"New Orleans is on the road. The whole city is on the road," Roger Lewis proclaims of the city's musicians, including the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, the tireless group with which he's played saxophone for 28 years.
The band's current tour brings them back to the Triangle this week, with a stop at Raleigh's Lincoln Theatre on Thursday, Dec. 29. Crescent City residents find themselves in all corners of the country, with compact musical diasporas flecking the landscape like ragged, multi-hued streamers from a Mardi Gras parade. Still, the Dirty Dozen keeps doing what they know best, playing the deeply-rooted music that ties their city together as much as the old street car tracks.
The New Orleans brass band tradition predates the first jazz era, with roots in the African-American social and pleasure clubs, which also served as funeral service providers for those who could not afford them. The Dirty Dozen emerged from their own social club, taking the music's essence with them outside the city in a stream of funky marches, gospel-informed arrangements and tail feather-shaking movers.
As a founding member of the band, Lewis is well-traveled, but he never sounded weary when speaking with the Indy by phone recently. His warm demeanor came through instantly. When told this writer is from Mobile, Ala. on the coast, he erupted with a familiar phrase in his gruff deep voice, "Oh, well, you're right down the street!" He relocated to Vicksburg, Miss. after the storm. Over the phone, the bustle of family chatters in the background. This week he is moving back to New Orleans. Where was he when the storm hit? The band was on the road, of course. "That was a good thing. The band was all together. If we hadn't been together, things would've been so confusing, with everybody in different places. We were able to keep playing."
In the area not far from the French Quarter where Lewis and his family lived, they await their house's reconstruction. Lewis found a myriad of tales when surveying what people close to them have gone through in the storm's wake, some hopeful, others without reason for returning. "Everybody's got a different horror story. Cats in all kinds of situations. Treme´ Brass Band is in Arizona now, using donated instruments!"
He knew he and his wife would come back. "My wife is also a musician. She was getting gigs in Japan when she toured. Right now she's been getting calls for gigs in New Orleans, too. She moved there to be with New Orleans music. She wants play with the New Orleans musicians. She wants to go back home."
Lewis's experience mirrors that of his city's denizens, watching as their hometown faces reconstruction on an undetermined scale. He is a torchbearer for the city with his band, and unafraid to speak truth to the disaster's overseers. "People who were in power that we were entrusting our lives to, who were supposed to look out for us, they chose not to. So now we just have to deal with it." In that sixth sense that all New Orleans natives have, he's as knowledgeable about the levees (and now, what it will take to rebuild them properly) as his own ability to blow baritone sax. "Where did all the money go for all this stuff? Somebody got it, or it got spent, I guess. I'm doing my job, bringing some peace, joy and happiness to people."
The Dirty Dozen Brass Band plays the Lincoln Theatre Thursday, Dec. 29 with Jamie McLean Band opening. The show starts at 9 p.m. and costs $13 advance or $15 day of the show.