Death march 

Down with the Dirty Dozen Brass Band

It’s 1977. It’s New Orleans. It’s the Dirty Dozen Social and Pleasure Club, home of the renaissance of two nearly forgotten Crescent City traditions.

More than a hundred years ago, social and pleasure clubs provided proper funerals for black southerners who couldn’t afford them. Brass bands—a taproot of jazz featuring only brass instruments—would follow the funeral processions, playing dirges to the dearly departed. Once the family of the deceased left the premises, the brass bands would start rockin’ and a party would ensue (for an example of what jazz did with the style, check out Jelly Roll Morton’s “Dead Man Blues”). But by the ’70s, most of the social and pleasure clubs had died out, and with them went the brass bands.

With the opening of the Dirty Dozen Social and Pleasure Club (which was really just a nightclub) arrived the institution of the house brass band. Over the course of a few years, the seven-member ensemble came to be known as the Dirty Dozen Brass Band. Two decades later, after graduating to jazz festivals, guest appearances (the band has played on albums by David Bowie, Elvis Costello, Dr. John and the Neville Brothers) and recording contracts, the Dirty Dozen have toured the world and reinvigorated the brass band tradition. In their wake has come both the ReBirth Brass Band and the New Birth Brass Band.

What’s made this antiquated style such a modern success is the bands’ ability to take a traditional musical genre and infuse it with everything—rock, blues, funk, R&B, bop, gospel. Even a tune like Stevie Wonder’s “Part-Time Lover,” in the hands of a live brass band, can be a foot-stomping, jug-dancing, let’s-stay-for-another-drink event.

As the elder statesmen of the movement, the Dirty Dozen does it best—and New Orleans and the broader musical world has repaid them. Their latest album, Medicated Magic, showcases covers of songs by New Orleans torch-bearers The Meters (“Cissy Strut,” “Africa”), Allen Toussaint (“Everything I Do Gon’ Be Funky”) and Dr. John (“Walk On Gilded Splinters,” “Junko Partner”), and features friends and fans Dr. John, DJ Logic, Norah Jones and Widespread Panic vocalist John Bell.

But albums, even ones chocked with guest stars, aren’t where the Dirty Dozen shines. Dirty Dozen is a live band first and foremost. The band has honed its chops over years of playing in smoky, drunk and happy New Orleans bars. And while the band has added some non-traditional instruments (even a guitar player), the boys are still working hard as ambassadors of the old New Orleans.

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