Discovering Dixie: Dirty Dozen Brass Band

Dirty Dozen Brass BandI have no idea how I came across it. I know the album cover was exciting to me — but somehow I ended up purchasing the Dirty Dozen Brass Band’s “Whatcha Gonna Do For the Rest of Your Life” (buy it here)while a freshman in high school in Seoul, Korea. I must have run across it on the US military base, at the PX (Post Exchange). I remember the PX had a large and kind of bizarre mish-mash of CDs for sale, and somewhere among the jumble I found the Dirty Dozen Brass Band.

They’re a true New Orleans / Dixieland sound, but on this album they are a tad more introspective than usual. Two tracks stand out — the first was the title track. Here I am, a freshman in high school, with the Big Bad College Applications apparently around the corner, and I found myself bizarrely worrying about what I was going to do with the rest of my life. The lovely sax that opens the song sends kind of a different message — it’s got a smooth, silky sound, a kind of “oh, what the hell” feeling.

The song, with its snare drum and tambourine is down right celebratory. As the band starts chanting in the background, “Whatcha gonna do with the rest of your life, whatcha gonna do til you get it right” you can’t help but laugh — it feels like such a tongue-in-cheek comment being mixed in with the fun and vibrant sounds of the dueling saxophones.

I loved the song — and still love it. It has a care-free attitude to it, throwing it back in your face — what are you gonna do for the rest of your life?

But the other song on the album which captured my teenage attention was Song For Lady M — a sad, slow saxophone solo number. Although some of the progressions are still reminiscent of Dixieland, this is more of Coltrane-inspired sound. It starts slow and sad. For some reason I could always imagine it being played from a high window off a dark street. It’s that kind of smoky feeling. In the middle of the song it starts to pick up — but the sound is not any less sad, it starts to communicate a sort of desperation. A Desperate Song for Lady M.

At 15, I had no idea what heartbreak was. But Song for Lady M was heartbreak — an intense, personal heartbreak, different from “Soul Gestures in Southern Blues”. Marsalis’ jazz genius on that number is the menacing yoke of history; the Dirty Dozen sax solo is mournful, a personal love lost.

I somehow went on to then completely forget about the Dirty Dozen Brass Band until a couple of years ago. I am a huge Olu Dara fan, and looking for more of his music I stumbled upon a track he does with the Dirty Dozen Brass Band on “Medicated Magic” — the track is called Junko Partner and it is as good as this kind of party jazz gets. The album as a whole is great, with an amazing number with Dr. John – not to mention the all out delight of the opening track, Ain’t Nothing But A Party. That’s the truth.

And so one year after my virgin birth into Jazz, I went from the Serious, Village Vanguard-style jazz of Wynton Marsalis to the Dixieland joy of the Dirty Dozen. Next up: Acid Jazz.

This is the second in a series detailing my personal jazz history. You can read the series here.

3 Responses to “Discovering Dixie: Dirty Dozen Brass Band”

  1. Mary Helene Says:

    I took a Jazz Appreciation class in college. I mostly remember how difficult it was to write about it. You do it well, Nicco.
    Now where does Roshan Roland Kirk fit in? He’s my personal favorite.

  2. anne Says:


    (a DFA flashback for you, since it’s retrospective and personal history day!)

  3. David K. Cohen Says:

    If you enjoy Dirty Dozen’s sound, check out Rebirth Brass Band. The guys wail.

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