Photo by Shannon Brinkman

December 5, 2012

Preservation Hall’s contemporary dance music

New Orleans’ Preservation Hall Jazz Band (PHJB) joins the Rolling Stones in celebrating a 50th anniversary this year. It’s hard to imagine going to New Orleans and not dropping in at the venerable Preservation Hall, a bastion of traditional jazz in the French Quarter. It only accommodates about 100 people at a time, mostly SRO, and there are frequently lines out into the street. Tight space and lines won’t be a problem here, though, as the PHJB comes to the Brown Theatre for a special performance with the Trey McIntyre Project dance troupe.

The appearance will be their second this year in Louisville, following a summer set at the Forecastle Festival. PHJB has two new releases, a four-disc retrospective, The 50th Anniversary Collection (Sony Legacy), and a live recording from 2012 at Carnegie Hall, St. Peter & 57th St. (Rounder Records).

Ben Jaffe is creative director for Preservation Hall (as well as its tuba player) and the son of Hall founders Sandra and Allan Jaffe. He reflects on the legacy of his parents.

“My personal philosophy is an evolution of what my parents created when they established Preservation Hall as a venue that celebrated New Orleans music and this amazing African-American tradition. They were doing it for the musicians who were alive at that time. It was beyond their imagination that Preservation Hall would be around 50 years later, and that we would have a mission beyond just presenting music performed by these living legends.

“Now, today, what we find is that we’re the grandsons and great-grandsons of these first generation New Orleans musicians,” he says. “That’s what I believe is my responsibility, to ensure the perpetuation of these cultural traditions. But I don’t see Preservation Hall as a museum, I view Preservation Hall as a living, breathing organization.”

Both the box set and the live album have guests ranging from bluegrass legend Del McCoury to Louisville’s own Jim James and My Morning Jacket. Asked if he ever gets pushback from audiences wanting just traditional jazz, Jaffe comments, “I hear both sides … Actually, it’s funny, because it feels like we have more than two sides of the fence. Some of our older audience are jazz enthusiasts who want to hear the traditional side, but we also have older audience members who are incredibly supportive of what we do, and that’s beautiful.

“As I grow with the band, I love to see it evolve,” Jaffe continues. “Living in New Orleans, you look out over the city, and it could be 1908, 1808 or 2008, you don’t know for sure. That’s one of the beautiful things about our traditions here — they are timeless. That is why when you mix old and new together in New Orleans, it works.”

While New Orleans jazz has had people dancing since its inception, PHJB’s collaboration with the Trey McIntyre Project adds the new dimension of contemporary dance. McIntyre received a commission from the New Orleans Ballet Association to create an original work incorporating New Orleans jazz, and he created “Ma Maison (My House)” with Jaffe. They toured together and received a second commission, resulting in “The Sweeter End.” Jaffe says both pieces will be performed in their entirety in Louisville.

“People will say, ‘I don’t get it, how do ballet and New Orleans jazz work together?’” They looked at the repertoire to find pieces that were inspiring to McIntyre as a choreographer and reworked the arrangements to create musical arcs, and also wrote new material in the Preservation Hall style. Jaffe says it’s hard to tell which pieces are old and which are new — the pieces weave together seamlessly.

“We, as a musical ensemble, have learned how to understand the mind and process of a dancer, and they have had to understand and learn the process of an improvising jazz musician. It’s been incredibly enlightening and a fruitful collaboration. It’s become one of the more fun things we get to do. The band is onstage performing alongside the dancers. It’s amazing to watch performers that are rooted in an old tradition, ballet, but are using it in a new and modern way.

“In many ways, it reflects what Preservation Hall does — taking a timeless, ageless tradition and applying it to something new and interesting. I think that’s what keeps a tradition alive, finding ways to make what you do relevant. If what Preservation Hall did wasn’t culturally relevant, it wouldn’t mean anything to me, or to an audience.”

Preservation Hall Jazz Band
with The Trey McIntyre Project
Saturday, Dec. 8
Brown Theatre
315 W. Broadway
$25; 8 p.m.