To protect and preserve
50 years of New Orleans jazz
By David Cotner 05/01/2014
How do you make an empire last after you’ve gone?
Alexander the Great. Napoleon. That guy at Victoria and Olivas Park Road who used to sell flowers by dancing near traffic. They all faced the same problem: making a good thing last. Eternity is nothing if not intensely cruel to long-term plans. And yet for the past 50 years, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band has imbued its horns and brass and drums with the spirit of New Orleans jazz in such a way that it is now the living avatar of that art that has deep-fried itself into the collective consciousness for the past century. The band led by Ben Jaffe — son of founders Allan and Sandra — has a new album, That’s It!, which it’s been tirelessly touring and perfecting for the better part of the past year. While That’s It! is a terrible name for a French bistro, it is by now a powerful and vital document of an American art form that, without the love for its good graces literally passed down through the generations, might well have gone the way of button shoes and baked Alaska.
The Band — Jaffe on sousaphone and bass; Mark Braud on trumpet; sax-playing clarinetist Charlie Gabriel; Ronell Johnson on tuba; Joseph Lastie Jr. on the drums; Freddie Lonzo on trombone; tenor saxophonist Clint Maedgen; and pianist Rickie Monie — has among them a handful of centuries of extolling the virtues of the art and culture of Dixieland jazz. Lest you abuse yourself of the notion that this is music merely for the golden geriatric set, they’ve played with everyone from Yasiin Bey to The Roots on The Tonight Show to dueting with Arcade Fire at this year’s Coachella. Moss-encrusted stones they are not, and yet their music is so natural in its movement and vibe that it is as though it’s been here since time immemorial, bestowed upon mankind as a gift from the gods as potent as any ball of heaven-sent fire.
The first album in the 50 years of the Jazz Band’s career with entirely original recordings — because the Dixieland songbook is deep and wide and it did hit the road with incessant alacrity — That’s It! is a boon for even the casual jazz listener, holding within it a quality that is as peripherally eerie as it is accessible. This is not nostalgia. Nor is it the grim and bony hand of tradition grasping at past glories. As danceable and upbeat as a song like “I Think I Love You” is, it still holds within it undercurrents of sadness; pain that persists even as the beat makes its presence known, even in the gentlest of all possible ways. When on “Halfway Right, Halfway Wrong” the band’s voices rise triumphantly as one — a raucous caucus becoming a glimmering unit of singular purpose and design — they encompass the futility and glory of living this life in a way that promises to make the next 50 years as proud as the lightning-clad arc of totally right-on musical moments running through the whole of this album.
“Album” is a faintly quaint word in this modern age of zeroes and ones masquerading as life experience. An album used to mean, at its essence, a collection of moments gathered and bound as one guidepost through which a life can be crystallized eloquently. In the rarest and best cases, it is that lodestone of the past that can guide the ship of one’s life into a shimmering, adventure-filled future. The Preservation Hall Jazz Band is your guide, and tonight is your future. You ignore it at your peril.
Ventura Music Festival presents the New Orleans Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Saturday, May 10, at Ventura Theater. For more information, visit www.venturamusicfestival.org.