Article: Dirty Dozen Brass Band is fighting for a city

Here’s my latest for The Guide on Hilton Head Island:

Dirty Dozen Brass Band is fighting for a city
Special to the Guide
Published Friday, October 5, 2007

It’s been two long years since a combination of natural force and human weakness shoved New Orleans’ head under the water and held it there, two long years since the city that gave birth to jazz found its horns — both musical and automotive — silenced by a rush of water through levees and dams that the government said were safe. Two long years.

So what’s going on?

Trumpeter and flugelhornist Efrem Towns, an original member of New Orleans’ own Dirty Dozen Brass Band, says Hurricane Katrina “exposed a lot of issues and social irregularities that shouldn’t be tolerated in the society we live in, but appear in our own backyards. New Orleans will prevail, but as far as the social stuff, it’s what’s been going on. It takes a catastrophe like Katrina to expose the whole thing.”

As it turns out, even something like Katrina isn’t enough to keep a good city down, and the city’s most prolific brass band, which performs in Savannah tonight, is back with a new album that’s helping to bring some much-needed musical and financial relief to the Crescent City.

That album is “What’s Going On,” released last year on the first anniversary of Katrina. It’s a musical reworking of the Marvin Gaye classic and a tribute to the city that couldn’t be sunk, all full of swampy backbeats and the thick brass sound that has made the Dirty Dozen one of the city’s quintessential musical outfits. A portion of the proceeds from the record goes to Tipitina’s Foundation (, a nonprofit working to restore New Orleans’ musical culture.

Moreover, to make the point that the city’s influence extends far beyond its borders, the Dirty Dozen are joined on the record by a roster of stellar guests, including Public Enemy founder Chuck D, soul singer Bettye LaVette, G. Love, Guru from the seminal hip-hop outfit Gang Starr, and New Orleans’ own Ivan Neville.

Dirty Dozen co-founder and trumpeter Gregory Davis is clear about the album’s — and the band’s — message these days. “It just made sense in light of all that happened with the storm,” he said. “But even beyond that, to ask ‘What’s going on?’ in the world makes sense. What happened with 9/11, what happened with the tsunami, what happened with the earthquakes over in Iraq and Afghanistan, what’s happening with the so-called war. What’s really going on?”

The Dirty Dozen Brass Band has spent three decades forging powerful music from the elements of New Orleans jazz, R&B, hip-hop, funk and pop. They’ve been to more than 65 countries on five continents, but New Orleans will always be home, despite what they’ve lost.

“I’m not talking about clothes and shoes and material things, but family albums,” said co-founder and baritone sax player Roger Lewis.

“I have a 7-year-old daughter. I had pictures of myself as a child, but I can’t share them with her because they were destroyed. All she’s really going to know is her dad as a 64-year-old man.”

Author: Jason Crane