On paper at least, Sunday's closing set on the New Orleans Jazz Fest's Gentilly Stage was a celebration of Preservation Hall's 50th Anniversary. But it was much more. Preservation Hall, founded in 1961, is only nine years older than Jazz Fest. And the hall's evolution parallels that of the festival itself.
Both originated as humble, homegrown celebrations of indigenous New Orleans culture, but are now global brand names. Attrition has sapped both entities of early icons. New faces have stepped in, some more rooted in tradition than others. And both the hall and the festival have, in recent years, welcomed a bevy of celebrity guests in an attempt to connect with a wider audience.
On Sunday in the Gentilly Stage slot occupied for years by the now-defunct Radiators, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band and its many guests embodied its own, and Jazz Fest's, intermarriage of old and new.
Appropriately enough, George Wein, the 86-year-old founder of Jazz Fest, introduced the band. As the founder of the Newport Jazz Festival, he was already a jazz industry legend when civic leaders first invited him to New Orleans in the 1960s to launch a music festival here. Wein hired Quint Davis, then a Tulane University student and now Jazz Fest's producer/director, to help round up musicians for the inaugural Jazz Fest in 1970.
With the assistance of a cane, Wein mounted the Gentilly Stage on Sunday 45 minutes after the Foo Fighters, arguably the heaviest arena rock band ever booked at Jazz Fest, crashed to a close at the Acura Stage. He recalled how Allan and Sandra Jaffe, Preservation Hall's founders, helped introduce him to local music.
Their son, Ben Jaffe, is now Preservation Hall's creative director and sousaphonist. Under his stewardship, the band has embarked on many new adventures far afield of its namesake St. Peter Street club, from collaborating with Tom Waits, bluegrass bandleader Del McCoury and U2 guitarist The Edge, to remaking a Kinks song, to touring with arena rockers My Morning Jacket.
At the Gentilly Stage, Wein celebrated Ben Jaffe for carrying on the tradition, even as he innovates. Wein then sat at the piano and joined Jaffe and the black-and-white-clad members of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band for "Basin Street Blues," perhaps the quintessential New Orleans jazz standard.
After Wein exited, the band struck up "Bourbon Street Parade," another nod to tradition. Pres Hall saxophonist and singer Clint Maedgen, recruited from the carnival-of-the-bizarre New Orleans Bingo! Show, lit into "Tootie Ma Is a Big Fine Thing." It's an old song, but one that Preservation Hall recently recorded with Waits.
Tribute having been paid to tradition, it was star time. Troy "Trombone Shorty" Andrews, a son of Treme, is New Orleans' latest breakout star. Less than half as old as the Hall, he led the band through the New Orleans funk standard "It Ain't My Fault." Mark Braud, the Hall's baby-faced trumpeter, razzed it up with a high-octane solo.
Members of the Rebirth Brass Band, clutching their recently awarded Grammy, represented the contemporary brass band era with their signature "Do Whatcha Wanna," followed by "Let's Get It On."
Suffice to say, the late Sweet Emma Barrett, icon of Preservation Hall's early years, never sang "Let's Get It On."
Contemporary folk singer Ani DiFranco was a self-made star before she settled in New Orleans a few years ago and started a family. With a tattoo peaking up from the top of her T-shirt, she presided over a spry, sunny and sweet version of early blues singer Elizabeth Cotten's "Freight Train."
Trixie Minx & Fleur de Tease, representatives of the ongoing local burlesque revival, added a dash of color in flirty red dresses and parasols that fit together like puzzle pieces to recreate the Preservation Hall logo.
Allen Toussaint and Bonnie Raitt -- he the epitome of New Orleans cool, an orchestrator of the golden age of New Orleans rhythm & blues; she a blues-schooled guitarist and one of Jazz Fest's longest-tenured "guest" artists -- combined to sing Preservation Hall's praises.
The just-concluded Jazz Fest boasted more marquee names than ever, including Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band, the Eagles, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, the Foo Fighters, Cee Lo Green, Bon Iver and My Morning Jacket. My Morning Jacket's unlikely collaboration with Preservation Hall is a case study in how New Orleans tradition can cross-pollinate with more commercially successful bands, to the mutual benefit of both.
My Morning Jacket vocalist Jim James' guest turn with Pres Hall on Sunday was the set's highlight. He poured himself into a slow, spooky, New Orleans noir version of "St. James Infirmary," affixing an "s" to each verb in an affectation of hipster dialect. As Charlie Gabriel's clarinet preened and the sousaphones stomped, James banged his shaggy head, lost in revelry.
Country-folk singer Steve Earle, who portrayed a New Orleans street singer on HBO's "Treme," stepped up on "Tain't Nobody's Business," a blues that dates to the vaudeville era. Earle's version, like DiFranco's "Freight Train," appeared on the 2010 compilation "Preservation: An Album to Benefit Preservation Hall & the Preservation Hall Music Outreach Program."
What followed underscored the continuity of New Orleans music in general, and Preservation Hall specifically. On one end of the stage was trumpeter Lionel Ferbos, at 100 the city's oldest active jazz musician, and trombonist Wendell Eugene, who once was a bandmate of Braud's grandfather. On the other end were the young students of the Preservation Hall Junior Jazz Band.
They all joined in an uproarious "When the Saints Go Marching In," which Braud updated with a "Who Dat" chant. The finale boasted everyone -- the Preservation Hall crew and their multitude of special guests -- on a rollicking, kitchen-sink take on the age-old gospel standard "I'll Fly Away."
It was the Preservation Hall Jazz Band looking back, even as it looked forward. Just like Jazz Fest.
Keith Spera can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 504.826.3470. Follow him on Twitter at KeithSperaTP.
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