Voodoo on the Bayou
Walking the Bar on Gulf State Myths with Roger Lewis of The Dirty Dozen Brass Band
Words by Martin Halo
New Orleans, Louisiana — The Dirty Dozen Brass Band has been the favorite among rock n’ roll acts when seeking that Gulf Coast gumbo. The list includes The Black Crowes, Widespread Panic, Robert Randolph, Elvis Costello, Dr. John, Modest Mouse, and Norah Jones. After Hurricane Katrina crippled the Big Easy, the Dozen were forced to flee. They reworked Marvin Gaye’s classic LP What’s Going On (2006) in response to the government’s inadequate handling of the displaced population. Since then, it has been all about rebuilding. The Waster dives into dialogue over a hearty breakfast with Roger Lewis from his home in the 504.
TheWaster.com :: How’s it going Roger, you doing all right?
Roger Lewis :: Yea man, everything is cool. It’s jazz fest week, we got three gigs a day.
The last time we spoke you just released What’s Going On, and because of Katrina, the Dirty Dozen was displaced. You were all living away from each other. Did you guys make it back to New Orleans in one piece?
We are all back with the exception of Kevin Harris who is living in Baton Rouge. The city is coming back slowly but there are still some areas of the city that are devastated. It is hit and miss. My block has about seven or eight people back in their homes but there are still abandoned houses all over this neighborhood. Every part of the city has that except for the super rich, which is a whole other thing [laughter].
Come on Roger, you are not one of the super rich?
[Laughter] I’m one of the super poor! I am just saying most of the areas where wealthy people lived were built on high land anyways — they live in those mansions on the hill. That is a whole other issue.
As far as the community, when you go down into the neighborhoods you see the struggle. Some people are waiting on money to be able to rebuild, others aren’t coming back at all because they are better where they are now. You got grass growing up high and it is still a mess really. Especially in the lower ninth-ward, they are trying to build some houses but there is a lot of green space. It was the hardest hit part of the city.
Did the culture ever leave?
The music is alive and driving! It’s New Orleans man!
Do you have a rehearsal space in the city where you guys go?
We rehearse at my house. I got a big backyard where there was supposed to be a shed. I built a space back there.
I would find that cool as a neighbor to have the Dirty Dozen living next door. What do you guys have coming up release wise?
There have been a lot of collaborations as of late. If we are lucky we will have a new album out by the end of the year. We haven’t released anything since What’s Going On (August 2006). Things have to be right to put something out.
Think we will get a hip-hop record?
I don’t know about that, man. We got a hip-hop song called “The Dirty Old Man”. People go crazy about that thing. It’s something about the beat that makes ladies want to get on stage and dance with the band. ‘Cause I’m ‘the dirty old man.’ We got to put that out.
You guys are rock n roll’s brass band. Can you tell me how it was different for you in the 70’s compared to bands that are incorporating jazz into the current jam scene, like Galactic?
We always had brass bands in New Orleans. We always had young people. When we came out people told us we changed things. Every brass band was playing traditional music, the kind that they play in churches. We came out with Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker and our own originals. It took off. What I think caught the jazz community was the bee-bop and the avant-garde tunes. We put the beat to them so that everybody could dance. People want to dance when they come to a club. You gotta give them something to make them move their bodies! We seemed to have created that type of vibe for all of the brass influenced bands that are coming out now in New Orleans and beyond. You can hear that Dirty Dozen in them.
Considering New Orleans had a Caribbean vibe and voodoo was brought to the Gulf States from Haiti, can you talk to me a little about how that has affected the culture?
People believe in that, you know. It is their religion. People believe if they take a lock of your hair and mix it with something or put it under a candle that things could happen. People used to go to spiritualists if they thought things were going bad in their home or with their man and they would have a potion conjured up to have control over him. [Laughter] I don’t want to say it’s bullshit, but hey!
You heard about Marie Laveau the Voodoo queen?
What about Marie Laveau?
The voodoo queen of New Orleans! She was a chick who people used to go to for healing. If people were having problems with their families or their man, they would go to Marie Laveau. She would tell them certain things to do. She knew all of the people who were working in these wealthy people’s households and she was getting information on what was going on in their homes. Then she was able to do her thing, its some old bullshit [laughter]. She didn’t have no spiritual powers or anything like that.
When you started really getting into music was there an allure and vibe that hooked you like people fell for Marie Laveau?
When I got to high school is when I started hanging out with cats. The first gig I played was at a club on Magazine Street. I made $47 and change; I will never forget that. They would want you to get on top of the bar and ‘walk the bar’. Cats used to walk the bar, especially tenor players. Walk the bar and kick over the drinks. People would have to buy more drinks, but that was entertainment. Pow, Pow, Pow, kick over some drinks before running out the front door and coming in the back. I would slide across the floor and people would throw money at me.
For my generation jazz was not taught in the public school system, you had to go out and find it. You had to go hang out on a corner. I learned more music hanging out playing jazz and rhythm & blues. My first experience was rhythm & blues rock n’ roll. When I joined a brass band it was the Dirty Dozen. It was the first brass band I had ever played in. I came up playing with cats like Big Joe Turner and Fats Domino on the Chitlin Circuit. I was playing with all the R&B cats like The Impressions. I was playing with Marvin Gaye when he had his hit “Hitch Hike” out.
– Roger Lewis
How did the Marvin thing happen?
We had a band in the late 50s. The name of the band was Deacon John and the Ivories. It was the most popular band in the city, if not the South. We had three horns — that band could go anywhere. We sounded like all of the big hit makers of that day. Marvin Gaye came to town and needed a band to back him up. He hired us. He was a skinny man who played some drums. We played at this very famous black nightclub at the time.
The three epicenters of jazz in America are obviously New Orleans, Chicago, and New York. Can you talk to me about your experiences as a musician in New York and if you found any value of the jazz coming out of the city?
When you go to New York you play a little different because you got so many critics up there. I think the last time we went to New York one of the writers said, we were ‘living off past experience’. [laughter] He really didn’t like us at that particular time, maybe he was having a bad night, I don’t know. The people always enjoy the show and we come back. That says a lot. People have opinions on what they think. As long as they are talking about you that is all that really matters. When I first came to New York it was with Fats Domino and I was excited. I hadn’t ever been to New York man! I can’t play around people that move this fast [laughter]. I tried to go to the deli down the block and people were bumping into me. I said, ‘man it’s fast up here!’ There is a different energy there. People are fast and they are very intellectual. Everybody was on the hustle because you have to hustle to live there cause it costs a lot of money. You gotta be on your game. I am always excited to come and play New York.
And we are always excited to have you!
I love the city I just don’t get to spend as much time there. I need to spend a couple months there to soak it all in. I have been coming to New York since 1971 and I still haven’t seen everything.
I’ll be sure to keep that in mind.
We try to give music to people’s mind, body, and soul. That is where we are. I’ll see you next week.
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