Baritone sax player and Dirty Dozen Brass Band founding member Roger Lewis has made a 35-year career out of making the New Orleans brass band tradition vibrate at a different level. His group brought club music—bebop, swing and blues, that is—to streets previously filled with repertoires of hymns and proto-jazz, essentially modernizing the brass band.
Lewis explains that the group, before his arrival, was based on the Dirty Dozen Kazoo Band, guys who clowned around and entertained their neighborhood with their miniature, buzzing wind instruments. From there a slightly more serious Sixth Ward Dirty Dozen Brass Band was formed. In 1977 it became the bona fide Dirty Dozen that it still is today. Not that the group has stayed the same. Lewis says it’s transformed many times over the years—whether that means switching from separate snare and bass drum players to a drum kit, or going electric and incorporating an organ, or covering pop songs.
The one constant is that the band plays music that is at once highly technical—it’s ripe for fellow musicians to observe and analyze—and also an impetus for cutting loose and dancing like there’s no tomorrow. New Mexicans can partake in both of those activities this weekend. The band will play New Mexico Jazz Festival gigs in Albuquerque and Santa Fe. On the phone, Lewis, with his charming and distinct Nola drawl, explained a little bit about Dirty Dozen and the city where it all began.
What's Dirty Dozen’s main objective?
Spread the joy, and spread the happiness—the feeling of what we do in New Orleans. Try to take the music to a higher spiritual level. Me myself personally as a musician, I'm trying to make a connection to a power greater than myself, musically and spiritually, and trying to project that where people can feel it. Because music is so powerful. Music can change your life. We're like ministers. [Laughs.]
Were there any particular New Orleans musicians who influenced you more than others when you were coming up?
Well, we're influenced by everybody from New Orleans because we're in New Orleans, see what I mean? There's no one person. You've got Professor Longhair, Eddie Bo, you got the music of "Sugar Boy" Crawford, you've got the music of Tommy Ridgley—I mean these are all local people—Jesse Hill, Ernie K-Doe. You've got these great saxophone players like Lee Allen, Herb Hardesty; drummers like James Black, Smokey Johnson, Harry Nance, John Boudreaux—all these great drummers.
So we in music, we are influenced by every great musician and every musician in the city of New Orleans because we are New Orleans musicians. So it's not no one particular person I would say, for me. I'm influenced by the music of the city.
What's your favorite setting to play?
I don't particularly care for bars too much. I can kind of deal with it now because people are not smoking as much. The only reason I don't like bars is because I don't like inhaling all that nicotine. I like open-air concerts and I like theaters—anywhere, really.
Has second line culture changed in New Orleans over the years?
Back in my day—I'm 70 years old, right?—back in my day it used to be the band would be the first line and the people behind the band would be the second liners. And usually it was like a parade—like people would stand on each side of the sidewalk and watch the second liners do their thing. But now if you go to a second line, you've got to stop the people from running all in front of the band. It's kind of a different kind of thing now. You have these marching clubs that's in front of the band—they're doing their thing.
But we've been second lining ever since the beginning, whenever that was—probably back in the 1700s maybe, 1800s—somewhere back up in there. When the slaves got the instruments and learned how to play them, entertaining themselves and whatnot—everything took off from there.
Why did you guys choose to cover Rihanna’s “Don’t Stop the Music” on your new album, Twenty Dozen?
I wanted to do something a little bit current, and I kind of suggested that, you know, just to attract another audience maybe. We play all different styles of music. Back in the day we was playing the music of Michael Jackson.
What do you think about the HBO’s “Treme”?
The show “Treme” I think is a wonderful representation of New Orleans. Of course it's a TV show, you know what I mean?
How would you describe New Orleans nowadays?
People are very friendly and it's a very musical city. We don't just have Bourbon Street—you gotta venture out into some of the neighborhoods where they have a lot of good music. Get away from some of the tourist traps—just check the city out.
Of course, we're just trying to recover from Hurricane Katrina. In some neighborhoods we have a lot of abandoned houses because people haven't got they money to put they house back together, or they just moved out the city and moved other places. You go down in the most devastated areas of the city like the Lower Ninth Ward and you'll find there's a lot of green space. Where there were houses there's empty lots.
So we're trying to recover—it'll probably take us another 50 to 75 years for all of the city to be functioning. But we're doing the best we can do. We up and running, and the music is thriving. A lot of musicians are coming in from out of town to soak up all this music—the feeling of the music. You can hear the notes, but it's a certain feeling: You know, New Orleans music feels different from most music in other places. A lot of people come to New Orleans because they want to feel that. I think everybody on the planet Earth should visit New Orleans one time in their life.
What do you want people to know?
Life is very short, so you want to be around the positive stuff and surround yourself with the right people so you can lead your life—whatever time you got here on the planet Earth—peaceful. Try to bring that peace and share it with other people. This is the human thing to do, the right thing to do. As a musician, that's my job to do that, to spread that kind of joy and peace and happiness. That is what I was put here to do. And this is what Dirty Dozen is all about.