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In many ways, it can be tough to reconcile the very institution of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band itself with the individual talents of the men who play in it.
It's a collective that has been the ambassador of New Orleans jazz for a half century - an indelible fixture of the city, and indeed, of jazz itself. It's easy to get caught up in the idea of the band and the mystique that surrounds it, and not recognize each individual (many of whom are part of an unbroken bloodline of 'Nawlins musicians) for their personal talents and accolades.
Even walking into the beautifully intimate and acoustically flawless Three Stages theatre on Friday evening and seeing the "Preservation Hall Jazz Band" skin on the bass drum, surrounded by a ramshackle set-up of dining room chairs on a pattered rug, flanked by a grand piano and the trademark monogrammed sousaphone, it was hard to think about anything but the aura of the band itself.
That aura even held as the house lights went down and the band strolled into an eerily, almost ethereally quiet house, most carrying their instruments with them. But from the moment they started to play, the boundaries faded away, with each member showing off their chops as part of a concert experience that can only be described as special.
There is no need for much amplification at Three Stages, even for this down-home acoustic band that gets by with minimal audio pickup on their mixture of brass, drum, bass, piano, vocals and a the occasional banjo (more on that in a second). The sound is just that good in that room.
From the time they began to play, each tune was a mish-mash of collective jamming and playful solos. Most of the band’s seven core members had their turn at the mic, from the smooth and jazzy vocal stylings of trumpeter Mark Braud and Clint Maedgen, to the smokey and gravelly Big Easy blues club chops of clarinet player Charlie Gabriel (at the tender young age of 80).
“We’re not really the South, we’re the Northern Caribbean,” quipped creative director Ben Jaffe, while tuning a deliciously twangy 100 year-old banjo and partnering with Gabriel on a Spanish-flavored instrumental duet, giving way to a tasty piano solo from Rickie Monie, a one-time organist for the Blind Boys of Alabama celebrating his 60th birthday.
After the band took a short break (presumably to mow down on the cake they brought out on stage for Monie), the band decided to sit in their living room and let the crowd entertain them, inciting the audience to take the vocals on the ol’ standard “You Are My Sunshine.”
As Ben Jaffe ruminated on during a phone interview a couple of weeks ago, “the origins of the word jazz come from what they called houses of jazz, which were houses of ill repute.” That was no more obvious as when the stage was bathed in red light for an extended take on “St. James Infirmary Blues,” a tense and sultry back-bar slow jam performed with deliberation and beautiful angst.
The angst quickly faded away as the band proclaimed “its your last chance to dance,” as they headed into the seats, instruments in hand, for a congo line lap around the theatre. It brought the entire crowd to their feet, with a few dozen audience members followed the group back onto the stage as they wound down a special evening of jazz.
Who knows how many years some of the individual members have left, but there’s a reason Preservation Hall Jazz Band has been around for 50 years. It’s an outfit fueled by the individual soul of its performers, but it is bigger than any one person. They represent an art form, and indeed a whole city.
There’s no doubt that New Orleans was in the house on Friday.
Preservation Hall Jazz Band’s performance coincided with both their 50th anniversary, as well as the one-year anniversary of Three Stages, which has enjoyed a mightily successful first year by exceeding expectations in ticket sales.
Upcoming Three Stages events include two nights with Merle Haggard on March 5 and 6, the Playing for Change Band on March 11, and the national tour of The Color Purple in April. For full info, visit ThreeStages.net.
Image by: Courtesy