When delving into the storied history of traditional New Orleans brass band music, it isn’t a huge surprise to find that some elements may have been embellished over time. So it goes that Roger Lewis, saxophone player and founding member of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, is audibly exasperated upon the first question he receives during our phone conversation: Did the popularity of brass music in New Orleans decline during your first years performing?
“You know, a lot of people have written that, but that’s not really a true statement,” Lewis says. “First of all, there were a ton of older brass bands still working the area, booking gigs. Second, there was never a point where there weren’t new brass bands being formed in some sense. Brass bands were never able to die out, because there were always second lines, and social clubs were always on the lookout for performers for their social functions. I don’t think that’s a true statement, and I don’t know why people keep writing that down. There must have been one guy who wrote it, and then a bunch of writers just copied him.”
Lewis continues, “Brass bands have been popular in New Orleans since the first one was put together, and there’s never been a point that people haven’t looked for them.”
Lewis may dispute that brass bands were on the way out when he first picked up the sax for the Dozen, but he can’t argue that in his 37 years working the stages in Crescent City, he has seen many local groups form and disband. But the secret to Dirty Dozen’s success lies in creating their own brand of brass. “When we came along, we came with a different approach to brass band music,” Lewis says. “We started injecting be-bop, rhythm & blues, rock ‘n’ roll, and avant-garde jazz into the music, along with playing the traditional hymns and marches that brass bands were known for. We threw some Charlie Parker, Duke Ellington, and Michael Jackson in there, and we were bringing a whole different group of artists to the streets that no one had up until that time.”
The band’s attempt to make a career playing together on a regular basis wasn’t an easy decision. Despite years of playing the same clubs, there was never a guarantee that the same members would be there each night to perform.
“When we decided to make a ‘real’ band … you know, before that point, we would just gather a group of players together and play a gig, and sometimes it would be the same folks, sometimes not. We never really rehearsed — we would just get together and play our music,” he says.
“Later on down the line, Charles Joseph [former trombone player for the Dozen] said, ‘Man, we’re always playing together, so why don’t we try to put together a real band and play?’ We started rehearsing, and we sounded real bad because we just couldn’t stay organized, you know? But we kept rehearsing, about six or seven hours a day and playing the music that we wanted to play. Now when I played with Fats Domino, I had to sound like Fats Domino. When we put this band together, I finally had a chance to play and sound like whatever we wanted to play.”
Lewis laughs, “It was like a dream come true. As a baritone sax player, I could finally play lead. In other bands, the baritone ain’t gonna get the chance to play no solos!”
Their unique sound made a huge impact on the music world upon the release of their first full-length album, 1984’s My Feet Can’t Fail Me Now. With the band’s popularity starting to soar, they booked their first official tour of Europe as a cohesive unit, where they were greeted by very enthusiastic crowds. While it remains one of the biggest stereotypes in the genre, Lewis says that brass and jazz are more appreciated outside of the United States.
“Overseas, people are just more open-minded,” the musician admits. “Music is treated like more of an art form over there than here in America. If you go through the history of jazz, Louis Armstrong and all those cats were more accepted over in Europe than they ever were here in the United States. When jazz musicians went overseas, they always became more famous than those that just stayed here,” he says. “People also just know more about the history of music over there, anyway. They appreciate the music more.”
Lewis understands that when the Brass Band takes the stage in Charleston, there is a good chance that the majority of the faces looking back won’t have a prior history with the band’s music. For many, this is just an opportunity to catch a few New Orleans tunes. Lewis has been down this road before, and he promises that everyone is in for a good time, whether they are adequately prepared for it or not.
“Some people have never been exposed to the type of music that we play, so in our show we have a variety of different New Orleans music that we’ll cover. You can’t cover your whole repertoire,” Lewis says with a chuckle. “You play a little of this, a little of that, and just try to keep it uplifting.”
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