New Orleans is to music what Iowa is to corn.
Affectionately known as “The Big Easy,” the city is known for the funk, R&B, soul and jazz that drift out of its packed and sweaty nightclubs on Frenchmen Street and off the hot, humid streets of the French Quarter.
The Dirty Dozen Brass Band is one of its longtime staples. They’ll perform alongside Ivan Neville, Ian Neville and Walter “Wolfman” Washington during “Take Me to the River: New Orleans LIVE!” The show is Friday at Ent Center for the Arts.
Baritone saxophonist Roger Lewis has long been steeped in the New Orleans musical tradition. Born and raised in the city, music took hold of him at 8, when he started playing piano. When a cousin picked up the saxophone, it looked pretty good to Lewis, who decided to switch gears a couple of years later. While his cousin didn’t stick to the instrument, Lewis did, and then some.
“When you’re young, you have something to prove,” said Lewis, 78, in a phone interview. “When my cousin didn’t keep up, the next time he saw me I was playing with Fats Domino.”
That was 1972, when Lewis was in his 30s.
Five years later, in 1977, he tossed out a suggestion to the guys he was playing gigs with around New Orleans.
“We’re always playing together,” he said, “so why not get together and rehearse and make a real band?”
It’s probably one of the top three ideas Lewis has ever had. That group of guys went on to become the Dirty Dozen Brass Band.
After playing in other people’s bands and doing what they wanted to do, Lewis was excited to play the music he wanted to play, which meant lots of Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis. Other folks in the band wanted to do their own original music. They decided to embrace it all. In doing so, they stumbled onto a new sound that changed the musical landscape of their famous city.
“We played traditional New Orleans music,” said Lewis. “What made the difference was we changed the beat. New Orleans music is laid-back. Not too fast or slow, like you’re strutting. We picked up the beat.”
They brought the music to the streets, Lewis remembers. People loved to dance to them. Eventually, they caught the ear of George Wein, a producer known for creating some of the best-known jazz festivals in the country, including the Newport Jazz Festival.
He helped the band make their first album, and they were off, touring the world and adding their own flavor of music to records by an eclectic roster of musicians, including Elvis Costello, The Black Crowes and Dave Matthews.
“We were the world’s greatest party band,” said Lewis. “We changed the history of New Orleans brass band music with no intent to do that. We were just playing the music we wanted to play that we didn’t have the opportunity to play in other bands. People embraced it and loved it.”
Not only did the band reimagine the scene, Lewis himself did the same thing, simply by being a bari sax player. It wasn’t every day a traditional brass band had a musician like him.
“We changed the sound of traditional New Orleans music with that one instrument. You don’t use no bari. I made history doing that. Somebody brought that to my attention. Out of all the bari sax players, he said you’re probably the most famous. I never thought about it.”
Even after all these decades, Lewis’s excitement about his group is palpable. He’s proud of their place in the rich history of New Orleans, though he is quick to offer the disclaimer that they never intended to disrespect the music that came before them. He likens the soundscape of the region to a spiritual experience.
“What makes New Orleans music so special is the gospel,” he said. “It’s music for the mind, body and soul. It’s really spiritual. That’s why you be feeling what you be feeling.”
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