If there actually is a Heaven, and if I ever make it there once I march on, if I don’t hear the Preservation Hall Jazz Band playing (in any incarnation from ’61 til present) then I’ll know I must be in the wrong place. Long before I was ever even thought of being born, this ensemble has carried the torch, keeping alive New Orleans most infamous and important export to the world, Jazz. But not just any kind of jazz, the generations old traditions of New Orleans jazz, some call it Dixieland, others call it Trad, whatever nomenclature is applied, one thing is for sure, it started in New Orleans and still thrives there to this day. Not on some museum nostalgia trip (though PHJB has been the subject of some fabulous exhibits), or as some historical gimmick, but as the centuries old art form that still continues to bring its listeners and players joy just as it always has. Preservation Hall has lived up to its name over the years, the dream made reality by Allen and Sandra Jaffe, two jazz lovers from Pennsylvania, who had the foresight and devotion upon coming to New Orleans to move down and open up a club to ensure that the music’s forefathers always had a home to share their amazing craft. The Jaffe’s, as legend has it, danced their way through the French Quarter as part of a second line, which ended at an art gallery, which, thanks to their gracious efforts, eventually became Preservation Hall, the same room we all know and love to this day. It was a labor of love and one that blossomed into a sacred institution, and still continues keeping its hallowed music alive and well, spreading its message all over the world. Allen Jaffe not only loved the music of New Orleans, but he was also able to play it with great finesse. He played with the band for many years bringing along his young son, Ben, to second lines and concerts, passing along this tradition. When Allen Jaffe marched on past this mortal coil, he left Ben to keep his flame burning. Ben Jaffe has done a remarkable job as Preservation Hall’s creative director and Tuba/bass player. Being ultra-savvy and in tune with our current times, Ben has also done a fabulous job of keeping PHJB fresh and current in this world of ever-changing music trends. Ben knows, just like all of us who enjoy PHJB, that this music is timeless. Whether the band is playing an old trad classic like “Bourbon St. Parade” a new original, or sitting in with modern bands like My Morning Jacket (whose lead singer Jim James co-produced PHJB’s new album) they never sacrifice their signature sound.
Now I admit this is a lengthy introduction just for a concert review, however I feel its pertinent when describing a band that brings 50 years of history and tradition with them everywhere they go. Preservation Hall and its Jazz Band have both become institutions of New Orleans jazz, bringing joy to generations of music lovers. Most of these musicians learned their craft from their fathers and the elders who played this style before them, and they go far beyond merely doing it justice. They invigorate this art form in the present day. Generations of jazz enthusiasts can continue to follow them, similar to the way some follow sporting teams. Though Babe Ruth & Mickey Mantle no longer play for the Yankees, fans still come out to see A-Rod, Jeter and so forth, and the same sentiments apply for following PHJB, except that this team never loses. It’s also a multi-generational band where elders like 80-year-old Charlie Gabriel, Rick Monie, Joe Lastie Jr. and Freddie Lonzo sit next to the younger players like Mark Braud, Clint Maedgen, Ronell Johnson and Ben Jaffe, as both teachers and equals.
After all these years of playing the New Orleans traditional jazz canon, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band has just put out a new record of 11 original compositions, all written in their classic vernacular, and as I found out the other evening at Manhattan’s Mckittrick Hotel, the songs are fantastic. A re-furbished vestige from the days of pre-WWII splendor, the Mckittrick, with its vintage allure and mysterious history, proved worthy to host such a legendary ensemble. The set was primarily focused on the group’s new album, but someone not familiar with the group’s traditional jazz catalogue, could’ve easily assumed that these were old classics. It’s a bold move releasing a full album of new original compositions for the first time, but in doing so, PHJB proves just how relevant this art form truly is, that its style can adapt to this modern age. And in an era where much of the music you hear isn’t even played by real instruments anymore… good Lord, these songs are refreshing. The majority of the players onstage took turns singing, and each of them had a unique vocal delivery that honored every one of their fellow band members, past and present. Ronell Johnson bounced around the stage grinning with energy as he delivered upbeat tunes “Dear Lord” and “Halfway Right, Halfway Wrong”, Freddie Lonzo got spooky on the Halloween-esque “Rattlin’ Bones”, Charlie Gabriel sang “Yellow Moon” with gentlemanly class and Clint Maedgen crooned out his original “August Nights” with vintage showmanship. The album’s opening instrumental “That’s It!” got everyone’s blood flowing and made it hard to stay seated. Most of the patrons were at their tables when the band first came on, but by the end, everyone was up and jumping in typical New Orleans fashion. I wish the show could have been even longer so that I could of heard more songs, but that’s usually how I feel after a great gig from a band I love. No matter when or where I see the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, I’m never disappointed for they make me rejoice with gratitude for this incredible music that came from New Orleans, and thanks to musicians like these, has been shared around the world. The Preservation Hall Jazz band never ceases to remind me that most American music originally comes from New Orleans and that this music will never go out of style. Amen.