New Orleans Saints Preservation Hall Jazz Band comes marching in
Playing with his new quintet at opening night of the Jazz Aspen Snowmass June Festival last spring, Wynton Marsalis seemed to be having an especially powerful night. But it wasn’t till the New Orleans-born trumpeter launched into a medley of his hometown’s foot-stompers, including an uplifting version of the gospel number “Down By the Riverside,” that the roof nearly flew off the tent.John Brunious knows that feeling.”I was in Ethiopia once, and you can bet the people had never heard New Orleans jazz before. But I saw them get inside the music,” said Brunious who, at 63, is a full generation ahead of Marsalis among the legion of notable New Orleans trumpeters. “It’s a music that everyone understands. ‘New Orleans jazz’ – you hear that title and identify it immediately. It’s music that appeals to people all over the world. People hear the sound and know where it comes from.”Not many have the music in their bones the way Brunious does. He grew up in the thick of the sound: His father was a renowned trumpeter and composer who took the young John out to see virtually every parade – which usually included three or four marching bands – that came through their Seventh Ward neighborhood.Among Brunious’ clearest early memories is when several members of Louis Armstrong’s band – banjoist Johnny Sincere and drummer Paul Barbarin among them – left Armstrong’s New York combo and returned to Louisiana. The musicians were trying to draft the elder Brunious into their new band, and Brunious’ recalls the heart of the daily conversation around his kitchen table: “Every third or fourth word that came out of their mouths was, ‘Louis Armstrong, Louis Armstrong.’ My head just went back and forth, because I was so interested in what they were saying,” said Brunious. “And they sat like that for nine, 10 days, seven or eight musicians sitting around the table, and I was there every day.”
The parades, the bands, the familiarity with the musicians got Brunious jazzed about his hometown sound. “I guess listening to this constantly, I made the decision that I wanted to play the music,” he said. “It put the bug in my ear. You are what you see. And what you hear.”Brunious did take a direct route to music; he was playing professionally as a teenager. But there were detours to playing the music that was in his blood.While Armstrong and countless lesser-knowns had put New Orleans at the center of the music map in the 1920s, things soon turned. In 1931, clarinetist Benny Goodman and his swing sound became the rage. “That put the New Orleans players on the back burners,” said Brunious. “The New Orleans musicians had to sell life insurance. Then came bebop in the 1940s. The New Orleans players tried to make a comeback, but it wasn’t a strong comeback.”By the time Brunious was ready to launch a career, it was the mid-50s, and another musical tidal wave had washed over not only the New Orleans style, but all forms of jazz.”Because of the economic standpoint, I started playing rock ‘n’ roll in 1954, because that was very popular,” said Brunious, who recorded with the prominent early New Orleans rockers, including Aaron Neville and Ernie K-Doe. Brunious also played more modern forms of jazz, including in a band led by the Marsalis family patriarch, pianist Ellis Marsalis.”But the New Orleans sound was always in my mind,” he said. “Whenever I found myself playing New Orleans jazz, that was the most comfortable thing for me. It was what I wanted to play after I got straightened out financially.”In 1984, after some eight years of specializing in the funky beats, wailing trumpets, and alternately joyful and mournful emotions of New Orleans music, Brunious got his dream job. He was hired to play at Preservation Hall.
“That’s where I really wanted to be,” he said. “That’s what I wanted to play.”No one would dispute that Preservation Hall is a dump. Brunious, who has been playing in the French Quarter landmark for two decades, more or less boasts about its dump status.”The only thing we do there is sweep,” said Brunious, bandleader of the Preservation Hall combo that performs Wednesday and Saturday nights. (There are four bands that rotate nights at the venue.) “We don’t paint; we don’t wash window panes. The way you left it that night, that’s the way it looks. Exactly.”The decor, even the cleanliness, is not the attraction. Preservation Hall doesn’t even serve booze, nor does it allow smoking. The draw is nothing but music, and a sense of the history of one of the strongest musical cultures on the planet. It’s a formula that works; Brunious says that Preservation Hall, which opened in 1961, is packed to its 139-person capacity virtually every night. (It better be: Admission is just $5, and there’s no bar revenue because there is no bar.)”The Village Gate, the Village Vanguard – you know those as a reference point for New York jazz,” said Brunious. “Preservation Hall gave people a point of interest, a place where you know you can come and hear this music. The music needed a place where it was featured, and Preservation Hall is that place.
“I’m gonna venture to say that the people who get off the airplane at the airport” – that would be New Orleans’ Louis Armstrong International Airport – “come straight to Preservation Hall.”The building at 726 St. Peter Street, three blocks from the Mississippi River, once was a tavern. But that was back in the middle of the 18th century. It went through incarnations as a butchery, a doctor’s office and a clothing store. In the 1950s, it was home to Associated Artists, a gallery that often had local musicians playing at its openings. By the early ’60s, owner Larry Borenstein was looking to sell the building, when in walked Allan Jaffe. Some years earlier, Jaffe, a New York market researcher and skilled musician, had stopped in New Orleans on the tail end of a vacation in Mexico. Captivated by the music, he left New York and headed South. Jaffe moved into a house two blocks from Associated Artists, and fell in love with the space.”Allan said, ‘I don’t have a nickel in my pocket. But I would love to own this building,'” said Brunious. “Borenstein went to the bank and made it possible for Allan to buy the building.”Without changing a lick of the space, Jaffe opened Preservation Hall, which was devoted from the beginning to New Orleans jazz. With Jaffe sitting in on tuba, the place became an instant legend. And almost off the bat, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band began traveling, spreading the traditional New Orleans sound to Russia, Israel and Carnegie Hall. The seven-piece band, made up of players from the various resident Preservation Hall combos, lands in Aspen for a gig tonight, Sept. 17, at the Wheeler Opera House. Included in the group is New Orleans-born and -bred bassist Benjamin Jaffe, Allan’s son, who took the club after his father’s sudden death in the mid-70s.
Virtually nothing has changed at Preservation Hall since Allan Jaffe opened its doors as a music venue. “The plaster on the walls is falling down,” said Brunious. “The window panes, you can barely look through. It’s to keep it looking old.”Even the repertoire has barely changed. None of the musicians who play in the various Preservation Hall Jazz Band combos writes music to add to the set lists. When songs are added to the repertoire, they are unearthed from the past. A favorite like “When the Saints Go Marching In” can be played three times in a night, if patrons so request.Despite the ever-recycling song list, Brunious says he never tires of the Preservation Hall gig. For one thing, the band’s repertoire includes 175 songs, so he can pull out a tune like “Moose March” for the first time in three months, as he did at a recent performance. Guests from the ranks of local players constantly sit in. And though Preservation Hall doesn’t change, the mood and the notes do, constantly. The goal is not only to preserve the music, but allow it to evolve.”The music is still fresh, mainly because I never play the same song the same way,” said Brunious. “You never hear it the same way twice. ‘When the Saints Go Marching In’ – that’s different every night.”No two people think alike. The generation that was here before us, they didn’t think like us.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is email@example.com