Roger Lewis, longtime baritone saxophonist with the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, said his first “horns” were fashioned from newspaper.
“My cousin played alto saxophone. His name was Alvin Bailey,” Lewis said in a phone interview. “When I was a kid, I used to play in the backyard. I loved saxophones so much. The shape fascinated me. So I would take these newspapers and roll them into the shape of a cone. Then I would bend them into the shape them into saxophones. I had big ones and little ones.”
“I’d be in the backyard going, ‘Dootle ootle ootle dootle oo,’” he said.
Six decades later, Lewis is still going “Dootle ootle ootle dootle oo,” albeit on a real horn.
You can watch him do it when the Dirty Dozen Brass Band comes to the Clyde Theatre as part of the “Take Me to the River” revue on October 17.
The “Take Me To The River” tour, featuring Ivan and Ian Neville, Big Chief Monk Boudreaux, and many others, is an offshoot of a forthcoming documentary of the same name about the history of New Orleans music.
Lewis said he got his first real horn when he was 10 and played his first professional gig when he was 12. He later played in various bands on the so-called Chitlin Circuit, a loose conglomeration of establishments where African-American acts could perform and African-American patrons were welcome.
Lewis’ career took an enormous leap when he was hired by rock n’ roll legend Fats Domino.
“That’s when I went international,” he said. “Fats took me all over the world with him. Fats took me to places I’d only seen in encyclopedias. I remembered looking at a picture of Big Ben when I was a kid and there it was outside my hotel window. I thought, “Wowee wow. I am experiencing things I’d only seen in pictures as a child.’”
Lewis’ association with Domino allowed him to encounter a different sort of “wonder of the world” when Domino was performing at the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas.
“I was walking back to Fats’ dressing room, and I saw all this light coming out of a door,” he said, “I thought, ‘What? Is there a light show going on in there?’ I looked in and guess who was sitting there? Liberace. Liberace said, ‘Come in. That was a beautiful solo. I really enjoyed your solo.’
“Everything on the man was perfect, Lewis said. “He almost looked like a mannequin. The hair, the everything. It was mind blowing. And he was such a nice, pleasant human being. I felt very comfortable sitting there talking to him.”
The Dirty Dozen Brass Band came about during one of the many breaks that Domino took from the music business.
Lewis was lured from Las Vegas back to New Orleans by an offer of work from someone he’d accompanied before joining Domino’s band: Irma Thomas, the “Soul Queen of New Orleans.”
Thomas ran into Lewis in Sin City and asked him to rejoin her band.
In New Orleans, Lewis decided to take a class at Southern University taught by jazz saxophonist Kidd Jordan.
There he encountered jazz trombonist Charles Joseph, who was also continuing his education.
The Dirty Dozen Brass Band was in existence at that point, Lewis said, but it was loose and informal. Whatever musicians were needed were hired right before gigs.
“We were just a bunch of cats that were playing,” he said. “We knew a couple of tunes but we weren’t serious about anything. I said to Charles, ‘We’re always talking about practicing. So let’s start practicing. Let’s make something happen.’”
Something big happened when the band played a gig at a French Quarter school: George Wein, founder of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, the Newport Jazz Festival, and the Newport Folk Festival came to see the performance.
“He was the one who was keeping the music of a lot of these older musicians, guys like Duke Ellington and Count Basie, alive,” Lewis said. “And he’s also a piano player. A great piano player.”
Wein decided he wanted to record the Dirty Dozen Brass Band as parrt of The George Wein Collection, his imprint at Concord Jazz.
“He put us on every jazz festival in the world,” Lewis said. “We were traveling all over the world, opening up for Miles Davis…”
Stylistically, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band tried to cover all the bases, he said.
“We did the avant garde, the bebop, the swing, the funk, the gospel. My favorite thing to say, and the guys used to rib me about it, is, ‘Yeah, we’ve got music for the mind, body, and soul.’”
After the Dirty Dozen Brass Band opened for Buddy Rich and had to do five encores, the conventional wisdom evolved to the point that any headliner who shared a bill with the band went on first.
When the time came to record the band’s second album, the legends who lined up to work with them included Dizzy Gillespie, Dr. John, and Branford Marsalis.
Many other music luminaries have appeared on the band’s recordings over the years or have asked the band to appear on their recordings, notables and eminences like Elvis Costello, Phil Alvin, and the bands Widespread Panic and Modest Mouse.
“The level of respect they’ve had for the band really makes you proud that you have really accomplish something,” Lewis said, “that you are part of the history of the music. We’re part of the history of New Orleans music.”
At 76, Lewis said he still has a lot to learn about the instrument he has been playing professionally since before he could grow enough whiskers to shave.
“You can’t master the instrument,” he said. “All you can do is add to your musical vocabulary. Music is endless. It’s like the universe. Can you master the universe? You might go to Mars. But there’s always more stuff out there that you can’t see.”
Music is powerful medicine, Lewis said.
“People come out, they have a good time, they go home and feel good about themselves,” he said. “It’s medicine, you know? It’s therapy. And that makes you feel good.”