Dual Successes in Artist Recital Series
The Preservation Hall Jazz Band brought a taste of genuine New Orleans jazz to a packed Finney Chapel last Thursday, Nov. 1.
For those who have not explored New Orleans jazz in any depth, its traditions, such as the “second line” funeral march bands that play mournfully and then joyfully to honor the dead, may seem a little esoteric. Also, men sitting in chairs, playing instruments like the clarinet and the banjo, just seem weird in the context of what we call “jazz.” New Orleans jazz encompasses all of these traditions and while it may seem like a novelty to some, it does not have the elements of a novelty act.
“In New Orleans, music is not considered entertainment – it is a part of life,” said Ben Jaffe, OC’93, director and tuba player for the Preservation Hall Jazz Band.
Brass bands and early ensembles always played socially functional music – for a holiday, for a funeral procession – and New Orleans jazz maintains this through the performers’ intuitive ability to sense audience reactions.
According to Jaffe, the best moments in a show are often spontaneous. On any night any band member may have the divine calling to sing one of his signature songs. On Thursday night, the band’s drummer, Joseph Lastie, Jr., sang a slow, swinging version of the hymn, “Just a Closer Walk with Thee,” one of the highlights of the night. This was followed by an up-tempo version of the same song in true funeral band tradition. Trumpeter John Brunious invited the audience to respond to his call in “Shake That Thing,” a great high-energy song that closed the first half. The second half included some familiar crowd-pleasing songs, and the show ended with a bang, playing “When the Saints Go Marching In.”
The show’s weak points did not have to do with the performers’ skill levels. The banjo player was not in attendance, but luckily the other seven members were in fine form. However Finney’s environment and cavern–like acoustics do not lend themselves well to this style of performance, which is probably best heard in an intimate environment, as Preservation Hall itself is nothing more than a parlor room. Additionally, the old upright piano in Preservation Hall may not have a “perfect” tone but it has character, and the polished Steinway Grand in Finney just seemed like the wrong instrument for this ensemble.
For some, the concert was a spiritual experience. New Orleans jazz has a texture and quality that does not belong to any other style of music. And though it is not as institutionalized as the jazz styles that came after it, it played a foundational role in jazz and other genres of music. The instrumentation and style may be identical to the way the music was arranged a century ago, but this music allows for the individual player to make a mark. Concerts like Thursday night’s are proof that New Orleans jazz is alive and well.