Preservation Hall Jazz Band Steps Boldly Into Future

Leslie T. Snadowsky
Ben Jaffe

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Ben Jaffe leans toward a laptop with the perfect posture of a classically trained musician, his elbows close to his sides and sunlight shining through a Preservation Hall window and into the mass of unruly curls on his head. His blue eyes peer through oversized glasses and crinkle up with disgust as he reads the caption of an old photo from The Times-Picayune's archives.

         "Jazz buffs from all over the world are turned on by the traditional authentic Dixieland style of jazz music performed by grizzled veteran musicians going back to the Golden Era," reads the offending sentence from a digital copy of the caption glued to the back of the photo.

         "Ughh," Jaffe grunts. "Who wrote that?"

         Preservation Hall "is not like one thing. It never has been," Jaffe continues. "That little clip … is everything I don't believe about the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. If we become a repertory band, that would be the biggest disservice we could possibly do to our city."

         Lauded for decades as something like the keepers of the faith, Preservation Hall has entered its sixth decade of maintaining the city's most storied sounds through continued live performances, recordings and outreach. And with Jaffe, in whom runs the blood and principles of the Hall's founders, Preservation Hall has found a formalized approach to that through development of a foundation and musical experimentation beyond the boundaries of traditional New Orleans.

         The Preservation Hall Jazz Band itself puts all of that on display throughout festival season.

         Much like the high-profile collaborations the Preservation Hall Jazz Band has tackled — like on the Foo Fighters' "Sonic Highways" or performing with Pretty Lights, Arcade Fire, Kamasi Washington or Miguel — projects like Midnight Preserves create another access point for music fans to hear, understand and even seek out New Orleans' traditional jazz.

         "We've definitely noticed people coming here for different reasons," Jaffe said, recounting one "rock n' roller" couple who appeared at the Hall recently after seeing "Sonic Highways." ''However you discover New Orleans and Preservation Hall is OK with me. But there has to be an entry point. There has to be a door for you to walk through, and what is that door?"

         The mission of Preservation Hall has never wavered. From the time Jaffe returned from college and took over the direction of the venue and community, to the April morning he showed up for an interview, his focus has been the same.

         "The musicians. The well-being of the musicians who perform here, being a resource to them and our community," he said. "That's the first thing when I wake up. Did so-and-so go to his doctor's appointment?"

         Without the musicians, there's nothing, and so Preservation Hall operates as a community and a support first. But then there are the bands, the number of which could theoretically reach into the billions with how many combinations are possible among the Hall's 40+ musicians, and the foundation itself, founded just two years ago to formalize plans and make finding financial resources easier.

         "You could say everything we do here is philanthropic," Jaffe said. "Everything we do here is. You know, anytime, to me, a musician puts an instrument to their lips, there's social good being done at that moment. You could argue — not even argue, I'll just say it — we've been doing philanthropic work for this community for over five decades."

         It takes Ashley Shebankareh about 20 minutes to explain, piece by piece what the Preservation Hall Foundation accomplishes. She was brought on as director of programs and now helps oversee projects involving the Hall's massive archives, "legacy" projects supporting the musicians themselves and education and outreach, which put the Hall's performers into classrooms with students across the country, local detention centers or brings them to the Hall itself.

         "There is a (Preservation Hall) musician working with a student every day of the week. … Looking at our musicians and seeing them realize that they are essentially masters of their craft — a lot of them have this thing where they're like, 'So-and-so back in the day used to show me this thing,'" Shebankereh said. "They're just now realizing they're the predecessors. They're the ones that get to pass the tradition on to kids, and it's this lightbulb moment for them where they're like 'Oh, that's me. I'm doing that now.' And it's really cool to see them honing in on that."

         More than 75 percent of tour dates for the Preservation Hall Jazz Band have outreach or educational endeavors attached to them, an aspect of the tours the musicians consider essential.

         "I remember how important those moments were to me, like they were yesterday," said saxophonist Clint Maegden of his youth spent learning music from anyone who had something to teach. Music "crosses all barriers. Nothing else does that in such a public way. You could crank a boombox in a park somewhere and it's going to affect people in some way. … Two strangers might start dancing. It's the most amazing thing. The most precious thing, and to pass that on to kids who might not come across it otherwise is a real thrill."

         There's a thing about playing with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band that's incredibly intimidating. These are musicians who were going to be musicians before they were born, as Jaffe says. It's not just in their blood, it's in the communities that raised them, in the parents who played old records as they grew up, in the churches where they sang on Sundays and on the days in between.

         "You pretty much feel like you're working with icons or legends when they show up," said Marcus Mumford, whose internationally touring band Mumford and Sons has performed with Preservation Hall a handful of times, including twice in New Orleans. "You know what it must take to be in that band, and you instantly have a huge respect for the musicians themselves. … You're playing with guys at the top of their game. It's like playing pick-up football with Aaron Rodgers."

         That door, though, opens both ways. There was a moment that stands out for Jaffe, when he had his big gold tuba painted with the band's name wrapped over his shoulder and he stood with the rest of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band at the Grammys in February. The guys were about to walk out of the wings and second-line through the Staples Center.

         "These are gentlemen who take music very seriously. It's a craft. … They forgo a lot in life for that," Jaffe said. "It's really beautiful when you're in a situation like the Staples Center and about to march out to kick off the Grammys and, at one point, you're like, 'Oh my God, I can't believe we're doing this.' But at the other point, you're like, Charlie Gabriel has forgotten more than I'll ever know. Yeah, this is great, and this is amazing, but … he's the wise man. He's earned this. He's the reason we're here."

         During Midnight Preserves on April 23, the first Saturday of Jazz Fest 2016, a rowdy crowd fills the Hall with warm bodies and fevered anticipation. A ceiling fan works lazily overhead, and a pair of women takes selfies in front of a Noel Rockmore painting shaking on the wall with their efforts. At the front, when you read the largest fonts of the George Lewis and Preservation Hall records on display, your brain combines them into one phrase: "New Orleans! That's it!"

         Indie-soul band Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats will join the band onstage — if you can use the term lightly — later in the night, but the Preservation Hall Jazz Band first gets control of things.

         The opening dirge starts as a hum, and ears cock toward the hallway. Many of those ears are sunburned from the New Orleans Jazz Fest and are hearing the band for the first time, there to understand just what this is all about.

         It's an interesting thing to be one of the local household names: Cafe du Monde. Pat O'Brien's. The Superdome. Bourbon Street. It comes with a reputation, it comes with expectation. Jaffe doesn't worry about that anymore though. The Hall has survived for more than 50 years doing its own thing and letting people find it, however they come to cross the threshold at the iron gates.

         "Preservation Hall is one of those places you have to experience for yourself. You have to figure it out for yourself. It's like traveling to the pyramids," he said. "You can look at pictures your whole life, but you have to go there. You have to smell it. You have to touch it. You have to feel the heat."

         "It has to soak into you."

         – by AP/ Reporter Chelsea Brasted with The Times-Picayune

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