Even if the Dirty Dozen Brass Band is not doing anything special to celebrate the 25th anniversary of its first release, My Feet Can't Fail Me Now, the album still marks some of the elements that have propelled the band through more than three decades together: dedication to practice and trying new things.
"In the beginning, we came together to learn music," Gregory Davis says. "There weren't any gigs. They were rehearsals."
The group included Roger Lewis and Charles Joseph, who were students at Southern University. Joseph brought his younger brother Kirk to play sousaphone. Davis was a student at St. Augustine High School. Drummer Benny Jones was in a band and had some connections to get gigs with social aid and pleasure clubs. The members agreed to work on any type of music.
"Whatever you were exposed to, you could bring," Lewis says. "If you were interested in be-bop, avant garde, blues, rock — you could do it with the Dirty Dozen."
By the time the group released Feet in 1984, some of those modern jazz strains were part of its repertoire.
"On Feet [the song], you're listening to Charlie Parker — from a piece called 'Dexterity' — and by the end of it, we're playing Horace Silver and 'Tripping,'" Lewis says.
Through experimentation, heavy touring and collaborations with artists in other genres, the Dirty Dozen opened the door for a new approach and a new generation of New Orleans brass bands. The Dozen literally showed the world what could be done with a brass band setup. The Big Easy Foundation is honoring the group with a special Music Heritage Award at its music awards gala on April 19 at Harrah's Casino.
Most of the Dozen's members were not part of the Fairview Baptist Church Band put together by Danny Barker to teach young musicians to play traditional New Orleans music, but the revival of traditional brass bands it inspired was underway when they got together. The Dozen filled its repertoire with traditional songs like "Bourbon Street Parade," but also played R&B, funk and pop tunes by stars ranging from James Brown to Michael Jackson. The members found that audiences liked their new work.
"One of the best nights in town [in the early 1980s] was when we played at the Glass House Uptown [every Monday]," Davis says. "People wanted to dance to new music, so we worked really hard to have a new song for them to dance to every week."
The Dozen also noticed familiar faces in the audience. Lewis remembers spotting Fats Domino (and later played in Domino's band), Dizzy Gillespie and other touring musicians.
Dozen members gigged with other bands, but by the mid-'80s, extended tours in New York City, California and at European festivals sealed their focus as a group. Jazz Fest founders George Wein and Quint Davis booked the Dozen at festivals around the world, promoting it as a new type of brass band. Invitations to record flowed in and the group progressed in both new and traditional spheres, recording with Gillespie, Elvis Costello on Spike, and sought out Danny Barker to record Blue Lu Barker's "Don't You Feel My Leg."
After Hurricane Katrina, the Dozen released a full-length cover of Marvin Gaye's album What's Goin' On?, though it was a project started years before the storm. On it, the band welcomed guests Chuck D and Bettye LaVette, among others. It's a project even perfectionist Lewis is happy with.
"I don't like anything; I'm never satisfied," he says, laughing. "But it came out so good, even I was impressed."
But he's still working hard on new music.
"I'm practicing some Wynton Marsalis charts right now that are kicking my ass," he says.