Live music is often seen as an antidote for public distress in times of crisis. With COVID-19 vaccines being distributed, the public can finally stop worrying a bit — and start swinging.
On May 28, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band will finally be playing to crowds again at this year’s Spoleto Festival USA. This performance will be the first time the septet have performed in public since before the pandemic.
Founded by musician Alan Jaffe in 1961, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band is dedicated to sustaining the art of New Orleans jazz. Currently led by Alan’s son, Ben Jaffe, the band continues to share its message around the world after 60 years, winning the National Medal of Arts in 2006 and the 2013 NAACP Image Award.
In 2014, the band made an appearance on the Foo Fighters’ eighth studio album and HBO documentary series, Sonic Highways, and starred in its own documentary, A Tuba to Cuba, in 2018.
Like most other musical groups, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band was impacted heavily by the pandemic. The group had to close the doors of its Preservation Hall in New Orleans. This is not the first time Preservation Hall has locked down in response to a crisis, as Hurricane Katrina forced the foundation to do so in 2005.
But, what makes the current crisis so much more detrimental to the band is the inability to tour and play live shows. As creative director of the group, Ben Jaffe said he’s dedicated to supporting the band’s musicians and their families.
“Our first concern is supporting the artist and, of course, the safety and wellbeing of our audience,” Jaffe told the City Paper during a phone interview. “Several members of our community are elder. It was very important for us to take extra precaution during this time.”
Jaffe added that the pandemic has been particularly devastating for New Orleans, a city known to thrive on its storied traditions through tourism. Since the 19th century, it’s rich cultural identity has made it a hotbed for festivals, food and live music.
“We are all born-and-raised New Orleans musicians, so our reference point is very unique and particular,” he said. “There’s not a city in this country, if not the world, that has a music community and the type of music culture that we have in New Orleans.”
The band even performs music at funerals in New Orleans.
“It’s a way for us to celebrate the ancestral history, the source of the music,” Jaffe said.
Fourteen months after closing Preservation Hall, the band is eager to finally take the stage again in Charleston. This performance will be their first at Spoleto, and they’re happy to have another opportunity to play.
“We’re looking forward to being back together as a band, as a family unit making music,” Jaffe said. “We truly believe this is our purpose in life … to share the joy and the healing power of music.”
For Jaffe, the true goals of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band are not preservationist, but protective of the tradition of New Orleans jazz.
“We are much more about protecting the tradition and protecting the people and the communities that allow this very beautiful tradition to flourish,” he said. “That’s really what we do.”