Roger Lewis knows all about the relationship between music and funerals.
As the baritone saxophone voice for the entire history of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, he has seen his group grow from a troupe of traditionalists performing in the spiritual street funerals of New Orleans to a pack of global ambassadors for Crescent City culture that have collaborated with some of the most prestigious names in jazz, pop and rock.
Such an alliance was re-established in 2004 when the Dirty Dozen released what was arguably its finest album, Funeral for a Friend – a record that captured the feel of a New Orleans funeral in a studio setting with a set of spirituals that favored soul over sorrow.
But as he ponders his performance return to Lexington with the Dirty Dozen tonight for a concert at Cosmic Charlie’s, Lewis seems to be in a very different state of mourning. His lamentation isn’t for a person, but a place he came to know well during his local visits – specifically, The Mad Hatter. The now demolished hat boutique thatoperated next door to The Dame on West Main, where the Dirty Dozen played many a show.
“Every time I would come to Lexington, I’d go to that shop and buy me a hat,” Lewis said. “Man, that place was historic.”
That Lewis would recall the specifics of a venue, much less a store that sat beside it, speaks well for his fondness of Lexington, especially given the amount of globetrotting the Dirty Dozen has engaged in during its 35-plus year career. The day before our conversation, in fact, the band had returned from a brief European tour capped off by a performance at one of the most prestigious jazz clubs in the world, Ronnie Scott’s in London.
“There were people standing up, jumping and clapping,” Lewis said. “We play jazz, man. But I think somewhere along the line jazz guys forgot that people like to get up and dance and not just sit and listen to a bunch of notes that don’t usually go together.”
To understand the Dirty Dozen’s worldwide appeal, one has to first understand how the band came of age in New Orleans. It was born out of the city’s vibrant brass band and social club tradition. But while the Dirty Dozen was profoundly respectful of that tradition, its members were also in tune with other sounds percolating away in the city. Prior to joining the Dirty Dozen, Lewis toured the world with another New Orleans pioneer – Fats Domino.
Younger crowds quickly took to the more expansive stylistic view of the band’s music. Hard core traditionalists – at least, at first – were less accepting.
“Bear in mind, a lot of people still don’t realize we was always playing traditional New Orleans music. Didn’t He Ramble, all the traditional songs and gospel tunes – we was playing all of that. Now, I’m the oldest guy in the band. I’m the grandpa. I was studying a lot of music, a lot of bebop, so I brought that in. You got your own band, right? Then you can play whatever you want to play and not limit yourself to one type of music. So I said, ‘Hey man, let’s play some Caravan (the Duke Ellington standard). Let’s play some Charlie Parker and Horace Silver. So we started playing that music in the streets. People loved it. And we had all of these tunes of our own, too, things like Blackbird Special, Who Took the Happiness Out, Feets Can’t Fail Me Now, Do It Fluid. All of these were original compositions. And people loved those, too.
“Yeah, some of the older guys didn’t like what we were doing. They would say (mimicking a mock-scornful voice), ‘Man, they ain’t playing no traditional music.’ But the rest of the people did. It was something different. It was fresh.”
The turning point for the Dirty Dozen came in 1984. That’s when the band released its first album, My Feet Can’t Fail Me Now, and connected with one of its foremost admirers, jazz impresario George Wein.
“That’s the cat who started all these jazz festivals all over the world (including the groundbreaking Newport Jazz Festival). We recorded our first album and George put us on every one of these festivals. We had the opportunity to be on the same stage as Buddy Rich, Cab Calloway, Dizzy Gillespie and all these cats. We even opened up for Miles Davis at a festival in Washington, DC. Miles liked us. But Dizzy was crazy about the band. He said we reminded him of when he was a young boy.”
The late Gillespie would go on to become part of an extensive list of all-stars to record and collaborate with the band. Others included Elvis Costello, Bettye LaVette, Dr. John, Branford Marsalis, Modest Mouse, Norah Jones, Widespread Panic, The Neville Brothers and Buddy Guy. Among the most recent and unexpected of the Dirty Dozen’s collaborative family is the Grammy winning Malian band Tinariwen. (names cq)
But the artists that excite Lewis most at present are two of the Dirty Dozen’s newest members, keyboardist Kyle Roussell and drummer Alvin Ford. They will join Lewis and group mainstays Gregory Davis (trumpet), Efrem Townes (trumpet and flugelhorn) and Kevin Harris (tenor saxophone) for Tuesday’s performance.
“These guys come out of the church,” Lewis said. “They’ve got that gospel in their playing. That’s what so special about New Orleans music. It sounds the way it sounds because of the gospel. These guys bring that vibe to the music. It makes you want to jump and dance and shout.
“It makes you feel good all over and deep down inside, you know what I’m saying?”’
The Dirty Dozen Brass Band performs at 9 tonight at Cosmic Charlie’s 388 Woodland Ave. Tickets are $15 in advance, $20 day-of-show. Call (859) 309-9499 or go to www.cosmic-charlies.com.