It was back in 1977, when a seven-member ensemble of musicians first got together at the Dirty Dozen Social and Pleasure Club in New Orleans and became the house band with a sound that would change the way brass bands would be forever thought of in the city again.
The Dirty Dozen Brass Band members blended bebop jazz, funk and R&B/soul to create a unique sound that has carried them across five continents and more than 30 countries worldwide.
Comprised of Roger Lewis on baritone sax, Kevin Harris on tenor sax, Gregory Davis on trumpet, Kirk Joseph on Sousaphone, TJ Norris on trombone, Julian Addison on drums and Takeshi Shimmura on guitar, the band has released a dozen albums and have played with a who’s who of music, with everyone from Modest Mouse to Widespread Panic to Norah Jones.
On Feb. 27, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band will be part of a special Mardi Gras celebration at the Ridgefield Playhouse, with special guests Cha Wa. Keith Loria spoke with Lewis about the show.
Keith Loria: When you play the Ridgefield Playhouse, it’s a special Mardi Gras-themed show. What can those coming out look forward to on the night?
Roger Lewis: We have great instrumentation in our band with the Mardi Gras sound. We use sousaphone, a traditional New Orleans marching band sound, trumpet, trombone, tenor saxophone, baritone saxophone and we’re now using guitar. Instead of two drums, we use a set drum.
KL: How about the set list for the night? You have so much music at your disposal, how do you choose what to play?
RL: We don’t work with a written set list for a gig like this. There are some songs we will play all the time, like “Feet Don’t Fail Me Now,” or “Dirty Old Man,” and we’ve been playing a lot of the material from our 2012 CD, and we just added a Fats Domino tune called “I’m Walking” that we play most nights. But we just call it as we go.
KL: Who is tasked with calling them out? Is it just whoever is in the mood for a particular song?
RL: It can be anybody. Kevin calls a lot of songs, but I might call something if I feel it. It really bounces around, but we keep the show moving.
KL: How does the crowd impact that? What do you look for to decide where the music is going?
RL: This band has been together 40-somewhat years and the audience responds no matter where we are to what we play. Whatever the combination is, the response is always the same — people are enjoying it and we feed off that energy.
KL: The band got together in 1977, did you envision still performing together all these years later?
RL: Honestly, we weren’t thinking about that. We were too busy trying to create music. We didn’t have time to think about our longevity. We would get in rehearsal and just start creating music and no one was thinking about anything except playing great.
KL: When did you know you had something special with this band?
RL: I’ve always been an older member of this band. I was in my 30s when we started, and a lot of the guys were in their 20s or even teenagers. I knew when we put this band together we would make a musical statement because there were things we were doing that no one else was. We were cultivating a lot of different styles of music, like bebop, rock, rhythm and blues and even come classical-type sounds and traditional New Orleans gospel.
KL: What’s been the secret to surviving 40-plus years together?
RL: There’s not one person saying this is what it’s going to be. Our chemistry is really good. We’re just like a family and there may be some differences, but you work those things out. In my musical career, I have played with a lot of different people, but never in a band that I had played in for over 40 years.
KL: You played with Fats Domino when you were younger. What do you remember about playing with such a legend?
RL: When you’re playing with a superstar who created that music, it’s a wonderful, beautiful experience. Every night that man hit the stage, I enjoyed playing. It was probably the highlight of my whole career. Fats had such control over his audience.
KL: Do you still get the same enjoyment out of playing live that you did at the beginning?
RL: I’m a musician, man; this is what I live to do. I’ve been playing music as a professional for about 65 years and I love everything about it. It’s all about the love of the music.
KL: Looking back on your career, what do you hope the legacy of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band is?
RL: We are credited with changing the history of brass band music to the level of where it is today. We influenced a lot of brass bands not only in New Orleans, but all around the world. I think we are responsible for what New Orleans traditional music is today.