If you are interested in attending the 2018 Summer Gala/fundraiser as well, which includes a cocktail hour and a New Orleans-inspired dinner, click here.
The Preservation Hall Jazz Band has held the torch of New Orleans music aloft for more than 50 years, carrying it enthusiastically forward as a reminder that the history they were founded to preserve is a vibrantly living history. Not content to be a beloved but dusty museum relic, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band has continued to evolve artistically over the last half century, its restless musical spirit informed by its revolving cast of talented players. Yet despite all its artistic detours into sounds as disparate as bluegrass, Afro-Cuban grooves and rock and roll, the PHJB always manages to remain firmly rooted in the New Orleans musical tradition. They are the city’s most beloved musical ambassadors.
In the early 1960’s the number of venues for traditional jazz in New Orleans had dwindled dramatically. An art gallery on St. Peter Street in the French Quarter started gaining a reputation for its trad jazz jam sessions featuring many of the city’s older veteran musicians, eventually being renamed Preservation Hall. An entrepreneur and tuba player named Allen Jaffe managed Preservation Hall and formed the first Preservation Hall Jazz Band in 1963 in order to have an official touring ensemble. Soon, the band’s success at festivals in the U.S. and Europe, as well as their buzz-generating nightly sessions back at Preservation Hall, turned them into a household name synonymous with New Orleans jazz. Some of the legendary older musicians who spent time in the band include clarinetist George Lewis, pianist Sweet Emma Barrett, trumpeters Kid Valentine and Kid Sheik Cola, and brothers Percy and Willie Humphrey. Although primarily known as a live band in its early days, the group recorded a handful of well-regarded albums under the leadership of Barrett including 1964’s Sweet Emma and Her Preservation Hall Jazz Band, 1971’s New Orleans, Vol. 1, and 1982’s When the Saints Go Marchin’ In (New Orleans, Vol. 3).
The band continued to uphold the New Orleans jazz tradition throughout the 80’s, but were at a crossroads in the 90’s when most of the original older musicians had passed away. Allen Jaffe’s son, Ben Jaffe, a tuba and bass player, took over as artistic director of the band in 1993 and instilled a new energy and vibrancy to the band and Hall. The lineup continued to evolve, adding younger musicians steeped in the tradition of their city, but adding their own distinct personalities and flavor. Beloved local players like clarinetist Michael White, trombonists like Lucien Barbarin and Freddie Lonzo, trumpeters Leroy Jones and Wendell and John Brunious, tuba player Walter Payton, and drummer Shannon Powell were just a few of the many who called Preservation Hall their home for a time. Under Ben Jaffe’s leadership, the band began branching out of the trad jazz pigeonhole, working with indie rock artists like My Morning Jacket, Andrew Bird and the Foo Fighters, and bluegrass/country greats like Del McCoury and Steve Earle, as well as music legends like Tom Waits and Pete Seeger among others. In 2006, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band was awarded the National Medal of Arts, the nation’s highest honor for artistic excellence. The band’s recording output has exploded in recent years, with seven acclaimed releases in the last decade, including its most recent, 2017’s Afro-Cuban inflected So It Is.
The current touring lineup of Charlie Gabriel and Clint Maedgen on saxophones, trombonist Ronell Johnson, trumpeter Branden Lewis, pianist Kyle Roussel, tuba/bass player Ben Jaffe and drummer Walter Harris, represent a diverse, multi-generational cross-section of New Orleans musicians. They are both keeping true to the city’s roots while being unafraid to explore and intermingle with other musical traditions, just like the band’s first members did over 50 years ago. Even with all the changes over the last half century, that essential New Orleans joie de vivre remains undimmed.