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Published: 2004/10/30
by Andy Tennille

Used With Roger Lewis

A walk through the used record bins of some of the country’s finest music stores with musicians, both famous and infamous.

"Cats I listen to? Man, I like Sonny Stitt, Don Cherry, Cannonball Adderley, Johnny Hodges, Mingus, Leo Parker, King Curtis, Roland Kirk, Dexter Gordon, Count Basie, Coltrane…Johnny Griffin's the fastest saxophone player alive. Nobody plays as fast as Johnny Griffin…Gene Ammons, man. This cat here…he's got the biggest sound around. Louis Armstrong, of course. Everyone listens to Pops, man. There was this baritone player I really loved…what was his name? Man…HOWARD JOHNSON! That's his name. Howard Johnson, man. You don't see anything here by Howard Johnson, do you?"

Lewis stares intently as I flip through the Js in the Used Jazz section at Amoeba Records. Budd Johnson…Bunk Johnson…... J.J. Johnson. No Howard.

"He was a baritone player," Lewis says, leaning up against the used bins. "This cat could play baritone and the tuba, man. They must be sold out of his stuff. He was it, man. I listened to his stuff early on. You gotta remember though that I'm an old dude, man. I didn't miss many of them. Now here's another guy I really like – Louis Jordan. Now this cat here…"

Lewis can talk about jazz all day. The 63-year-old baritone saxophone player and founding member of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band was born in the lower Ninth Ward neighborhood of New Orleans, home of legends Fats Domino and Lee Dorsey. His parents used to listen to jazz and gospel music on the family radio when Lewis was a young child.

"My mother was a big Nat King Cole fan," Lewis says. "The sound of his voice, man…he was just so smooth. He was amazing. That was probably the first music I remember hearing as a kid."

Another early influence on Lewis was the music of Ornette Coleman. Coleman's free jazz approach appealed to the young musician, though Lewis wasn't sold on his first impression. Eventually, he came to love Coleman's The Shape of Jazz to Come, his debut album with Atlantic Records in 1959.

"When I first heard this cat, my ears weren't as developed as they are now," he says. "Man, I thought something was wrong with his horn. I thought his horn was broke. As I got older, I learned to appreciate what he did."

If Coleman and Nat King Cole were Lewis' earliest musical influences, Cab Calloway and his big band orchestra had a profound effect on what Lewis believed musicians ought to look like.

"Cab Calloway was big for me, you know. I loved his image, man," he says. "I have a lot of his videos. I like how he looked, how he acted. And he had a good band. I learned a lot through how those cats presented themselves. They were so professional, so highly professional."

Talk turns from Minnie the Moocher to a debate over our favorite female vocalists Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holliday.

"I'm definitely a bigger Ella Fitzgerald fan," Lewis says as he picks up the classic 1956 album, Ella and Louis. "She was just so smooth and her voice was so perfect. Her voice is like fine crystal. You know how you have a piece of fine crystal, you flick it and it goes, ding?' That's what her voice is like. She was right on tune."

"I like Ella, but I like Billie Holiday even more," I reply. "She might not have that perfect pitch that Ella had, but Billie's got Soul."

"Yeah, I like Billie Holiday too," Lewis says. "She went through a lot of stuff in her life, and you can hear it in her music. All that comes out in her presentation."

The other great thing about walking around Amoeba with Lewis, beyond his pure knowledge of jazz history, is that he's recorded or played with hundreds upon hundreds of musicians, among them some of the true geniuses of jazz and New Orleans music Dizzy Gillespie, Fats Domino, Marvin Gaye, Chet Baker, Curtis Mayfield, Branford and Ellis Marsalis, Dr. John, Slide Hampton and Eddie Harris. Some he knew better than others.

"I was on an elevator with Eddie Harris this one time when we were in town here for the North Sea Jazz Festival," Lewis says with a grin. "So I turned to him and said in this low voice, Hey, Eddie Harris?' He looked up, and I said, We got a lot in common. Not only do we both play saxophone, but you slept with my girlfriend.' He got this crazy look on his face and backed up in the corner. I had to calm him down, tell him it was cool before he got off the elevator."

Lewis' personal friendships with fellow musicians are most prevalent in Amoeba's New Orleans music section. We head over to take a peak around and instantly run into some of Lewis' old friends.

"I recorded with this cat, Dave Bartholomew…James Booker…Eddie Bo. I used to play in Eddie Bo's band back in the 60s. Johnny Adams, I used to play with Johnny long time ago. Buckwheat Zydeco, we did a CD with them a few years back," Lewis rattles off. "Henry Butler…Lee Dorsey…Clarence "Frogman" Henry…Little Sonny Jones, I did a lot of gigs with this guy. He used to be the opening singer for Fats Domino. The Meters, The Neville Brothers. We recorded on their Grammy record, Yellow Moon, I think it was… Pinstripe Brass Band came out right around the time the Dirty Dozen Brass Band….Here you go, the Treme Brass Band with Benny Jones. Benny Jones was the original bass drum player in the original Dirty Dozen. He was really the one who started the band. It's funny, but on one of the Treme records, they have me listed playing sax on it, but I'm not playing on any of it."

"You're not playing on any of it?" I ask.

"No, none of it," Lewis says with a big laugh. "Someone screwed up and thought I was there. I didn't collect any money or anything, but I didn't play."

As we make our way out of the store, Lewis spots a Sun Ra album 1978's Other Side of the Sun. A wide smile spreads across his face.

"Space is the place, man," Lewis says as we walk out into the sunlight. "Space is the place."

Roger’s Picks of the Day Anything by Howard Johnson Ornette Coleman, The Shape of Jazz to Come King Curtis, Live at Fillmore West John Coltrane, Ballads Louis Jordan, Go Blow Your Horn

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