Dirty Dozen Brass Band plays The Magic Bag

Susan Whitall
The Detroit News

Today, you can’t walk a few blocks in New Orleans without stumbling over a brass band — Kinfolk Brass Band, the Soul Rebels, the To Be Continued Brass Band, to name just three — not to mention the casual pickup bands following in second lines or playing at church halls.

Back in the mid-’70s, the tradition was in decline. The Dirty Dozen Brass Band started playing community events then as Benny Jones’ Sixth Ward Dirty Dozen Brass Band, providing celebratory music for every sad or happy occasion in New Orleans life: Hymns, marches, and of course, music for dancing.

The group added members and in 1977, shortened its name to the Dirty Dozen Brass Band. The seven-man ensemble performs Thursday at the Magic Bag Theater in Ferndale, close enough to Mardi Gras to be a bit of an afterglow for their sister French city.

From the beginning, the band incorporated bebop and R&B rhythms into its sound, updating it for the ’70s, but always at the core remaining the quintessential New Orleans party band.

It’s the same impulse that has them playing “When the Saints Go Marching In,” and then segueing into something like the theme from “The Flintstones.” And that party spirit has them end the evening with the novelty song “Dirty Old Man,” a rhythmic romp that features baritone saxophonist Roger Lewis.

On songs like “Jook” (on the band’s last album, 2012’s “Twenty Dozen”), that’s Lewis getting sounds out of the baritone sax that aren’t always expected. “I play it like a big fat tenor,” he said. “That was my first instrument, then I switched to the baritone.”

Lewis, 74, a founding member of the group, ponders the rebirth of the brass band tradition. “There’re tons of brass bands popping up now in New Orleans, so many more today than they had then,” he said by phone from his New Orleans home.

“I can’t even name all the brass bands, not just here, but around the country. After we came out, everybody started patterning it after the Dirty Dozen.”

And if you think only rappers are competitive, well, no.

“Rebirth (Brass Band), they played all our leads and they’re still doing it,” Lewis said. “They won a Grammy doing that.

Lewis had been playing around New Orleans since the late ’50s, doing stints in Irma Thomas’ band as well as backing up Fats Domino and other Crescent City legends.

He still freelances with other acts including Walter “Wolfman” Washington, the Treme Brass Band and Dr. John. Lewis will back up the latter, along with several other Dirty Dozen players, “although not as the Dirty Dozen Brass Band,” he noted.

Lewis is excited to play Detroit again. “One of my favorite places on the planet,” he said. “I love Detroit, I love the music.”

One of Lewis’ Detroit musician friends was saxophonist Vicki Alexander, who played with Teddy Harris, Funk Brother Joe Hunter and others. “She was a serious saxophone collector,” Lewis marveled. “She invited me to her house after a gig, and I’d never seen so many saxophones in my life. She had every brand of saxophone, even prototypes.” (Alexander died in 2009 at age 54).

Another reason to like Detroit, Lewis believes, is that the bebop pianist Willie Metcalf came from here.

“Willie came to New Orleans in the 1970s and established an Academy of Black Arts,” Lewis said. “If you’ve seen the movie ‘Ray,’ he played the old guy teaching a young Ray Charles how to play piano. In New Orleans, he was an old bebopper teaching cats how to play bebop. He taught Wynton Marsalis and Terence Blanchard and all these cats, everybody came through that program.” (Metcalf died in New Orleans in 2004 at age 74).

As for Thursday at the Magic Bag, there may not be king cake, but Lewis can promise a night of post-Mardi Gras fun. Naturally, that includes his star turn in “Dirty Old Man.”

“There’s something about that groove,” Lewis said with a laugh. He came up with the song at the end of a show years ago, when the rest of the band had left the stage but he was on the mic, trying to sell some CDs. The audience started chanting for Lewis to play something, so he started honking on his sax.

“I started playing a groove, bum bum ba da doop, and they started playing off that rhythm, he said. “People started moving and grooving, then I don’t know why, I said I was a dirty old man. Before I knew it, the guitar player came up and put a part to it and the drummer came up, then it became a song and I recorded it.

“We always end the evening with it.”

The Dirty Dozen

Brass Band

8 p.m. Thur.

Magic Bag Theater,

22920 Woodward, Ferndale.

Tickets: $20. (248) 544-1991

themagicbag.com