“There’s enough money in the world for everybody to have some, so what is really going on?”
New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin was emotionally and physically exhausted September 1, 2005, when he gave the now infamous “I don’t want to see anybody do any more goddamn press conferences” interview on a local radio station. Douglas Brinkley writes in The Great Deluge that Nagin broke down crying after the interview and sequestered himself in the bathroom for 20 minutes. There was little statesmanship in the mayor’s language, but it’s hard to think of a politician in recent times who said more exactly what his constituents were thinking in the exact language they were thinking it.
“Get off your asses and let’s do something! And let’s fix the biggest goddamn crisis in the history of this country!” Nagin said. That soundbite opens the new album from the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, New Orleans’ pre-eminent brass band. Public Enemy’s Chuck D. follows, asking, “What’s going on?” over a heavy, nodding groove. It’s not a dirge; it’s something more ominous, until Revert Andrews’ echo-rich trombone starts playing the melody of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On”.
The Dirty Dozen — Andrews, Gregory Davis, Kevin Harris, Roger Lewis, Efrem Towns, Kirk Joseph, Terence Higgins and Jamie McLean — pointedly chose to release What’s Going On, the band’s reinterpretation of Gaye’s classic album, on August 29, the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina’s landfall along the Gulf Coast. Vocal assistance from Chuck D., Bettye LaVette, Ivan Neville, G. Love and Guru may loan the album a little star power, but the guest artists don’t define it, nor do they sound its most emotional notes.
“Save The Children”, for example, is all anger and chaos in the hands of the Dozen, recalling Archie Shepp on Impulse Records. It starts with band members shouting, “Who really cares?” over drummer Higgins and sousaphonist Joseph’s parade rhythm. Then the saxophonists — particularly Harris — start blowing free jazz in angry, high screeches. They simmer down for a swinging take on the verses, approaching the lyricism of Gaye’s version, but the fury bubbles up and recedes until the end, when everybody goes off, and only Davis’ trumpet can recall the melody.
Nothing else on the album is that progressive, but it’s an eloquent, sophisticated statement, one people wouldn’t necessarily expect from a band and genre associated with good times, even in death. In the case of the Dirty Dozen, though, What’s Going On is the sound of a band being true to itself.
Flugelhorn player Towns is sympathetic to Nagin. “In politics you can’t really tell people, ‘Get off your ass,’” he says. “You gotta be real cordial and shit. I wish his political instincts were better, but I think he’s trying to do the right thing.”
A year ago, Towns found out something was wrong in the Gulf of Mexico when he called his wife from the band’s tour bus to wish her happy birthday on August 26 and told his son he’d see him soon. “He said, ‘I don’t know if you’re going to see us.’” Towns turned on the bus’s satellite TV, saw what was happening, and told his family to get out of town.
Lewis’ family met him in Vicksburg, Mississippi, where the band rents its tour buses. He lost his home in the Lower Ninth Ward, but once the Dirty Dozen made sure their families were safe, they returned to the road. “We kept on steppin’,” Lewis says over coffee. “The show must go on, man. People were hungry not only to feed their family but to hear the music. Music is therapy. Gotta heal people.”
Shawn Amos, vice president of Shout Factory Records, saw the Dozen at the House of Blues on Sunset Strip and heard a band that was emotionally raw. “The rage that was going on, it was so intense,” he says. “Their arrangements are always this beautiful cacophony of countermelody that’s on the verge of falling apart or taking off, and that was going times 2,000 at this gig. It was like a heavy metal show. I knew I had to capture this in the studio with them.”
Lewis is hesitant to speak for the rest of the band, but concedes they probably did play with more emotion after Katrina. “Everybody was spaced out a little bit because everybody was going through something after Katrina,” he says. “A lot of people thought they were dreaming and that this couldn’t be real.”
As he says this, Lewis dips his head slightly, looking under the brim of his hat and over his glasses. He’s sitting in a coffee shop and when he answers questions about the Dozen, he relates things back to the band’s inception. He’s 64 and the group has been together for more than a quarter-century. When they started, they were the progressive upstarts who many thought threatened the city’s brass tradition. Lewis had played with Fats Domino, and the members were influenced by Horace Silver, Charlie Parker and Duke Ellington, to name a few. Joseph played the sousaphone like an electric bass, which made the band funkier than any of its predecessors.
“We always did play the traditional songs, but we also started adding songs by composers like Michael Jackson,” Lewis points out. They later broke further with tradition and added electric guitar and a drum kit; brass band instrumentation had religiously adhered to the lineups that marched in the streets and led funeral processions for decades. More recently, they have served as the horn section for artists ranging from Elvis Costello to Modest Mouse to Widespread Panic.
With that track record, it doesn’t seem so unusual for them to interpret What’s Going On. If anything, it’s surprising it didn’t happen sooner.
In the famed radio interview, Nagin said, “You know the reason why the looters got out of control? Because we had most of our resources saving people, thousands of people that were stuck in attics, man, old ladies. When you pull off the doggone ventilator vent and you look down there…they’re standing in there in water up to their freaking necks.”