Wrapping up 18th Juneau Jazz & Classics Festival

Life, death and the exuberant march to REBIRTH

Posted: Thursday, May 27, 2004

The Dirty Dozen Brass Band began modestly in New Orleans in 1977, with seven young brass players who still retained an ear for the slowly fading, century-old legacy of jazz funeral music.

They were hired as the house band by the Dirty Dozen Social Club - from where the group took its name - and soon they were the most requested funeral leaders in the city.

They played for the rich and the poor, starting with the traditional dirge as the casket left its viewing place, building into joyful swing as the body approached its resting place.

"We weren't purists," said original and current trumpet player Gregory Davis, on the band's Web site, www.dirtydozenbrass.com. And although they formed out of tribute to the pre-Dixieland, gospel-born old guard, their music has always incorporated rock, funk, bebop and rhythm and blues.

Over 27 years, the Brass Band has marched far beyond the French Quarter - releasing 10 albums, touring more than 30 countries on five continents and playing on albums by Elvis Costello, David Bowie, Dave Matthews and Modest Mouse, among others.

They will make their first trip to Alaska for the grand finale of the 18th annual Juneau Jazz & Classics Festival. The group plays at 8 p.m. Saturday, May 29, at Juneau-Douglas High School auditorium. Tickets are $25 for adults, $20 for students and seniors and available at Hearthside Books or www.juneaujazzandclassics.org.

"(T)he Dirty Dozen's contribution to American music is inestimable," wrote Mac Randall in the April 14, 2002, New York Times. "Working almost singlehandedly, the group revived and rejuvenated a style that was nearing extinction."

As ubiquitous as the Dirty Dozen has become throughout the world, they're New Orleans street musicians at the core. And they're still available for funerals.

"Our business card says 'funerals to birthdays,'" original and current baritone saxophone player Richard Lewis said. "If somebody requests it, we're going to do it. You could book your own funeral if you know the time and the hour and the day. That's when you know you have your stuff together."

On the group's 10th record, "Funeral for a Friend," Dirty Dozen tries to present a classic archetype of a jazz funeral. The album came out May 11 on Ropeadope and was their first full-on gospel release. It begins with a somber arrangement of the traditional hymn, "Just a Closer Walk With Thee," before breaking into bedlam with Homer Franklin Morris' "I Shall Not Be Moved."

"We wanted to capture the spirit of what happens at a jazz funeral," Lewis said. "Usually, the way the funeral will go down, as they bring the body down the steps, you play a slow dirge with a slow dirge until you walk a few blocks or however long depending on the family and how much money they've got. As you cut the body loose, that's when the festivities start. You're on your way to where they have all the food, where everybody goes to eat and meet and gather."

Side two starts with a moody retelling of Blind Willie Johnson's "John the Revelator," then bursts into chaos again with the soaring spiritual, "I'll Fly Away."

"We did a DVD with (Southern rock band) Gov't Mule, and the guitar player, Warren Haynes, sang 'John The Revelator,'" Lewis said. "It came out so good we decided we were going to record it ourselves. And it was an appropriate song."

"I've been coming up through the Baptist church all my life, and funerals are a way of life for me," he said. "Everybody who's a musician in New Orleans has been exposed to that. It's pretty much a point of your culture and your upbringing."

"Funeral for a Friend" took on extra significance when founding member Anthony "Tuba Fats" Lacen died of a heart attack in January, just two weeks after the band completed the album. The band dedicated the record to him. And appropriately, Dirty Dozen serenaded his funeral procession, through the streets of New Orleans, on Jan. 18, 2004.

"They had him laid out at Gallier Hall, the old City Hall building, and they must have had thousands of people," Lewis said. "They marched to the French Quarter and into the neighborhood where he lived. And they cut the body loose at the St. Louis Cemetery in the Sixth Ward. It was one of the biggest funerals New Orleans has ever seen. He didn't realize how famous he was and how much love he had. He was a street musician; you would see him playing the tuba in front of the Jackson Square every day. But he played with the Olympia Brass Band and Dirty Dozen and just about everyone around."

Listening to "Funeral for a Friend," you can imagine following the procession down the steps of Gallier and through the heart of the city. The band's label, Ropeadope, dissects the album song-by-song, as if it's the soundtrack to Lacen's procession, at http://www.ropeadope.com/ddbb/song_by_song/

"At first there is virtually no improvisation, no joy, the attention of all onlookers appropriately focused on the mourning family of the deceased," the site says of the album's opening track. "But as the procession rounds the corner from St. Charles to Poydras, the 'Second Line' bursts into celebration - Tuba Fats lives on."

"It was a sad and happy occasion," Lewis said of the actual procession. "He was a jolly cat. In church you have your serious moments and then you have your, 'Glory, glory, be in a better place, be with the Father.' That's what's going to send him off. Let's play happy music. We played a tune he wrote called 'Tuba Fats,' going down the street after they cut the body loose."

"A few weeks after the funeral, they had another celebration where all the schools came out and they had a ceremony for Tuba Fats," he said. "There must have been three or four dozen schools, and I think about 500 tuba players paying tribute to him. He was so well-loved. He didn't get his fame and fortune until he died. Give me roses before I go, that's what some people would say."

"Funeral for a Friend" was produced by Craig Street, who worked with Norah Jones on three songs - "Seven Years," "Feelin' the Same Way" and "The Long Day is Over" - from "Come Away With Me."

Recently, Dirty Dozen's horn section appeared on two songs, "Horn Intro" and "The Devil's Workday," on the new Modest Mouse album, "Good News for People Who Love Bad News."

"Modest Mouse heard us play somewhere, and they called to see if we could do it," Lewis said. "If any artist cares that much about you and how you sound, and if they want you to play on the record, that's one of the highest respects that any musician could pay another musician."

"We've been pretty fortunate to be blessed with all this love, and we believe on giving love back," he said. "We believe in giving you something for your mind, body and soul."

• Korry Keeker can be reached at korry.keeker@juneauempire.com.

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