For almost five decades music lovers have made pilgrimages to the heart of New Orleans’ French Quarter, where an elegantly shambling performance space on St. Peter Street echoes with the sweet and salty sounds of Crescent City jazz.
While the musicians of Preservation Hall’s famous band have evolved over the years — the great clarinetist Ralph Johnson died late in 2009, and bassist Walter Payton had a stroke in January — their commitment to preserving and passing on its signature music has never waned. On Thursday, the band kicks off the 25th edition of Coral Gables Congregational Church’s Summer Concert Series.
“I’ve been a fan of Preservation Hall jazz for a number of years,” says Mark Hart, artistic director of the series, which will also host jazz artists Ann Hampton Callaway on July 1, Nicholas Payton on July 29 and Ramsey Lewis on Aug. 12. “Their hall as a venue is very, very small, very intimate, which is like what we provide, and, since it’s New Orleans jazz, it’s so celebratory. So I thought it would be a great way to begin our 25th season.” The church’s all-star, 13-member teenage jazz ensemble will open.
Though the Preservation Hall Jazz Band is cushioned in tradition, it is no museum piece. A recent recording, Preservation, involves guest artists from Tom Waits, Dr. John and Blind Boys of Alabama to Ani Di Franco, Andrew Bird and My Morning Jacket’s Jim James. The album debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Heatseeker Chart and at No. 2 on the jazz chart.
But how do you keep traditional jazz fresh and relevant to new audiences — and new musicians?
“That is probably our biggest challenge,” says Ben Jaffe, the Preservation Hall band’s 39-year-old director,. “Ensuring another generation of musicians playing in the New Orleans style and the New Orleans instrumentation. There is a repertoire, and there is a style that needs to be learned. It has to be embraced by the generation coming after you. That’s the stark reality of art. If it’s not interesting and entertaining, or if it’s not economically feasible, it could disappear.”