“This is like a Transformer. It’s going to take over the world,” says Ben Jaffe, creative director of New Orleans’s famous Preservation Hall Jazz Band. He’s pulling a collapsible upright bass out of its case and showing Justin, a fifteen-year-old student from the Brooklyn Conservatory of Music, how to put it back together. The neck snaps into its body with the efficiency of interlocking building blocks, and the strings fall into place. “Having a bass like this really helps when you’re traveling the world.”
Justin has never played an acoustic bass before, though he’s been learning on an electric for three years now. “It was intimidating at first because they have way more experience than I do. They know how to play much better than I do,” he says. “But they were welcoming. I’m gonna get more into acoustic bass and see how it progresses.”
Along with other students meeting with PHJB, Justin is part of the conservatory’s Music Partners program, which brings weekly music instruction to underserved communities free of charge. Karen Geer, executive director for the school, explains: “We serve 7,000 students; 5,000 are in our Music Partners program. The kids that are performing [today] are in those underserved communities. They take Teen Jazz at the conservatory on Saturdays, supported by the Amy Winehouse Foundation and the New York Community Trust — they get scholarships. We’re just thrilled to be here because the kids would never have this chance to perform with this caliber of musician.”
Twelve-year-old Samson agrees. “I’ve been listening to their album, and I knew how good everyone here was, and I was excited to play with people this good,” he says. He’s been performing since the age of four.
The Preservation Hall Jazz Band has a long history with community outreach. The historic dance hall for which the band is named was itself revolutionary. It began as a salon of sorts, where artists, actors, poets, and others could meet. The hall was officially established by Jaffe’s parents during segregation, and though they never intended it to be a cornerstone of the civil rights movement, the venue quickly gained a reputation as a place where jazz fans and musicians of all races could openly mingle. In 2012, the Preservation Hall Foundation was formed to further education efforts in the traditions of New Orleans jazz. It holds regular workshops, clinics, and masterclasses; provides students with instruments and continuing education when they are in need through its Neighborhood Horns program; sponsors field trips; and maintains an archive documenting the history of both the space and the music.
“All the guys that play in the band today are from very important families, part of musical dynasties in New Orleans,” Jaffe says. “Each one has a story about the other twenty people in their family that play music that they learned from. So Preservation Hall is committed to that tradition and honoring that, celebrating that aspect of New Orleans. It’s really unique to our city.”
As longtime fans of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, representatives at New York’s Ace Hotel got in touch with the jazz legends upon learning they had an interest in doing an outreach program while in town supporting Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros’ Prospect Park performance on August 4. After brainstorming together, the idea of the New Orleans jazz masters and budding Brooklyn music students coming together at Ace’s Liberty Hall during a very special afternoon session became a reality.
The day begins with a mini–jam session. Then students get one-on-one time with the pros. Rickie Monie teaches Samson the piano melody for “Sugar Plum” using an iPhone app (the piano is set up in an adjoining room), while Walter Harris shows fifteen-year-old Jexel a New Orleans rhythm on a bass drum. “It’s a different style of jazz that the kids are exposed to during their studies at the conservatory,” says Geer. “This is New Orleans style. I’m hoping that the kids get to understand New Orleans style and get to hear it in their ears and it becomes a love for them.”
For Jaffe, reaching out to youth is part and parcel of his lifestyle as a musician. “Education in New Orleans is central to the way music is taught and experienced, but we don’t call it education. The best kind of learning is when you don’t even know you’re doing it,” he says. “What I’ve grown to appreciate more and more about New Orleans every day is the way the elder statesmen in New Orleans take it upon themselves to embrace every generation underneath them. I can’t tell you how many older musicians took me aside when I was growing up — they didn’t ask me for money, they didn’t ask me for a thank-you — they pulled me into a corner and they either showed me how to hold my instrument, or they showed me how to blow a note, or they showed me how the chord changes for a song, or they taught me a melody, or they gave me a little nugget of wisdom that I still carry around with me to this day. If you’re blessed to live a full life, you eventually become the person with that knowledge.” Jaffe, and others like him, are what keeps the New Orleans jazz scene vibrant while also cementing its legacy.
Around noon, guests begin to fill the intimate Liberty Hall. Jaffe introduces the band; in addition to Monie and Harris, there’s Mark Braud on trumpet, Ronell Johnson on trombone, Clint Maedgen on sax, and Charlie Gabriel on clarinet. They whip through bombastic versions of well-known standards with joyful aplomb before inviting the young players onstage to showcase what they’ve learned. With the crowd whooping and hollering its support, they play “Sugar Plum” along with PHJB as though they’ve practiced it their whole lives, instead of a mere two hours.
“There’s only so much you can teach a student in an hour about the technical side of playing an instrument, but they’re never gonna forget today,” says Jaffe proudly. Geer agrees. “Giving back to the community and giving to teenagers, that’s just an amazing thing,” she says. “Just to be able to sit next to a professional musician and learn from them as they’re playing is ultimately a high point in a person’s career. There are professional musicians out there that would give their arm to play with these guys.” She’s right — Preservation Hall Jazz Band have toured with My Morning Jacket, played with Arcade Fire at Coachella, and recently made a guest appearance on Foo Fighters’ eighth studio album, Sonic Highways.
“Whether it’s Win Butler or Dave Grohl or Jim James or Tom Waits or Pete Seeger or Steve Earle or Mos Def or Alabama Shakes…the thing that I discovered very quickly when I was embraced by this world was this incredible curiosity and thirst for information and knowledge and an incredible humbleness,” says Jaffe. “They realize that New Orleans is the source of American music. And Preservation Hall is a part of the source. We’re like the spring that all the water comes from.”
The performance goes hand in hand with the Ace Hotel’s announcement that it will be opening up a New Orleans location. Kelly Sawdon, partner and chief brand officer for Ace, says, “We love the brass and pomp of New Orleans’s Preservation Hall Jazz Band, and we were so honored to host their Education Outreach at Liberty Hall. [We’re] looking forward to more partnership opportunities when we hang our shingle in NOLA next year.”
And while New Yorkers fall asleep listening to traffic, Jaffe says, “When I’m home and I go to sleep at night I can still hear live music being played down the street. There’s live music all the time. I can say that I hear probably a dozen live bands every day of my life.”
That playing music can be a lifelong experience sinks in with the students; all of them say that they’ve been inspired to continue on their musical paths. “I’m not gonna stop,” says Jexel. New Orleans–style drumming resonated with him. “It has more feeling to it than any other jazz,” he says.
“Talk about big life lessons!” muses Samson’s mom after the performance. “Whether you become a musician when you’re an adult or not, being able to jump in and work with a bunch of people, that’s what jazz is — constantly riffing off of each other.”