Funeral for a Friend

The Dirty Dozen revolutionized brass-band music in the early 1980s with an infusion of bebop and jump blues rhythms that took the old down-home sound to new thresholds. Veteran saxophonists Roger Lewis and Kevin Harris, trumpeters Gregory Davis and Efrem Towns (who also plays fluegelhorn), and Kirk Joseph on sousaphone have given the group a core over the years, with other artists moving through the ranks. The Dozen built a national reputation with a string of recordings and the long grind of concert touring. Some years the band has played upward of 200 dates, according to Davis.
Funeral for a Friend was recorded at Piety Street Recording Studio in December 2003. Producer Craig Street oversaw the recording mix at Sunset Sound Factory in Los Angeles. The CD is on the Ropeadope label. Barely a month after the mix, just after New Year’s 2004, Anthony “Tuba Fats” Lacen, a mainstay of the brass bands that play in the French Quarter, died from heart trouble related to diabetes. His funeral parade was marred by a shooting death outside Joe’s Cozy Corner in Treme.
Dedicated to the memory of Tuba Fats, the Dirty Dozen’s recording draws out the sweetness and sorrow of what Jelly Roll Morton called “the end of a perfect death.” The recording creates a spiritual aura that endows the jazz burial tradition. Jazz has always been a music made of tensions, the earliest one being that between the sacred and the profane, the Storyville cribs and the rolling lines of churchsong threading through the city Sunday after Sunday in the years when jazz first flowered.
On this recording, the lead cut, “Just A Closer Walk With Thee,” rolls out as a wailing dirge with all the throat of a choir singing hard for the deepest loss. Then, at the bridge, the tune shifts into an uptempo parade beat.
“When the Saints Go Marching In” was originally played slow-tempo, as a hymn, until 1938 when Louis Armstrong’s recording of the song turned it into a jumping street anthem.
“Just A Closer Walk” was another hymn in the 1930s that became adapted as a dirge. As the music of the pews wended through the streets with trumpets and trombones pushing the melody, the clarinet pealed out high lines of sorrow, “the widow’s wail” that imbued the dirge with tones of deep mourning.
The Dirty Dozen has no clarinet on this recording. I can’t remember when the band carried a clarinetist. Few of the younger brass bands, such as Rebirth or New Birth, use clarinetists, which is one reason why the music lacks the soaring eloquence of the ensemble style that was carried out of the post-World War II years. A brass band without a clarinet really has to stretch to find its poetic essence. In fairness to the Dozen, they’ve developed a hard-driving jump blues sound that caters more to people on the streets and in nightclubs than to folks in pews. Funeral for a Friend marks a return to many of their roots.
The Dirty Dozen relies heavily on sousaphone players – Kirk Joseph on the lead cut, Julius McKee and Jeffrey Hills Sr. on others. Absent the clarinet, the band uses the brass horns for a deeper sound, more “bottom” as they say in the studio, a stronger ground beat, stronger rhythmic drive.
What the band sacrifices in the loss of the dark reed it gains, on this recording, with the poetic voices of the Davell Crawford Singers on the cuts that take us into church: “Jesus on the Mainline,” “Please Let Me Stay A Little Longer,” “What A Friend We Have in Jesus” and “I’ll Fly Away.”
The fusion of the Dirty Dozen’s polished polyrhythms and the soaring choral refrains of Crawford’s group produces a precious rendition of funeral music. The hymns sung here have a long history in the burial traditions of the Crescent City, dating back well before the music we now call gospel was performed with ensembles in churches. The mass choirs that sing in the gospel tent at Jazz Fest are a recent development in the evolution of religious music. Funeral for a Friend draws a unique bridge between modern instrumental arrangements and vocal harmonies that reach back to earlier stylizations of hymns before many churches featured bands.
The first recording of brass-band funeral music was in 1951 with the Eureka, a band no longer in existence. A recording of the Young Tuxedo followed soon thereafter. More recently, Milton Batiste oversaw a recording of jazz funeral music for Dejan’s Olympia Brass Band. The stylistic attack on these recordings is quite different from the Dirty Dozen’s, which offers a jazz impressionism, melded with churchsong, in a dazzling presentation of music as memory. •

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