As soon as I received my ticket to see the Preservation Hall Jazz Band at Fish Creek’s Auditorium, I hopped online to do some investigating. Within minutes, I had heard enough of their music to convince me I was in for a treat. I had also stumbled across a very short documentary. It sketched the progress of Preservation Hall – how an old art gallery became the most popular musical venue in New Orleans during the 1960s, and how dedicated musicians have maintained its status over the years. It was just a couple years after the Hall’s founding that the band began touring and raising recognition about the traditional jazz they played.
Allan Jaffe was one of the Hall’s principal founders and father to Ben Jaffe, the band’s current creative director. In the video, he says, “I’m happy to be able to see so many people get to hear a New Orleans band live – I think that’s the way it should be.” After attending this concert, I wholeheartedly agree with him.
Those men had hands down the best energy of any group of musicians I’ve ever seen. The trumpeter initiated every piece with a few, rhythmic stomps of his foot; the man on trombone was always the first to start clapping; and I don’t think the sousaphone player ever stopped moving: he was constantly twisting from side to side and frequently meandered across the stage. They were hot, they were cool; they were sassy, they were smooth.
I was dancing in my seat the whole night, and out of it at a couple points. Near the end of the song “Rattling Bones,” which teases about the dead coming alive on St. Joseph’s day, the whole audience was urged, “Come on, you’ve been sittin’ all night—Rattle them bones!”
Though most of the songs were cheerful, they did a slow rendition of “St. James Infirmary” that was so mournful it gave me the chills:
I was down to St. James infirmary, I saw my baby there
She was stretched out on a long white table,
So sweet, cool and so fair.
But the mood didn’t last long. I described their other songs as cheerful, but that doesn’t really cover it – they seemed to surge with a gut-busting joy, a jubilant delight just to be alive in a world with music. And they brought that to their audience too.
One of the most impressive pieces, in my opinion, was when all the musicians, except pianist Rickie Monie, put down their instruments and walked off-stage. Monie turned around, stared at us through his white-rimmed glasses, and shrugged; then he started playing: his fingers flew, his hands pounded, his head bobbed. A piano student myself, I was blown away. Then all the others began resuming their places and chiming in, and the jazzy piano concerto reached its peak.
Their encore song – because how could we not beg for an encore from these guys – was “When the Saints Go Marching In,” a tune which my friends and I have belted out on pilgrimages through the city streets of Rome and the countryside of New York State. It reminded me of jazz’s ties to Southern spirituality. In that song at least, you knew it was not simply a joy in this life which the players were expressing; it was the joy of those looking ahead to heaven – and it was so infectious that I found myself looking ahead too.