"We celebrate everything down here," says Dirty Dozen sax player Roger Lewis, on the phone from New Orleans. "This town is a totally different place on the planet earth. You can't kill the spirit of New Orleans. We got music for your mind, your body, and your soul."
Two years since the disaster that forever changed the Big Easy, the music that defines America's cultural icon hasn't diminished a bit. Brass and New Orleans are one and the same, and groups like the Soul Rebels and Rebirth Brass Bands continue to bring the party-marching-down-the-street vibes to a growing audience.
In addition to his regular gig with Fats Domino in 1976, saxophonist Roger Lewis was getting together regularly with buddies Gregory Davis on trumpet and Kevin Harris on tenor sax to jam. Molding a traditional jazz style with contemporary hits, they upset some of their elders but quickly built a reputation as skilled good-timers reinvigorating an old marching band style. By the early '80s, the Dirty Dozen were touring Europe on a regular basis.
It wasn't until they befriended Widespread Panic in the mid '90s that they caught on with a younger audience, accompanying the mega-jam band on a nationwide tour. "They helped our career tremendously," says Lewis. "I love playing with them. I'd like to do another tour with those guys."
Not that the Dozen didn't already have friends in high places. They'd opened for Miles Davis and built an international following, but, after the Panic tour, the doors swung wide. They've jammed with Modest Mouse, Dave Matthews, David Byrne, Norah Jones, The Black Crowes, and Ween, in addition to New Orleans stalwarts like Dr. John, The Neville Brothers, and Buckwheat Zydeco. If you ask, it seems they'll play.
"For some reason, musicians like this band," says Lewis. "I'm trying to figure it out. I live for this stuff. I live to play music, period."
When they're touring on their own, with a rotating cast that includes sousaphone, drums, and guitars, the Dirty Dozen are at their best. They play everything from familiar classics to crowd-pleasing originals. Their 2006 album What's Goin' On (Shout Factory) — an all-star, funky remake of Marvin Gaye's acclaimed 1971 collection — follows a career-spanning, 2005 anthology titled This Is The Dirty Dozen Brass Band Collection (Shout Factory), which features selections from virtually all of the group's albums and offers a good overview of their funky brass music and its evolution over the years.
"We've got a song being requested everywhere we play called 'Dirty Old Man'," says Lewis. "One night the band went off to the dressing room and left me on stage by myself. Everybody's looking at me so I start playing this bass line on the baritone. People start moving and grooving to it, so I start singing between it, and the first thing that came to my mind was 'I'm a dirty old man, dirty old man. I want to spank somebody.'"
Dirty Dozen clearly knows how to have a good time. At 66 years old, Lewis is the band's elder, but he shows no signs of losing his "serious addiction" to music.
"Every time I play a song, I try to make it sound better than I've ever played it before," he says. "Our whole city can flood, but you can't kill the music."