New Beginnings: Glimpses of Preservation Hall Jazz Band

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The Preservation Hall Jazz Band: it’s not jazz for your momma anymore. Rather, the group is broaching a new frontier, built upon the very roots of what jazz is and what this country stands for, but energized and re-imagined for who and what we are today.

The history of jazz traces its roots back to New Orleans, a place of extraordinary romance recognized both for its beauty and tragic injustice. Yet jazz’s great artistic achievements emerged from complex & troubled soil — an expression of hope and possibility in the face of despair.

The Preservation Hall Jazz Band (PHJB) is a part of New Orleans’ rich and steamy past – they’ve been making music since 1963 – but this year (their 50th Anniversary) the band has seized the moment and created an exciting, passionate infusion of entirely new songs, culminating in the release of That’s It, their first album of entirely original material.

Preservation Hall preceded the band, opening its doors in 1961. The Hall’s founders, Allan and Sandra Jaffe, saw the venue as a sanctuary created “to protect and honor New Orleans Jazz, which had lost much of its popularity to modern jazz and rock n roll.”

The Preservation Hall Jazz band members are an eclectic mix hailing from past and present, with their oldest member (Charlie Gabriel, clarinet/saxophone/vocals) born in 1932 and their youngest, Ronell Johnson (tuba/piano/vocals) born in 1976.

Whatever their chronological age, each band member shares a love of New Orleans, which helps deliver an individual perspective to how that background affected their development both musically and personally. Ronell Johnson says, “Traditional jazz has always been my favorite type of music, specifically New Orleans traditional jazz. Coming up in school, you’re learning a lot of modern jazz, but I was playing that in the New Orleans traditional way… ‘it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.'”

PHJB member Ben Jaffe (tuba/string bass/percussion/backing vocals) is the current Director of Preservation Hall and the son of former PHJB member & Hall founder, the aforementioned tuba player Allan (who passed away in 1987). Ben wrote much of the material on the new record, which was produced in association with Jim James of rock & roots band My Morning Jacket; the two groups have enjoyed an ongoing collaboration and have played together in various contexts, including this year’s Bonnaroo. PHJB also opened for My Morning Jacket’s national tour in 2010; as James put it in a recent profile in the New York Times, “We just really hit it off and enjoyed playing together…I think we all come from a similar school of music spiritually.”

By its very name, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band affirms its mission to preserve the culture and legacy of New Orleans. Yet, in equal measure, there is no sense that doing that contradicts the band’s ability to remain contemporary. Their ability to do both has won them a new generation of fans and acknowledgement. The group received the National Medal of Arts in 2006, the highest national honor given for achievement in the arts by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA).

They have appeared on TV programs including Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, performed with the Black Keys and Dr John at the Grammy® Awards and held a 50th Anniversary concert at Carnegie Hall. In addition to their appearance at San Jose Jazz Summer Fest, their current tour takes them to prestigious venues such as the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles and the Apollo Theater in New York.

The music of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band is a delight – transcending age, ethnicity and genre, its appeal is universal. Come join the party!

Preservation Hall Jazz Band will perform two sets at Summer Fest 2013. They play twice Sun Aug 11. Catch them on the Main Stage at 2pm and see them close the San Jose Rep Stage at 7pm. Will you be there? Let us know by leaving a comment below or including our Fest hashtag, #SJJAZZFEST, on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.