STORY WRITTEN BY CHRIS CAMERON
21st Century Media
When one thinks of New Orleans jazz, Preservation Hall immediately springs to mind. The famed jazz club housed in the French Quarter opened its doors in 1961 and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band began touring two years later. Legendary players like George Lewis, Sweet Emma Barrett, and Kid Thomas Valentine were its original stars. The Hall was founded to promote traditional New Orleans jazz. Now in its 54th year, Preservation Hall continues to evolve as it brings jazz to 21st Century audiences.
Today PHJB is as comfortable performing on late-night TV with Jimmy Fallon and The Roots or at the Bonnaroo festival with My Morning Jacket as it is when it’s at home in the intimate French Quarter venue. To some jazz “purists” the band’s foray into 21st century pop music territory is surprising, but to artistic director/tuba player Ben Jaffe he’s carrying on a family tradition started by his parents.
The story of the Hall dates back to the 1950s when a small group of artists used an art gallery in the French Quarter to host jazz musicians from New Orleans to rehearsal sessions. On a honeymoon to New Orleans in the early 60s Jaffe’s parents, Allan and Susan, stumbled upon the gallery and the musicians, eventually taking ownership of the gallery which became Preservation Hall.
“My parents were fans of early New Orleans music,” Jaffe said. “My father was from Pottsville and my mother was from Philadelphia. When they started the Hall they ended up becoming the custodians of this music. Growing up in the French Quarter it was always very normal for me to be surrounded by music. It’s hard to pinpoint any specific moment that made a significant impact on me, but I was heavily influenced by the musicians in my father’s band.”
Jaffe took control as director in 1993 after returning from college in Ohio. He injected the band with new blood while helping the band not to reinvent itself, but to further the evolution of PHJB.
“The band has always been a reflection of New Orleans cultural traditions,” he said.
In recent years the PHJB has performed and recorded with an array of musicians from Del McCoury, Tom Waits, Merle Haggard, Steve Earle, the Black Keys, and My Mourning Jacket.
PHJB’s 2013 release, “That’s It” was the band’s first recording of entirely original music. Recorded at Preservation Hall, the album was co-produced by Jim James, leader of My Morning Jacket. Most of the songs were composed by Jaffe with songwriting credits from a number of PHJB’s other members. The album evokes memories of New Orleans greats, Louis Armstrong and Professor Longhair, with flares of Dixieland, swing, and Afro-Cuban on refreshingly new tracks.
Fans can expect to hear the standards mixed in with originals at a PHJB performance and are always encouraged to dance.
“Jazz music is dance music,” Jaffe said. “People react to our music in different ways but one of the greatest joys for us is to see little kids get up and start dancing to the music.”
PHJB is Jaffe on tuba, string bass, banjo, and vocals, Mark Braud on trumpet and vocals, Charlie Gabriel on clarinet and vocals, Clint Maedgen on saxophone and vocals, Joe Lastie, Jr. on drums, Freddie Lonzo on trombone and vocals, Rickie Monie on piano, and Ronell Johnson on tuba and vocals.
“We’re committed to bringing this music to wide audiences,” Jaffe said. “We believe that music really does make the world a better place.”
IF YOU GO: Preservation Hall Jazz Band and Buckwheat Zydeco perform at American Music Theatre in Lancaster on Feb. 15 at 7 pm. Tickets cost $57. Visit www.amtshows.com