“Maybe the Lord has something in mind”: Roger Lewis of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band

Florida Times-Union — Scattered and broken, the musicians of New Orleans are in the first days of their new lives, a shapeless time period that has no end in sight. Some have already returned to the city; some don’t intend to return.

Most, like the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, have maintained their pre-Katrina touring paces, not just as a way to keep their livelihoods, but also to keep their focus. “It’s overwhelming,” said Roger Lewis, saxophone player and founding member of the Dirty Dozen. “The city’s dead, man. It is dead.”

From his temporary home base in Vicksburg, Miss., Lewis said last week that the band plans to “keep on keeping on” — indeed, it was just a week or so after the levees broke that they were back on stage in Baton Rouge, La. “Being from New Orleans, we play under all kinds of conditions, birthdays or funerals,” he said. “The show must go on, you know?”

Any list of the most definitive contemporary Big Easy bands must include the Dozen, an institution that dates to the late ’70s, when Bourbon Street, like the rest of the country, had fallen victim to a considerably less tasty musical gumbo of disco and country. That’s when trumpeter Gregory Davis, saxman Roger Lewis, tuba player Anthony “Tuba Fats” Lacen and others came together to re-grasp that old brass-band intensity, weaving in modern jazz, funk and rock ‘n’ roll for good measure.

Three decades on, the Dozen are on call for any festival with the words “jazz” in it, and have played with Dizzy Gillespie, David Bowie, Elvis Costello, Dave Matthews, Modest Mouse and the Black Crowes.

But things are different now. Lacen died a few years ago, commemorated by the Dozen’s 2003 disc Funeral for a Friend. And now, this.

“It has an effect on you mentally,” Lewis said. “New Orleans is a beautiful city — there’s so much history. Some stuff can be replaced, and some stuff can’t be replaced, you know what I mean?”

Lewis has been back to the city twice, most recently a few weeks ago to retrieve some of his instruments that were “salvageable.” He said his house at its worst was flooded with 4 or 5 feet of water.

“My wife’s a pianist, she lost her piano, keyboards. Well, we lost everything,” he said. “Everybody’s got a different horror story to tell.”

Still, there’s comfort to be found, he said, in being able to help a little, to raise a little money as well as keep the sound alive.

“I’m a musician. My job is to bring peace and joy and happiness. The beauty is to be able to provide some entertainment and raise money to help people who really need to be helped,” he said.

Lewis said that crowds at Dirty Dozen’s post-Katrina gigs are equal parts sympathetic and “[ticked] off” about the relief efforts. But, he added, there’s a lot of love being shown, too.

“New Orleans is a strong city. Its people are strong people. It’s coming back,” he said. “But it’s gonna be different. You’re gonna lose a lot of the history. It ain’t gonna be the same New Orleans you used to know. Maybe the Lord has something in mind.”

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About Jeff Vrabel

My writing has appeared in GQ, Men’s Health, Success, the Washington Post, the official BruceSpringsteen.net, Indianapolis Monthly, Billboard, Modern Bride and more. View all posts by Jeff Vrabel

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