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Like a great recipe for gumbo, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band sticks to the traditional New Orleans sound.

Preserving Jazz

New Orleans is the legendary birthplace of jazz, and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band is perhaps the most ardent embodiment of that legend. The band was formed in 1961, and named for its home, a 250-year-old building with a wrought-iron gate, fading paint, loose floorboards, no food, no drinks, no air conditioning, and few seats.

The Hall is long on authenticity and short on comfort, the only reason to come is for the music. For four decades the 60-square-foot performing space has drawn standing room crowds from all over the world to experience what jazz was like when it was young.

"It's part of a very old tradition, constantly reinvented," says trumpeter Wendell Brunious. Born into one of the city's leading musical families in 1954, he is a relative youngster in the band. "In New Orleans you hear music whether you want to or not. There are society bands and marching bands, music for funerals, weddings, maybe even divorces."

Bassist Benjamin Jaffe agrees. "It's something in your blood from the day you are born; something in the air," he says. "Just like you can get the best sushi in Japan, you get the best beans and rice, the best gumbo and the best traditional jazz in New Orleans." Jaffe, the band's current manager, was also brought up in the music. His parents opened Preservation Hall in 1961, and his father, Allan, played tuba and managed the band until his death in 1987.

New Orleans jazz is ensemble music, built of close interplay between the players. There is a lot of improvisation, but since it takes place within familiar song structures, over basic rhythms with close accompaniment, it is hard to separate arrangement from invention.

"Its fun music, played for the people," Brunious says. "It's based more on feeling than technique — you don't just stand up and play as many notes as you can as fast as you can. Basically, the trumpet plays the melody, giving order to the chaos, while the clarinet plays a syncopated countermelody. The trombone does long slides, supporting but also leading to where the chords are going, bridging between the horns and the rhythm. The song is reinvented every chorus. Every time, it's going to be different."

The music is shaped by the intimacy and Southern tempo of the Crescent City. The New Orleans style of jazz is far less frenetic than its Chicago descendant, Dixieland.

"New Orleans is unique because it is so isolated — physically and culturally. You can only get here by bridge. The traditions are preserved, undiluted by other cultures," Jaffe says. "At the same time, for centuries it has also been a good-time city. Sailors come into the international port, get off their ship and they want to go out, eat, and listen to music and dance. Add the French opera, the military bands, the piano players and dance bands of the red light district, the rural music played on jugs and other found instruments, the African, Caribbean and Spanish influences, put them all in a pot and you have jazz."

"That's the reason such great players come out of such a small city — Louis Armstrong, the Neville Brothers, Dr. John — the entire history of music is in their fingers and in their mouths," Jaffe says.

The motion-picture-palace grandeur of the Carpenter Center should be an ideal venue for the band, Brunious observes. "Those old theaters have such great acoustics — it just can't be duplicated nowadays," he says. "We use very little amplification, mostly just for the singing and announcements. Most of the music comes right from the stage, and that's how it sounds best."

"Something that seems to get lost in a lot of forms of art is the audience," Jaffe says. "What we do is entertainment. Players have to remember why the music exists at all, so that people can have fun, can dance. One of the things that frustrates me about orchestras is that they forget that when they first played that music people were waltzing through the performance."

"I have a recipe for red beans and rice that was taught to me by my banjo player," Jaffe continues. "He's in his 90s, and it was taught to him by his grandmother — I've seen the piece of paper with her handwriting on it. We're talking about a recipe that dates back 200 years, and it hasn't changed a bit. Today the ingredients come from a grocery store rather than a street vendor, I cook on a gas rather than wood stove, but when I taste it I imagine that it is the same. It is the same with the music. It's a new time, but it has the same energy, the same creative spirit, the same soul as when it was first played in the 1800s."

In other words, it's not about preserving a vanished past but reconnecting with its living spirit.

The Preservation Hall Jazz Band will perform at the Carpenter Center Dec. 6 at 8 p.m. as part of the Many Worlds, One Community concert series. Tickets cost $20.50 - $24.50 and can be purchased through Ticketmaster at 262-8100.

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