The 1980s were not, to put it mildly, a good decade for brass sections.
We still heard horns on the Top 40, sure — but more often than not, we got sax solos from guys who wanted to sound like they were playing on an urban rooftop. When a song’s arrangement called for a full-on horn section, bands mostly opted to go the cheesy synth blast route, and bands that actually had horn sections either took most of the decade off (Tower of Power) or padlocked their brass players out of the studio (Chicago).
And please, let’s not get started on the dreaded EWI.
But you know what they say about actions and reactions, and while horns were losing the battle on the radio, a number of talented musicians were working hard to bring them back from synthy oblivion — and by 1990, as the “unplugged” trend started to take off, live brass started to breathe again, too. In fact, it started surfacing on VH1, which is where I caught this video that summer:
And okay, so maybe the Dirty Dozen Brass Band was just enjoying a little bit of splashback from the Nordstrom swing revival sparked by Harry Connick, Jr., who had a hit with “Recipe of Love” during the same period — but still, they injected a little honest heat into the airwaves during a time when kids my age thought “heat” was being generated by the models in the video for Winger’s “Can’t Get Enuff.” That cover of Dave Bartholomew‘s “That’s How You Got Killed Before” was a minor revelation to 16-year-old me, and the record it came from, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band’s The New Orleans Album, provided an excellent gateway drug into the New Orleans brass style — and from there, the world of funk, soul, and Second Line jazz. Twenty years later, I’m still thanking them.
Hailing from the Treme before it was cool, the Dirty Dozen got its start as the Hurricane Brass Band in the early ’70s. It wasn’t a particularly great time for New Orleans music in the marketplace, and by the late ’70s, the band had been reduced to a loose confederacy of musicians that occasionally rehearsed and/or performed together. It was this lack of structure, however, that enabled the band to cast off some of the music’s stuffier traditions, adding an irresistible spark to their performances; by 1980, they’d taken on the Dirty Dozen Brass Band moniker and developed a fervent following in the area. The road beckoned, and by 1984, the Dirty Dozen had a record deal and a touring schedule that took the band to Europe and back (and to Montreux, where their performance was recorded for a stellar 1986 release).
They marked their Columbia debut with 1987’s Voodoo, which included appearances from Dr. John, Branford Marsalis, and Dizzy Gillespie; three years later, they invited Costello, Bartholomew, Danny Barker, and Eddie Bo into the studio for The New Orleans Album, which paid tribute to giants like Cannonball Adderley (“Inside Straight”) and master improviser Kidd Jordan (“Kidd Jordan’s Second Line”) while highlighting terrific performances from Barker (“Don’t You Feel My Leg”) and Bartholomew (“The Monkey”) and tossing in a few originals. In short, it rules, and although the Dirty Dozen’s Columbia tenure was destined to be short-lived, the label deserves credit for holding on to its tax deduction long enough for the band to release Open Up: Whatcha Gonna Do for the Rest of Your Life (1991) and Jelly (1993).
The post-Columbia years have been a little bumpy for the band, which — horrors! — briefly subtracted the “Brass Band” from its name for 1998’s Ears to the Wall and has bopped around various labels (Mammoth, Ropeadope, Shout! Factory) over the last decade and change. They’re still making great music, but never for the massive audience it deserves, and they haven’t released a new album since 2006’s What’s Going On, a Katrina-inspired redux of Marvin Gaye’s classic. This needs to change. Do your part by listening to The New Orleans Album here — then add everything else they’ve ever done to your collection. Follow them on Twitter. Spread the gospel to everyone you know. This is required listening for the human race.