Dancing Down Story Street and Across the Magic Length of Time . . . to Cuba
New Orleans is the only place I know of where you ask a little kid what he wants to be and instead of saying ‘I want to be a policeman’ or ‘I want to be a fireman,’ he says, ‘I want to be a musician.’
~Alan Jaffe, cofounder of Preservation Hall
There’s nothing dated about what Preservation Hall does. It doesn’t sound like a museum piece. We’re not creating a sound—we’re part of that sound. We are the direct descendants of people who’ve played this music since its inception. We’ve inherited this tradition, and it’s part of who we are.
~ Ben Jaffe, creative director of Preservation Hall and member of The Preservation Hall Jazz Band, in an interview with Wanda Waterman
New Orleans was the historical source of nearly all the songs we played in The Dixie Hicks, a motley crew of locals and British ex-pats who gathered once a week in Bear River, Nova Scotia to play Dixieland music for the sheer joy of it.
I’d just bought a tenor banjo from a local fisherman. I’d wanted a five-string, but it was a good deal so I bought it anyway. When I asked Tommy at Signature Music in Digby what kind of music one played on a tenor banjo, he instantly replied, “Dixieland!”
This was great news. I loved Dixieland jazz.
So did Josh Peck, an old friend who played trumpet and had actually been to New Orleans. When I told him I had a tenor banjo he said we had to start a band. It was Josh who introduced me to the music of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, and only by talking about them all the time. I got in touch with Ben Jaffe just after the band had released the album Preservation: An Album to Benefit Preservation Hall & the Preservation Hall Music Outreach Program.
Seeing the Preservation Hall Jazz Band performing on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert the other night brought all that back.
But back to the beginning . . .
Allan and Sandra Jaffe founded Preservation Hall in 1961 to provide a performance space for New Orleans jazz musicians. The Preservation Hall organization, now directed by their son Ben, evolved into a significant means of protecting and nurturing the hallowed but living, vibrant, and still evolving tradition of New Orleans jazz.
Preservation Hall as an organisation has developed several creative ways of achieving this, including sponsoring an in-house band (The Preservation Hall Jazz Band) and providing musical education to the young by means of their musical outreach programs.
In our 2010 interview Ben shared a little about the Hall’s history:
Back in the ’60s, my parents were considering different cities to live in and New Orleans was at the top of their list. They came to New Orleans to get involved with the civil rights movement and to seek out a lot of the musicians they’d been listening to for many years.
In New Orleans they got involved with a small community of people who were having these underground jam sessions for aging African-American musicians, in what they called a ‘mixed’ social setting. New Orleans was in the segregated South in the early ’60s. We didn’t pass our last civil rights laws until 1965.
In the early ’60s, New Orleans jazz was a style of music that hadn’t received the attention and respect that was due it. It was almost an embarrassment. My parents, not being from New Orleans, came here and immediately recognized this invaluable treasure. Without having any idea of what they were doing, they simply did what they felt they should do, what they enjoyed being a part of.
I definitely think New Orleans music permeates all American music. If you go back far enough, it was popular music coming out of New Orleans in the early part of the last century that influenced the popular music of the 20s and 30s, so you find New Orleans influences in everything— in classical music, in Stravinsky, in Duke Ellington, in all these forms of music.
On Louis Armstrong
There’s no way to get around Louis Armstrong. If you’re a musician and you don’t know who he is, shame on you. And by knowing who he is I mean truly understanding the impact that he had on pop culture. In my opinion, there’s no one we can compare him to because he was such an anomaly. He was an African-American who was as popular as anybody today. Here’s a man who as an African-American artist was fighting against all of the prejudice and the segregation of the day. He still was embraced and went on to sell millions of records and to be accepted not just as a musician but as an actor and an entertainer. At the same time, he created some of the most lasting music.
And So it is
After digging a little I discovered that they’ve just put out an amazing new album called So it is, comprised of compositions cowritten by Ben Jaffe and Charlie Gabriel and inspired by their connections with Cuba. Ben makes this comment on the band’s website:
In Cuba, all of a sudden we were face to face with our musical counterparts. There’s been a connection between Cuba and New Orleans since day one – we’re family. A gigantic light bulb went off and we realized that New Orleans music is not just a thing by itself; it’s part of something much bigger. It was almost like having a religious epiphany.
The album is quintessential jazz, no baby having been thrown out with the proverbial bathwater. As rich in tradition as it is in delightfully playful musical innovation, So it is throws its arms around Cuban music like a long lost friend and together they dance across the magic length of time. Thank-you, Pres Hall. From my heart, thank-you.