Interview: Roger Lewis
Posted by Jenks Miller
The Dirty Dozen Brass Band is an American cultural institution, widely credited as the group that both revived the traditional New Orleans jazz style and expanded its sound palette with influences from bebop, funk, and Miles Davis’ pioneering fusion era. Founded in 1977, the Dirty Dozen extended their reach throughout the 80’s, 90’s, and 2000′s, collaborating with artists as diverse as Dizzy Gillespie, Norah Jones, and Modest Mouse.
This year, as they celebrate their 40th year of barnstorming live performances, the Dirty Dozen will dish out a helping of their famous “big old musical gumbo” at a special New Year’s Eve show here at The ArtsCenter in Carrboro. To prepare, we talked with founding member Roger Lewis about the history of the band, their connection to New Orleans’ Social and Pleasure Clubs, and the enduring politics of Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On.
The ArtsCenter: The band’s name references the Dirty Dozen Social and Pleasure Club, a Tremé neighborhood benevolent society which, like other New Orleans social aid and pleasure clubs at the time, helped its members with health care and funeral expenses. I like the idea of a band growing out of that sort of community organization. Does the band still have a connection to today’s social aid and pleasure clubs? If so, what are those organizations like now?
Roger Lewis: The band isn’t really associated with the club anymore, that was just where it all started with Benny Jones and myself. The Social and Pleasure Clubs were originally called Benevolent Society groups, like you said provided aid for health care and funeral expenses. They merged into Social and Pleasure Clubs over the years. They now mostly work in community service and putting on parades for different causes. Some of the big ones are the Black Men of Labor and the Money Wasters who put on lots of second lines and parades for the community.
TAC: Gregory Davis has said that a lack of gigs in the early days of the band is what gave the Dirty Dozen the freedom to experiment with different styles. In those days, did the band have an end goal in mind for its experimentation – that is, were you consciously trying to develop a new sound, to move the music in a new direction? And did it become harder to experiment after the band hit and you had regular gigs, along with expectations from labels and audiences?
RL: No, we just played what we liked. We liked to mix in stuff like Charlie Parker, Jimmy Forrest, Dizzy and even Michael Jackson and bring it to the streets. Add that second line groove to it. I remember I brought in Caravan to play, just because I liked it. Some traditional jazz players looked down on us, but liked to bring in avant garde, funk and bebop. We weren’t thinking about changing history, we just wanted to satisfy the need to play more styles. We really still do the same thing and its brought other artists to us, that want to play with us from a wide range of genres over the years.
TAC: The band hit in Europe first. What was your experience of the European jazz scene at the time? Was there more support for jazz in Europe than in America in the early- to mid-1980’s?
RL: Our experience was playing a lot over there, but we were playing a lot in the U.S. And over there. We played with Buddy Rich, the Texas Tenors, Cab Calloway, Count Basie Band, Miles Davis. They love jazz in Europe, in fact one time opening up for Buddy Rich we had to play 6 encores! But we still kept a lot of gigs going on in the U.S., we’d play for a month at a time in NYC then head to Europe, all while playing all the parades, conventions and riverboat gigs in New Orleans. So the support was really there from both places.
TAC: In the late 1990’s, the Dirty Dozen signed to Mammoth Records, a label that was located right here in Carrboro. How did that connection come about?
RL: Our earlier manager hooked us up with them for a couple of albums, Buck Jump and Ears To The Wall but I don’t remember much else about how that came about.
TAC: In 2006, the Dirty Dozen released an interpretation of Marvin Gaye’s classic, What’s Going On, partly as a reaction to the devastation caused by – and the federal government’s response to – Hurricane Katrina. But you [Roger Lewis] said that the record was “geared toward what’s going on in the world today, not necessarily New Orleans. It’s bigger than New Orleans. Much bigger.” The sense of unrest captured on that record feels like it’s still a part of our social fabric. If you were to interpret What’s Going On in 2017, what would you be talking about?
RL: It’s the exact same thing that’s going on now that was going on then. Exactly what Marvin was talking about on that record is happening now, it’s the same political stuff, they just put a different coat and tie on it.
TAC: Your show here at The ArtsCenter is on New Year’s Eve! Do you have any special plans for that show? What can audiences expect from the Dirty Dozen Brass Band on New Year’s Eve?
RL: We’ve got something for your mind, your body and your soul! We’re going to make it do what it do. I always say you better bring your tennis shoes because you’ll get a workout at one of our shows. We always play a special NYE show and each year brings a little something different to the table. We’re looking forward to celebrating the night in Carrboro!