Photo by Leigh Webber

Grade: A

Horns heralded the opening of the 45th annual Spoleto Festival USA as the legendary Preservation Hall Jazz Band played to Friday’s sold-out crowd under the Spanish moss at Cistern Yard.

The concert marked the seven-piece band’s first in-person performance in 14 months, and simultaneously evoked the feeling of a reunion, a celebration, a homecoming and a memorial to the long march through devastating times.

Led by Ben Jaffe on bass and tuba, the band represents the rich history of New Orleans jazz not only with their music, but through their collective lineage. Ben is the son of Allan Jaffe, who founded the group in 1961, and many of the other members –– Charlie Gabriel, Walter Harris, Ronell Johnson, Branden Lewis, Clint Maedgen and Kyle Roussel –– come from long lines of Crescent City musicians. 

That sense of community and history was on full display as the band joyously delivered their nearly 90-minute set in front of the columns of the College of Charleston’s Randolph Hall. Each member of the group was virtuosic: the trumpet, trombone and saxophone traded melodic lines and became entwined atop the sparkling, acrobatic keys while the rhythm section –– two drum kits and Jaffe’s bass –– provided the backbone beat that thumped through the grounds.

During the opening number, the band launched headfirst into the music as the social-distanced crowd settled in under the oaks –– singing the line, “Come with me to the city,” it felt both like an invitation to celebrate and a proclamation that better times were just around the bend. And on songs like the red-hot “Corrina Corrina,” the band’s infectious swing found its way through the air right into the audience’s feet, as couples leapt from their chairs and danced in the early summer breeze.

But jazz is a music that seeks to embody the whole range of human experience –– from the triumphant to the tragic  –– and the band managed to find beats of somber reprieve throughout the night. When introducing the band along with his 8-year-old daughter, Jaffe said the only thing that kept him going through the pandemic was the very music he was sharing with the audience. Kyle Roussel underscored the monologue with a melancholic line, and Jaffe traded hugs and smiles with his bandmates. It felt like witnessing a deeply personal moment between old friends, as did listening to the closing number, a funeral march sung by special guest drummer Shannon Powell that declared, “Victory is mine, victory is mine, I told Satan to get thee behind, today victory is mine.”

Even in quieter moments, the band never slid into anything that resembled a dirge. The history of jazz includes suffering and pain –– it’s baked into its DNA –– but more often than not, the music represents the spirit of hope and perseverance needed to push through trying times. And the band itself has been witness to tragedy: their city was devastated by Hurricane Katrina just 15 years ago, and the pandemic has put a pause on their very livelihoods. But the feeling of defiant joy that emanated from their performances makes it clear their philosophy is one of gracious resilience.

And that’s what makes Preservation Hall Jazz Band such a powerful institution. Between the casual athleticism of these musicians –– breezing through intricate music, trading solos throughout the ensemble, tearing through soulful jazz vocals –– they extend a warm invitation of camaraderie to the audience, a shared reverence that connects artisan and fan. And when Jaffe said, “People ask me ‘Hey, how you doing?’ and I say, ‘You know what, I’m doing alright, because I got this in my life and it gives me something worth living for,” I think everyone listening, in that moment, felt the very same way.

Matthew Nerber is a graduate student in the Goldring Arts Journalism and Communications Program at Syracuse University.