Preservation Hall Jazz Band at 50

A New Orleans institution celebrates in New York

Preservation Hall, a winsomely antiquated venue in New Orleans’ French Quarter, has been presenting traditional jazz in the city where it was born since 1961. So when its flagship ensemble, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, celebrated its 50th anniversary at Carnegie Hall on Jan. 7, 2012, the group was technically a week late for its own semi-centennial. That’s OK: This band was never too concerned with timeliness.

Step into Preservation Hall on any night of the week and you’ll find yourself awash in the vibrancy of an elderly art form that refuses to die-it’s the flaring horns, the ambling beats, the crusts of old paint clinging to the walls. The Preservation Hall Jazz Band elicits the same sort of enchantment during frequent out-of-town shows, which have been spreading the sounds of New Orleans for almost as long as the hall has existed.

So you could forgive audience members at the sold-out Carnegie Hall show for assuming their tickets would be good for one free ride back to 1961 New Orleans, and maybe another 50 years back from there. Within a few minutes, though, it became clear that this concert wasn’t your average trip backward through the decades. It didn’t even spend all its time visiting New Orleans. There were collaborations with the Del McCoury Band, a classic bluegrass outfit from North Carolina that joined up with the band on last year’s American Legacies; indie rocker Merrill Garbus, who lent her rabid and barbed vocals to “Careless Love”; and Louisville, Ky., alt-roots band My Morning Jacket, which played a couple of tunes with the Preservation Hall band and then one alone. Rather than fold these collaborators into the polyphonic tradition of early jazz, Preservation Hall showed its own versatility by adapting to the dynamics of the others.

According to Ben Jaffe, the ensemble’s sousaphone player and artistic director and a son of the couple that founded Preservation Hall, that flexibility is made possible by the players’ skills. “The fact that we can actually weave in and out of different artists and different arrangements and different roles in the song is an incredible testament to the amount of musicianship that is in the band today,” he says. “And I think it’s important to realize that we don’t live in a vacuum. … I don’t want us to be a recital band or a band that recreates something from the past: I want us to take all of our influences and filter them through us.”

A handful of the Carnegie collaborators first met the band when they contributed to 2010’s Preservation: An Album to Benefit Preservation Hall, which spanned 26 tracks and almost as many guest artists. It was the first time a Preservation Hall record had put such a heavy emphasis on outside musicians, many of whom (Jim James, Paolo Nutini and Merle Haggard, among others) showed little familiarity with traditional jazz. The album, which hit No. 2 on Billboard’s jazz albums chart, was Jaffe’s brainchild.

A few years earlier, just before Hurricane Katrina hit, Jaffe came across an exciting new act making waves in the Bywater neighborhood. Called the New Orleans Bingo! Show, it was a combination of musical performance and participatory theater, run by some of the town’s youngest and most experimental entertainers. Jaffe eventually brought its architect, the saxophonist and singer Clint Maedgen, into the Preservation Hall Jazz Band and incorporated the Bingo! Show’s face-painted clowns and burlesque dancers in the band’s act. (Maedgen became the only member of the ensemble who had not been reared on the musical language of old-school New Orleans jazz.) The changes led some disillusioned venues to cancel their regular bookings of the group, and band members past and present groused about Jaffe’s nontraditional handling of the country’s foremost traditional jazz band.

Jaffe acknowledges a central dilemma. His parents founded the hall as a place where neglected musicians could practice their art for appreciative audiences and fair wages. At a time when New Orleans jazz was limping, the venue’s main objective was to provide a reliable home for the community of musicians who might otherwise have to wait weeks before being hired for their next parade gig. Ben Jaffe, an avowed “’80s music freak” armed with his own musical curiosities, resists being entirely hemmed in by the institution’s past. “That was always the thing for me: How do you balance your artistic vision, and this thing that you’re driven to create, with your responsibility and your obligation to your history and culture and the people who basically gave you the gift of music?” he says.

However Jaffe is answering that question, it doesn’t seem to involve redoubling the emphasis on old New Orleans music, or exploring the modern jazz that continues to develop out of Louis Armstrong and King Oliver’s foundations. In the months directly following the Carnegie show, the band’s touring schedule includes concerts with the Del McCoury Band and with the Boise, Idaho-based Trey McIntyre Project, an experimental dance troupe. Jaffe also plans to open a new venue in San Francisco this year called Preservation Hall West, which he hopes will be a place where “people like Ani DiFranco and Bob Dylan can come and live and breathe.”

“It will be a different experience than Preservation Hall in New Orleans,” he adds.

Writer, photographer and clarinetist William Carter is the chair of the San Francisco Traditional Jazz Foundation, and the author of an excellent 1991 book called Preservation Hall: Music From the Heart. The Jaffes, he explains, “took this local tradition, and they were surprised to find that in New Orleans it drew all this publicity. And then they discovered that it had a market internationally, because it had this flavor. It’s like some kind of a rare food to the rest of the world.” Carter believes that technological advancements have now added a new level of possibilities, making musical adventurism and crossovers into other markets more workable. “They are not cut off from the outside anymore the way the old guys were,” he says. “The [hall’s] early generation was people who had been there at the birth of the second generation of jazz in New Orleans, and pretty much insulated from the mainstream of U.S. life.”

As Ben Jaffe charts a course for Preservation Hall’s next 50 years, the question lingers: Can a little concert hall founded to support a small community of local musicians stay committed to its core mission, even as it discovers new relationships and renown in the digital age?