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jeffcrom

Preservation Hall / Preservation Hall Jazz Band

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Okay, this is my 10,000th post here. So I wanted to post about something that means something to me, and which hasn't been discussed here in detail previously, as far as I can tell. So....

Preservation Hall is a shabby little room on St. Peter Street in the French Quarter of New Orleans. It was Larry Borenstein's art studio/gallery in the 1950s when he began holding jam sessions in the space. In the early 1960s it was converted to a music venue, and Allan Jaffe took over the ownership and management. He conceived it as place for the remaining first- and second-generation jazzmen of New Orleans to play, as long as there were some left who wanted to play. But as those musicians died off, there has been an interesting shift in the makeup of the bands there. Now the older musicians are mostly guys who formerly made their livings playing R & B, and they're joined by younger trad and brass band musicians. And these days both the older and younger musicians play an eclectic (rather than a "pure") version of the traditional New Orleans style, with plenty of licks imported from modern jazz and R & B.

According to my notes, I've visited the Hall 33 times since my first visit in 1990. It's weird - many folks think of Preservation Hall as a tacky tourist trap, while it's holy ground to others. My feelings about the place fall somewhere in between, but they're closer to the latter. Every time I walk in, I feel wonder, history, and possibility. While the chances of hearing really excellent music have decreased in recent years, I have had some amazing moments there.

On my first visit, in the spring of 1990, the bandleader was Kid Sheik Cola (or Colar), and the band included pianist Jeannette Kimball, who recorded with Oscar Celestin back in the 1920s. But the guy who amazed me was the short, elderly, and very assured bassist who played facing the back wall, presumably so that the sound from his f-holes would bounce off the wall. His tone and time were sure and powerful, and I knew that I had heard a great musician of whom I had never before heard. I later learned that Chester Zardis was born in 1900, and was in the the legendary Buddy Petit's band by 1915. And he was the bassist on George Lewis's 1943 Zenith recordings. I was lucky to have heard him - Zardis died four months later.

I heard Willie and Percy Humphrey three times each in the Hall - but only once together. Willie was born in 1900 and Percy in 1905; hearing them (and Zardis) was a link to the earliest stage of jazz to which I will ever have a direct connection. I always loved Percy's pre-Armstrong trumpet style, but Willie was something else - one of the most interesting improvisers I've ever heard. He was gigging by 1915, and while he played more or less within the traditional New Orleans style, the variety and flexibility of his phrasing reminded of Charlie Parker more than of any other New Orleans reedman. The last time I heard the Humphrey brothers was the night before Easter, 1994. A few weeks later Willie had a heart attack; three months later he died.

Other great musicians, now gone, that I heard in the Hall: Phamous Lambert, Narvin Kimball, James Prevost, Paul Crawford, Manny Crusto, Harold Dejan, Frog Joseph, David Grillier, Nowell Glass, John Brunious, Jr., Jacques Gauthier, Reginald Koeller, Les Muscutt, Anthony "Tuba Fats" Lacen, Walter Payton, Walter Lewis. Among my Preseration Hall favorites among the (thankfully) still-living are Wendell Brunious, Gregg Stafford, Joe Lastie, Ernie Elly, Michael White, Leroy Jones, Evan Christopher, Shannon Powell, Lars Edegran, Darryl Adams, Johnny Vidacovich, and Carl LeBlanc.

Two Shannon Powell stories.... The first time I heard that great drummer at Preservation Hall, he was late - he walked in seconds before the bandleader counted off the first tune. The drums were already set up, but he still had his cymbal bag under his arm. The first tune was "Over In the Gloryland," and Powell played the first two choruses with just his feet - bass drum and hi-hat - while he set up his cymbals. It swung like hell. And years later, I was in line outside the Hall, talking to a couple of French jazz fans, when a large SUV came roaring up St. Peter Street and did the most amazing job of parallel parking I have ever seen. The driver quickly squeezed into a tiny space - barely bigger than the vehicle - directly across from the Hall. Everyone watching was sure that this maneuver would end in disaster, but the driver whipped the car into that impossible space as if he did that every day. When he got out, we saw that it was Shannon Powell. He got a standing ovation from everyone in line before playing a note.

The band I heard at the Hall in April, 2009 was surprisingly modern; it included Irvin Mayfield, Evan Christopher, and pianist David Torkanowsky, who was obviously the leader. At one point, Torkanowsky called "I'm Confessin'," but toward the end of the first chorus, Christopher shook his head and said, "That's not how it goes." This was clearly audible to the audience. He then stood up, and through the force of his playing, slowed the tempo down. The next chorus was his lesson to Torkanowsky - he played the melody forcefully, and played arpeggios between phrases to teach the boss the correct chords. The chorus after that, he played a soaring, inspired solo. I'm glad I was there for that.

More stories later, perhaps. And I'll talk about the various incarnations of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. This can be a confusing subject, since that's more of a brand name than a band name. But there are some great PHJB recordings, which I'll attempt to put into perspective.

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Great post. Last year I saw a version of the Preservation Hall Band with Alan Toussant (sp?) as their guest artist. Weird but fun.

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I've only been twice, but the first time was back in 1971. I think the Humphreys were there along with trombonist Jim Robinson. Great music. Enjoyed my second trip in 2004 as well. Thanks for the post!

gregmo

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My only visit to Preservation Hall was during the 1981 Jazz and Heritage Festival. It was one of three times that week I heard Kid Thomas, Louis Nelson, and Raymond Burke play together at various places, and they were among the best, most soulful, music I ever heard in my few trips to New Orleans.

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My only visit to Preservation Hall was during the 1981 Jazz and Heritage Festival. It was one of three times that week I heard Kid Thomas, Louis Nelson, and Raymond Burke play together at various places, and they were among the best, most soulful, music I ever heard in my few trips to New Orleans.

Wow. My first trip to New Orleans was too late for any of those guys - in the case of Louis Nelson, just barely too late. He was supposed to be the trombonist in Kid Sheik's band on my first visit, but he had been struck by a hit-and-run driver a week earlier. He never got out of the hospital, and died during my week in the city, although I didn't know it at the time. I think Paul Crawford was his replacement.

They never caught the driver.

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I was first in Preservation Hall in 1975, several times. Unfortunately, I didn't even pay attention then to who was playing other than the leader - Sweet Emma, who led the band with one arm after her stroke. It was quite nice. Back then, there was no fanfare. You could just walk into Preservation Hall for free. There was usually no line.

Edited by John L

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I am writing this right now in part to delay my departure from My Favorite City; I really should be on the road back to Atlanta right now. But hey, I need to finish my coffee, anyway.

Last evening's Preservation Hall performance was moving, intriguing, and thought-provoking. After hearing some less-than-inspired performances of traditional jazz in the Hall over the past few years, last night was a revelation. It felt like Preservation Hall has gone through something and come out the other side.

Ben Jaffe, the director of the Hall and the bass player with the main touring band, has been reinventing the venue and the band over the past few years. (Many bands/musicians play at Preservation Hall, but there has always been a "main" band that does most of the touring and recording.) What Jaffe is doing, I think, is moving the Hall and the band from the category of "preserving the past" to that of "living New Orleans music." Whether or not what the band plays is traditional New Orleans jazz now seems to be irrelevant. The band's last album, That's It, is the first album by the PHJB to be composed of all original compositions.

Last night I heard the main band for the first time in several years. They played "That's A Plenty" and "His Eye is On the Sparrow," but almost everything else during the two sets I heard was composed by members of the band. Much of it was dark and funky - Joe Lastie's second-line drumming was perfect for the music. Mark Braud on trumpet and Charlie Gabriel on tenor and clarinet were outstanding.

What Preservation Hall was has been gone for awhile, anyway, and the pale reflections of past glories I have experienced there have sometimes depressed me. Last night was something else. Whatever the music I heard was, it got under my skin.

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