Accidental Institution

The Dirty Dozen Brass Band ages like wine

Dave Kirby | Boulder Weekly

“Man, I seen so much stuff go down,” reflects Dirty Dozen Brass Band saxophonist Roger Lewis. “We was playin’ a gig in some club, I can’t remember what city, and this woman took all of her clothes off. I ain’t lyin’, this woman just got buck naked on the stage. She had an outline of a panther on her back, and the tail went all the way down her leg.

“I have seen people get undressed, man …” What is it about these guys that makes people just completely lose their shit?

“It’s a package deal, man,” Lewis says. “Whatever you like in music, you come to a Dirty Dozen performance, and you’re gonna get something that’ll make you say, ‘Wow.’ Makes your body wanna do things, y’know. Lookin’ out at the ladies in the audience, I mean they just can’t control themselves.”

Lewis suggested that we should dispense with that whole ‘New Orleans institution’ jive right off the bat. True enough, the band (of which Lewis is an original member) has extended and broadened the Big Easy brass band tradition to worldwide stages, mining genres like straight-ahead jazz, rock, blues and hip-hop, equally at home riling up a Bonnaroo festival crowd as working a Saturday crowd at Tipitina’s. Having long ago added guitar for the big stage live gigs, no one will mistake them for icons of traditional New Orleans brass — the loving embrace of the jamband crowd isn’t typically a selling point to the purists, in any case — but there are few working outfits anywhere that can approach their uncanny genius to make street music soar like high art.

But an institution? Lewis doesn’t get that part.

“Yeah,” Lewis says, “people tell me that. ‘Y’know, you’re an institution.’ And I say, ‘We are?’ Shit, I’m still learning how to play the saxophone.

“You don’t think about all that. You think about how to get better on your instrument. Like, when we got started back in the ’70s, we didn’t think about how we were going to change the sound of New Orleans music. We was just playin’ music that we wanted to play, and how we wanted to play it. And we got lucky. The sound caught on.

“It was like, ‘Why don’t we try this song, why don’t we do this on the street. OK, let’s go for it.’ And it worked.”

And for anyone who missed it the first time around, the band has just released a remaster of its 1984 debut CD My Feet Can’t Fail Me Now, its title borrowed from an old chant used in street parades. The band’s graduation from Big Easy joints and street fairs to the studio is still considered by many New Orleans music aficionados as a watershed moment in the revitalization of the city’s brass music heritage.

Alongside trad nuggets like “St. James Infirmary,” popularized by Louis Armstrong in the ’20s, we were reminded that the band actually tackled a number of jazz standards, notably “Blue Monk” and the Duke Ellington standard “Caravan.” We asked Lewis if he came up as a devotee of Johnny Hodges, Ellington’s sublime alto saxophonist.

“Nah, not really. I came up with rhythm and blues, and rock ’n’ roll. I was a rhythm and blues cat. We’d play a little jazz here and there, a little bit of everything. I didn’t really get into Duke Ellington and all those jazz cats until really late in the game. As I progressed, you know, I started listening to jazz.

Ornette Coleman. Coltrane was my thing. First time I heard Ornette, I thought his horn was broken.

“As I matured into the music, I realized what was happenin’. The more you come in contact with it, the more you find out about progressions, and inversions, and you go ‘Oh, that’s what he’s doin’.”

But even if Lewis shrugs off accolades of being an institution — the band has typically maintained they were just part of a new wave of brass bands trying out new styles in the mid-’70s — he’s happy to acknowledge the role that the DDBB has played in helping to spread the tradition, and throwing some exposure to today’s younger players, like Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews, the 25-year-old brass player from New Orleans’ Tremé neighborhood, whose major label debut Backatown copped a Grammy nomination this past year and hit the No. 1 spot on Billboard’s contemporary jazz album charts.

“Oh yeah,” Lewis enthuses. “He’s a special one. His mother, every kid she had, was challenged musically. She just got it in her genes. I mean, he had himself a trumpet in his mouth from the time he was 4 years old. … He’s just a super-talented, gifted young man. And he’s a beautiful human being, and he got no vices. None of that drinking or drug thing, you know? He got his head screwed on right. He was opening up for us for a while — we wanted to help him get that exposure that he needed.”

We couldn’t resist asking if Lewis, who has appeared in a few episodes of the HBO series Tremé and is generally pleased with its treatment of the culture and the community, has taken the band out do a street funeral lately, one of the brass musician’s rites of passage in New Orleans.

“We haven’t done a funeral in years. I do ’em all the time, because I play with another brass band — I play with the Tremé Brass Band — and we do ’em all the time. Matter of fact, I did two — no, three — funerals just last week. … One of them was a piano player that I used to play with, another was a friend of mine who I used to do gigs with when he was a singer, and the last one was a guy who had muscular dystrophy … spent 31 years on a respirator. But no, I can’t remember the last time we did a jazz funeral as a group. Been years.”

On the Bill:

The Dirty Dozen Brass Band plays
the Bluebird Theater on Wednesday, March 9. Doors at 7 p.m. Must be 16
to enter. Frogs Gone Fishin’ open. Tickets are $20. 3317 E. Colfax
Ave., Denver, 303-322-2308.