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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, March 3, 2006

Band invokes spirit of New Orleans

 •  Dixie Hummingbirds in tune with gospel for 78 years

By Derek Paiva
Advertiser Entertainment Writer

The Dirty Dozen Brass Band, from left, is Efrem Towns, Sammie Williams, Kevin Harris, Kirk Joseph, Roger Lewis, Terence Higgins, Jamie McLean and Gregory Davis. The New Orleans bandís repertoire spans jazz standards, spiritual, gospel, and the cityís famous funeral dirges that mourn and celebrate life.

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THE DIRTY DOZEN BRASS BAND & THE DIXIE HUMMINGBIRDS

4 p.m. Sunday

Hawai'i Theatre

$10-$35

528-0506, www.hawaiitheatre.com

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"Just a Closer Walk With Thee" is the theme of The Dirty Dozen Brass Bandís tour with The Dixie Hummingbirds.

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There isn't much that makes the genial 64-year-old Dirty Dozen Brass Band co-founder and baritone saxophonist Roger Lewis angry.

He managed a tired chuckle as he ran down a list of the many possessions destroyed by post-Hurricane Katrina flooding in his New Orleans home last August. He remained thankful for the help of family, friends and strangers nationwide after the hurricane, and hopeful that New Orleans residents would, in time, return their city to its former glory.

But the lifelong resident was unable to hold back his anger at suggestions ó mostly made by government officials outside New Orleans ó that rebuilding his beloved city was a lost cause.

"That's really ignorant. How you gonna say you shouldn't rebuild a city?" asked Lewis, his once-grandfatherly Southern-accented growl of a voice now filled with disgust. "All these people done lost everything! And you not gonna rebuild it? ... If the shoe was on the other foot, would they feel like that?"

For example, if Washington, D.C., were under several feet of toxic, sewage-filled, disease-breeding Potomac River stew?

"Yeah! Would they say, 'Oh, we're not gonna rebuild Washington, D.C.?' " he answered. "New Orleans is a very unique place on the planet Earth. The music, the culture, the food. ... How can you say, 'Don't rebuild New Orleans?' "

Even the good feeling of rebuilding his home and watching others return to do the same doesn't come without the occasional breach of human cluelessness.

"You've got people giving guided tours of some of these areas so people can see," said Lewis, sighing. "One man's misery is another man's happiness."

BRASS TRADITIONS

Strange as days are in New Orleans of late, Lewis and the rest of the eight-member Dirty Dozen Brass Band aim to make sure no one leaves its Sunday Hawai'i Theatre show (with pioneering gospel vocal group The Dixie Hummingbirds) thinking New Orleans residents have given up faith.

"They're like us musicians. When we leave our city, we go out to represent!" Lewis said, laughing hard. "We don't care what anyone says about New Orleans. We comin' to represent ... how we do things.

"Of course, they have faith!"

With "Just a Closer Walk With Thee: The Sacred Sounds of New Orleans and Southern Gospel" as the tour moniker, it's pretty clear faith has plenty to do with the show.

Since its 1977 founding, The Dirty Dozen Brass Band has proudly done its part to preserve its hometown's legendary brass-band tradition. Its repertoire spans playfully naughty funked-up jazz originals, standards and James Brown, Duke Ellington and Charlie Parker covers to those famed New Orleans funeral marches that jump from somber dirges to raucous celebration in five-minute spans.

The Hawai'i Theatre concert will showcase the latter.

"You're gonna get some gospel. You're gonna get some hymns. We might even play a couple of originals," said Lewis. "But we're gonna be playing a lot of traditional stuff. We're not gonna be playing the kind of music that we play in clubs."

Dang, Mr. Lewis, really?

Well, not unless "y'all wanna get down like that," anyway, he said, laughing slyly.

The Dirty Dozen's songs of faith and devotion won't have folks, in Lewis' words, "jumpin' around like rabbits" like its nightclub repertoire does. But the band's sacred songs aren't exactly sublime.

"The idea isn't that you're celebrating the person who died," said Lewis. "He's dead, he's gone, his soul has been released and he's going to a better place, hopefully. So let's not dwell on sadness. Let's rejoice because he don't have to deal with what we have to deal with here on Earth.

"We're living in some trying times right now, with all of this war, natural disasters and whatnot. And he's free from all that."

WORDS FOR LOSS

Lewis is a master deliverer of the darkly comic setup and punch line. Asked about his family's Katrina losses, he answered first that he didn't lose his house.

"I just lost everything in my house!" he said, with a weary chuckle.

The six feet of water that inundated his home destroyed furniture, family photos, band awards and some of Lewis' rare instrument collection.

"I had a (videotape) of my mother and father renewing their vows," said Lewis. "And out of all the things I lost, I wish I had that, because both of them are deceased now. ... It exists only as a memory in my mind."

The Dirty Dozen was on the road when Katrina struck. The band watched the devastation unfold slowly via television as the rest of the country did. Phone calls to family back home went largely unanswered at first. Lewis was unable to reach one of his daughters for several days.

"She wound up in Dallas, Texas, where she's gonna live now," said Lewis. "She's not coming back to New Orleans."

Lewis's second wife and 7-year-old daughter found shelter with friends in Mississippi. The Lewises lived there for four months before moving back to New Orleans late last year.

Their home is now gutted, raised five feet and still undergoing renovations. The family is renting a home in the city's unblemished French Quarter. But Lewis wasn't terribly anxious to return to a neighborhood he said was still mostly abandoned.

Lewis and trumpeter Gregory Davis are the only Dirty Dozen members who have returned home to live. The rest remain scattered throughout the eastern and southern states when not on tour. None have immediate plans to return to live in New Orleans.

They're not alone, either. Bars and nightclubs in the French Quarter have largely come back to life in time for this week's Mardi Gras celebration. But the city where American roots music largely was born is still awaiting the return of many of its departed musician sons and daughters.

"They ain't got many gigs, man. There's not that many places to play," said Lewis. "The conventions are gone. Only some of the hotels are operating. All of that affects musicians and their livelihoods."

KEEPING THE FAITH

Born and raised in New Orleans, Lewis knew his hometown would never be the same. But he believed his city's resurrection was a given even if that comeback did not exactly match the look, mood and vibe of a pre-Katrina New Orleans. The reason?

That undeterred faith of New Orleans residents.

"You gotta have faith, man," said Lewis. "If you ain't got faith, you ain't got nothing. ... We already got the best people in the world ... the friendliest people you'd ever want to meet."

Lewis was asked for some enlightenment.

"Well, I'll tell you something. If you go hungry in New Orleans ... I said, if you go hungry in New Orleans, man, something is wrong with you!" he said, laughing hard. "All you gotta say is, 'I'm hungry!' Somebody's gonna feed you.

"If you try to do anything to better yourself, somebody's gonna help you."

Reach Derek Paiva at dpaiva@honoluluadvertiser.com.