April 23, 2002

Music From the Big Easy

by Jim Newsom

Describing the music of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band is an easy thing, a Big Easy thing. The name says it all. This is a band devoted to preserving the jazz sounds produced in New Orleans in the early part of the twentieth century. The band's home base is a funky old classroom-sized hall just off Bourbon Street, a place built in 1750 as a residence but turned into a tavern during the War of 1812. It's a place where smoking and drinking are now prohibited, a place in need of a fresh coat of paint, a place packed nightly with tourists seeking a dose of simple, happy, improvised music.

The Preservation Hall Jazz Band will bring a sampling of their music to the Virginia Arts Festival with a performance at Willett Hall in Portsmouth Tuesday night, April 30th at 7:30 pm. It will be one long, two-steppin' toe-tappin' Mardi Gras party from start to finish.

The Preservation Hall Jazz Band of today has its roots in the 1950s, when the Hall was an art gallery. The gallery's owner invited musicians over to rehearse for his friends, passing around a wicker basket for donations to compensate the performers. The music became so popular that the art gallery moved next door to free up the space. In 1961, transplanted Pennsylvanians Sandra and Allan Jaffe took over the building, establishing it as a place for some of the older, traditional New Orleans jazz musicians to perform.

Over the course of the next forty years, Preservation Hall became a "must-see" landmark for tourists and visitors to the city. Although the original members have all passed away, the band has become the unofficial house band of the French Quarter, keeping alive the music and the spirit of a distant time. The touring band has packed clubs, auditoriums and arenas around the world.

The septet that we'll see at Willett Hall includes Sandra and Allan Jaffe's son Ben on the bass. The youngest member of the group, Ben grew up with the band and the music, and now manages Preservation Hall itself. Other band members include drummer Joe Lastie, who comes from a long line of New Orleans musicians, and twenty-five year veteran David Grillier on clarinet. Pianist Rickie Monie has been tickling the ivories at Preservation Hall for twenty years, while veteran trombone man Frank Demond began playing at the hall in 1974 and has played on all of the band's recordings. Banjo plucker and University of New Orleans jazz instructor Don Vappie's great uncle was an original member of the band. And trumpeter Wendell Brunious, considered the leader of this edition of the band, also comes from another one of those lengthily-lineaged N'Orleans musical families, performing with the group himself since the 1970s.

What can we expect to hear Tuesday night? "Bill Bailey"? "Tiger Rag"? "Little Liza Jane"? There's really no way to know for sure. The musicians pick and choose the tunes as the night goes on, working without a setlist and picking up on the vibe of the audience to create the right musical ambience.

There are two things for certain, though---The crowd will have a great time, and the show will close with "When the Saints Go Marching In." Will the audience snake around the auditorium in a P-town approximation of a Bourbon Street parade? Will hot sounds peel the paint off the walls of Willett Hall? Will they pass around a wicker basket to tip the band?

Anything's possible when the Preservation Hall Jazz Band comes to town!