Dirty Dozen Brass Band headlining Jazz in June
Legendary New Orleans combo returns to Norman after over a decade’s absence.
By Doug Hill
“I enjoy playing music, period,” Roger Lewis said. “Not just with the Dirty Dozen Jazz Band (DDJB).”
He’s been playing saxophone with the legendary New Orleans-based outfit since it formed in 1977 and in other bands before that.
“I enjoy making music, traveling and making people happy,” Lewis said from his home in the Big Easy. “That’s what I get my kicks out of because you can change a person’s life with music. Playing for people is my biggest reward and then seeing a smile on their face.”
There have been a lot of smiles during his six decades of powering brass horns. Lewis will be 72 later this year.
“I’ve been doing it quite awhile and still trying to figure it out,” he said with a chuckle.
Lewis figured out how to entertain audiences a long time ago. He’s the key part of a band that transitioned old school New Orleans music into modern times. Adding be-bop and funk to the traditional Crescent City groove gained the DDJB an international following. Playing Switzerland’s 1986 Montreux Jazz Festival resulted in a record deal with Columbia and they’ve only grown in popularity since then. DDJB’s other June 2013 concert dates before coming to Norman include ones in Ukraine, the Netherlands and London, England.
“DDJB has music for all occasions,” Lewis said. “We’ve got music for your mind, body and soul.”
He promised a high energy show by nine dedicated musicians. Their song set list will be geared toward a large audience seeking a good time at an outdoor festival. Lewis described the formula for successful live performances simply.
“People just love good music,” he said. “Music is a feeling with soul. If you play good music you’re going to reach people. DDJB have been together for 36 years, that speaks for itself when a band lasts that long.”
Lewis is the band’s elder statesman and de-facto leader. He’s held that position since 1998 when trumpeter Gregory Davis left the fold.
“You could say I’m somewhat ‘The Man,’” Lewis said. “My role is handling all the business, getting on people’s nerves and wearing many hats. With me being the senior member of the band I’m old enough to be some of those guys’ daddy. Actually I’m old enough to be all of their daddy.”
Lewis allowed that sometimes it’s also his job to enforce the rules as well as being the organization’s dispute mediator.
“I’m the one they come to complain to if they have a problem with anybody else,” he said.
Trombonist Sam Williams of Big Sam’s Funky Nation played the 2013 Norman Music Festival. He got his professional start as a very young man with DDJB. Williams said he learned the profession’s fundamentals from the band’s older cats and it provided him enough knowledge to start his own group. Lewis was one of those invaluable mentors that Williams was talking about.
As it turns out, Lewis also gains knowledge from the younger members, some only in their early 20s.
“As a musician I’m always learning different stuff,” he said. “Even about the instrument I play and its technical capabilities. For me it’s just a continuous learning process, you never graduate, know what I mean?”
He described the necessity of mastering technique for smoother progression rather than fingering through all the notes.
“As far as improvisation goes, you learn something new every time you play the instrument,” he said. “From talking to different musicians you get new ideas for how to do things.”
DDJB benefits from youthful energy and the fact that many of the 20-somethings have never played that style music before.
“A few of them are like a sponge,” Lewis said. “And every time we play a song you can learn something about it that you didn’t know before. That’s the fun part of playing music; the hard part is what we have to go through to get to the gig.”
The band has three fresh new members and the rest are gents in their 50s.
“Those old guys are getting old,” Lewis said with swagger. “I’m getting young and ready to play basketball again.”
Don’t miss this opportunity to see one of America’s few big brass bands bring its combination of upstart exuberance and mature sophistication to Norman’s 2013 Jazz in June.
If You Go:
What: The Dirty Dozen Brass Band in concert headlining Norman’s Jazz in June festival.
Where: Andrews Park, 201 W. Daws
When: 9 p.m. June 22
Roger Lewis playing the last time Dirty Dozen Jazz Band was in Norman at the Deli in 2001.