Rounder LP/CD Live: Mardi Gras In Montreux . On it, Kirk Joseph's sousaphone patterns are very close to those on the Olympia single, where you can also hear some of the turnaround lines on the bass horn mimicking what Fess had played in his left hand on the piano. I'd wager that Joseph, who was in or just out of high school when this single was released, had picked up those runs from hearing the Olympia play, when they were still the most popular brass band around. [Note: In the comments to this post, Matt suggests that the tuba player on this track was likely Anthony 'Tuba Fats' Lacen, who played with the Olympia off and on during the 1970s. Also, Matt reminds me/us that 'Tuba Fats' was the Dirty Dozen's first bass horn player. He didn't stay with them long, but directly influenced his replacement, the young Kirk Joseph, whose big brother Charles had been in the Dozen from the start. That ties it up nicely, Matt. Thanks so much!]
Having started in the early 1960s, Dejan's Olympia Brass Band was headed by its founder, saxophonist Haold Dejan, and trumpeter Milton Batiste and had a revolving collection of fine players pass through over the years. I am not sure what the 1978 era lineup was. The closest list I have is on a their 1974 LP, Here Come Da Great Olympia Band, which shows 11 members at that time. Batiste passed away in 2001, followed by Dejan a year or so later; and it is to their credit that they kept the Olympia and the brass band sound going for so many years, playing mostly the traditional repertoire. As this track reveals, they had adopted and adapted at least a few R&B tunes. Another one Milton Batiste arranged for the band was Smokey Johnson’s early funk classic, “It Ain’t My Fault”, which they were among the first, if not the earliest, to bring into the second line parade songbook.
Though the Olympia still ruled the groove when they made this record, the rambunctious, creative new generation was just around the musical corner, and would in the next few years propel the genre back to the forefront of the city's unique and vital musical lifeblood.
With that set-up, let’s hear one from the Dirty Dozen themselves for a taste of just what their approach was all about.
"Backbird Special" (Dirty Dozen Brass Band)
Dirty Dozen Brass Band, from My Feet Can't Fail Me Now, Concord Jazz, 1984
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Not living in New Orleans, my introduction to the Dirty Dozen was picking up their previously mentioned Rounder live album when it came out back in the mid-1980s, while I was down for Jazzfest or some other music pilgrimage. The power, funk, and devilishly tight intricacy of their playing literally blew me away, restructured my DNA, and set me up to explore all the other up and coming brass bands of the era: the Rebirth, New Birth, Treme, and on down the line. I had some traditional brass band albums; but they did not prepare me for the explosive, killer grooves this aggregation could pump out. It was not until a few years later that I uncovered My Feet Can't Fail Me Now, their first LP from 1984, which was issued on the first class Concord Jazz label and impeccably recorded at Studio In the Country in Bogalusa, Louisiana. I had heard the title track playing on jukeboxes around New Orleans prior to that; but a vinyl copy proved elusive until I nailed that album in Memphis, of all places, at an audiophile equipment store that also stocked high-end records. [Note: as it turn out, I just remembered that the jukebox version I heard was a single the Dozen put out on their own Mad Musicians label around 1983, "My Feet Can't Fail Me Now" b/w "L'll Liza Jane". Pretty sure it was played on WWOZ, too. I originally got this information from John in Guam, who has the single and told me about it a couple of years back.]
The LP was a revelation about how well-developed their approach was early on and how smoothly they adapted to the recording process; and I first wrote about it in the early days of the blog. "Blackbird Special", one of their many intense originals, has been a signature tune of the band since before this record came out - and you may still hear them work out on it at a gig. As with all the great contemporary brass band music they created or inspired, the feel here is highly celebratory, ecstatic even, with an overwhelming groove guaranteed to make you move whatever which-way it comes out. The not-so-secret ingredient the Dirty Dozen brought (and still bring) to this and every party was their advanced musicianship, allowing them to take chances with demanding material and consistently smoke it.
Somewhat prior to this album, The Dirty Dozen also released a self-produced two-part 45 version of "Blackbird Special" on their Mad Musicians label. It probably was put out for a Mardi Gras season in the early 1980s; and I have a feeling it pre-dates the "Feet" 45 mentioned above. But that take was much less effective than the Concord cut, as the band seemed to have been recorded too low, keeping them at a distance and diminishing their power and impact. Plus, they made it with a lot of verbal banter, which was too prominent in the mix. Simply letting the instruments do most of the talking, as they did on the LP, would have made that 45 much more memorable.
Consider the HOTG Carnival season kicked off. There'll be more seasonal party music to come and more Toussaint-related tracks, too; so check back. And, speaking of kick-off. . . . Who dat? Geaux Saints!
[For further insights, read my interview with Roger Lewis, one of the founders of the Dirty Dozen.]