Winnipeg's Jazz Magazine

May/June 2009: Jimmy Cobb

The Dirty Dozen Brass Band:
American Griots

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The Dirty Dozen Brass Band takes you back to New Orleans in the early heyday of jazz. You can hear the marching band sounds of John Phillip Sousa and the Spanish tinge from the streets at the turn of the century. They’re a rousing, smack-em-up, no-rhythm-section band—tuba, sousaphone, trombones, trumpets, saxophones. They march on out there, bang on the big bass drum, and play hard. Sometimes they even sing.

They’re soulful in a church spiritual kind of way—they sound like a southern Baptist choir with horns. They might do “Just a Closer Walk with Thee” and it will make you laugh at the same time that it’s sweeping you away.

With The Dirty Dozen (and yes, there are only eight of them), what you get is a lot of core tradition. This is not what they’ve learned about how this music sounds, but what their daddy’s daddy’s daddies pass on down.

In traditional African cultures, there aren’t music schools. Everybody in the tribe is a musician, but certain families have been musicians for uncountable generations. These guys are the griots, the keepers of the musical traditions of their cultures. They know the story for every note, the song for every story, the method for every song. They know how to pass messages in the way they sing and the songs they choose for every single thing that happens in the day. I met some amazing griots on my travels in Africa with Elvin Jones—they stunned me with their facility and subtlety, and the depth of their knowledge. What they know is handed down, rooted in.

The Dirty Dozen makes me think of those encounters. These guys have grown up steeped in the music and in the play— our jazz ancestors talk to us through their voices. These are the American griots. Of course they can benefit from a few thousand years—but I say don’t wait!

Steve Kirby has been known to dance in public to New Orleans’ Second Line.

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