Five decades of Crescent City jazz — and a few surprises along the way.
I made the trip 16 years ago. It was May, and it’s New Orleans, and the atmosphere outside 726 St. Peter Street was a sweaty sticky mess. But once I got into Preservation Hall, and managed to shoulder and slip my way through tourists and jazz aficionados up to the front of that boxy room, I fulfilled one of my greatest dreams: to hear authentic New Orleans jazz, played by some of the finest musicians in the world’s greatest musical city. It wasn’t glamorous—maybe it’s different now, but back then at least Preservation Hall was barebones, stark, purely functional—but it was real, and it was glorious.
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The 50th Anniversary Collection
(Sony/Legacy; US: 25 Sep 2012; UK: 24 Sep 2012)
It is this kind of authenticity that one will find all over this four-CD collection. The first real song on Disc One, “Eh La Bas”, is taken from the 1966 album New Orleans’ Billie and De De and Their Preservation Hall Jazz Band. It features De De Pierce on cornet and vocal and his wife Billie on piano, one of the classic Preservation Hall iterations, and it just doesn’t get more New Orleans than this. De De howls out Creole lyrics about partying hard in the bayou, the band—including drummer Cie Frazier and clarinet wizard George Lewis—howls lyrics back at him while keeping up a steady hard-driving rhythm. If you love New Orleans music, or jazz, or rhythm and blues, or funk, or rock, or music history, or fun, then your heart will thrill hearing this track and the other songs from the 1960s and 1970s scattered all over this collection.
Because it’s all here. Sweet Emma Barrett was 64 years old in 1964 when she was the leader of the Pres Hall Band, a tiny thin woman who pounded the keyboards like no one else before or since. Her voice was a little vinegary on tracks like “I’m Alone Because I Love You” (not quite Lil-Armstrong-level vinegary, but a little bit), but it comes across the decades still as powerful as it was when she was learning to play in the dives of the Crescent City. Her sheer musicianship is shown on “Chimes Blues”, also taken from 1964’s Sweet Emma and Her Preservation Hall Jazz Band, where she—backed by Cie Frazier, Percy and Willie Humphrey, the wonderful bassist Alcide “Slow Drag” Pavageau, and others—teaches a master class in jazz minimalism, with just about everything on the 4/4 beat but building to an intense and delicate finish.
This is the real thing, people.
Sweet Emma Barrett
But this collection isn’t just old-school nostalgia, either. In fact, that is what makes this box set so fascinating, and a little problematic. It’s non-sequential, so classic tracks from the 1960s and 1970s nestle alongside newer material from the last couple of decades, and glitzy guest artists like Tom Waits and Andrew Bird. It’s somewhat disorienting to go straight from the traditional song “Joe Avery”, recorded by one of the band’s most storied lineups in 1976, to a glammed-up 2009 version of “Louisiana Fairytale” featuring Jim James from My Morning Jacket… but it can be argued that a little musical whiplash is good for the soul.
The extreme timeshifts here couldn’t be helped, really. In its 50 years as a working collective, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band has released only 19 albums. (Actually, another one, the live St. Peter and 57th, comes out this week.) Of these, more than half have dropped since 1994, shortly after the band was taken over by a 22-year-old tuba player and recent Oberlin graduate, Ben Jaffe. How this came to be is worth a little pause for a history lesson about the Preservation Hall, racial politics in New Orleans, and the realities of the music industry in today’s landscape.
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Searching for “real jazz” drew many Northerners to New Orleans in the 1950s and 1960s. Two of them were newlywed couple Alan and Sandra Jaffe, who arrived in 1961, drawn to the dynamic culture of the city. As Northerners, the Jaffes were horrified to see the level of segregation in the city at the time. Black and white people were often prohibited to listen to music in the same clubs, and musicians of different races were prohibited from playing together through liquor laws and other arcane measures.
Soon after arriving, the couple fell in with some other like-minded folks who had started a group called the Society for the Preservation of Traditional New Orleans Jazz. This group was not as savvy as it might have been. Jaffe, who was both a business school graduate and a horn player, thought that he could combine his knowledge and his talent to further the music that he loved so much. He managed to take over as both business manager and occasional tuba player with the group. By making things as minimal as possible at Preservation Hall—no drinks, no food, no dance floor—they managed to avoid most race-mixing laws. Soon thereafter, the band started to record its earliest records, and to tour the world.
Of course, this led to some grumbling from local jazz mavens, who wondered about the effect of white Northerners on their music, but many of them were won over by Jaffe’s sincere commitment to their music, and their musicians. While Jaffe didn’t invent Preservation Hall, his business skill helped make it into an institution. By the early 1970s, people around the world were making pilgrimages to 726 St. Peter. At one point, five different Preservation Hall groups were touring at once!
The 1980s were a rough time for the band, with many of the key players passing away, including Allan Jaffe, who died at the age of 51 in 1986. Sandra took over for a little while, but she knew the real hope of the band lay with her son Ben. A tuba player like his father, Ben Jaffe had grown up with the Pres Hall Band, and respected the hell out of his musical heritage. When he graduated college in 1993, he came back to assume charge of his family’s concerns, including the band.
But Jaffe also knew that the group had to change things up a bit. After all, the music business isn’t known for respecting tradition unless it can sell it, and there weren’t too many genres less cool at this time than New Orleans jazz, which many just dismissed as old-timey “Dixieland” music, a condescending misnomer that fixed the group’s vision as looking backwards rather than forwards. So he started recording a lot more, recruiting younger musicians from New Orleans and collaborators from outside the city, and starting projects to celebrate and recognize the music that had defined the journey of his families.
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As you might expect, Ben Jaffe is the curator of this box set, which features his track selection, his liner notes, and, somewhat disproportionately, his version of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. We’ve already covered the reasons why about half of the tracks here are recorded since 1994, but it is still odd to realize that many of the more traditional pieces here, are actually recent recordings. The traditional hymn “Do Lord” sounds even more traditional here, and could have been recorded at any time in the last 50 years. But it actually came out in 1994, sounding as crisp and sonically perfect as any record of its time. However, considering that the track’s lineup includes superstars like Dr. Michael White on clarinet and Ellis Marsalis on piano, as well as unsung hero Wendell Brunious on trumpet and vocals, does it really matter when this was recorded?
Similar authenticity issues come up over and over, and can mostly be discarded. “Little Liza Jane” is as old and venerable as any New Orleans song ever recorded. The version here is a little more funk-influenced than anything that was ever heard by De De and Billie Pierce or Sweet Emma Barrett—but these amazing musicians would nod their heads approvingly at Shannon Powell’s world-beating drum break, which not only pays homage to traditional NOLA jazz styles but also ties the Preservation Hall Jazz Band directly to heirs like the Meters and the Neville Brothers.
Some of the collaborations here are eye-opening and lovely. The recent American Legacies project with bluegrass superstar Del McCoury and his band is represented with a good handful of tracks here, proving the connection between these two very American musical genres. Particularly canny is the inclusion of “I’ll Fly Away”, which actually stands out more here than it did on the original record. It’s also kind of excellent to hear this track right after “In the Sweet Bye and Bye”, a 1962 instrumental that could have been recorded now.
Did we really need Tom Waits singing “Tootie Ma Is a Big Fine Thing” leading off Disc Four? This track, off 2009’s Preservation set, is done in total Fat Albert-band junkyard style, with clanking percussion and a lot of low-end stuff; it’s not your father’s Preservation Hall. On the other hand, it shows the group’s modern focus on expanding beyond the false walls of “authenticity”. Easily offended hothouse-flower types who worry about this should probably stay away from this, but the rest of us can groove along with Tom Waits if we want.
The same is true about the songs fronted by vocalist/horn player Clint Maedgen, who came to prominence as a neo-vaudevillian and is now a major part of the group. I’m not the biggest Andrew Bird fan, so his track seems a little weak and pandering to me; on the other hand, “Louisiana Fairytale” gets its ironic hipster-cred old-fashioned sound from Jim James singing into Sweet Emma Barrett’s old microphone setup. Whoever you are, you have to admit that that’s pretty cool.
I come down on the side of those who think that the Preservation Hall Jazz Band had to grow, and change, and expand, and take on new challenges. I also think that Ben Jaffe has done a pretty exemplary job balancing his entrepreneurial impulses with his historical stewardship. He’s also done a great deal of outreach in New Orleans, and he has been a force behind the rebuilding of the city’s musical culture in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. In fact, one of the most beautiful things here is a never-before-heard recording of “Over in the Gloryland”, an instrumental soundcheck from 1976 overdubbed with a new vocal by Carl LeBlanc. Anyone too tied to tradition just died a little—everyone else just got a new lovely thing to listen to.
Not everything here works, and it’s not advisable to listen to more than two discs in a row without putting something else on immediately afterwards and then taking a walk. But this box set triumphs as both historical document AND new compilation, as an homage to a wonderful musical venture AND as an argument for the modern version of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. High marks all around—as well as a renewed interest in what comes next for this hot “new” American jazz group.