A taste of New Orleans Jazz at the Annenberg Center

December 20, 2009

A Taste Of New Orleans Jazz At Penn’s Annenberg Center

By KATE REYNOLDS, For The Bulletin

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Philadelphia audiences were treated to a visit from the Big Easy last weekend when famed New Orleans jazz band, Preservation Hall, performed their Creole Christmas concert at the University of Pennsylvania’s Zellerbach Theatre as part of the Annenberg’s Penn Presents Jazz Series.

Last performing at the Annenberg in 2003, the band returned with A Creole Christmas, a Christmas concert featuring a mixed blend of holiday tunes and medleys with traditional jazz numbers like “My Sweet Substitute,” “I Wish I Could Shimmy Like My Sister Kate,” “Tiger Rag,” and Louis Armstrong’s “Old Man Mose.”

“Unlike many Christmas or holiday shows, this isn’t an opportunity to come and hear jazz interpretations of holiday songs. It’s really a celebration of life and the holiday season in the New Orleans style” says Ben Jaffe, Preservation Hall’s creative director and tuba player.

Touring since 1963, the jazz band gets its name from Preservation Hall, the jazz venue located in New Orleans’ French Quarter. A former Spanish tavern built in the 1750s, Preservation Hall was founded by Jaffe’s parents, Allan and Sandra, to preserve and maintain the New Orleans musical tradition.

The Jaffes, as well as former owner, Larry Borenstein, who held informal jam sessions for local jazz musicians, are credited with the revival of New Orleans jazz, originally developed during the earlier 20th century. At the time of its founding by the Jaffes in 1961, the hall was also at the forefront of the civil rights movement as it catered to older and aging African-American New Orleans jazz musicians performing for a primarily white audience - something unheard of at the time.

The hall also has local roots with both of Jaffe’s parents being native Pennsylvanians. Allan, a Wharton alum originally from Pottsville, worked at Gimbels Department Store before joining the Army and being stationed in Louisiana. After falling in love with New Orleans and its rich musical scene, Jaffe moved there with wife Sandra, a native of the Main Line, and established Preservation Hall.

Open 7 days a week from 8pm-11pm, the hall plays to packed audiences who come experience first-hand the New Orleans jazz tradition.

“When we play music, I really feel like we elevate people. We certainly elevate ourselves - and truly, the experience of listening to the Preservation Hall band is such a celebration of life,” Jaffe remarks.

The band itself is a celebration of life with members ranging in age from 30s to late 70s. Beyond their extensive resumes and musical heritage, the Preservation Hall band members are playful showmen who know how to engage and enliven the audience. Audience members were particularly taken with Walter Payton’s (bass) rendition of “I Wish I Could Shimmy Like My Sister Kate” that included some impressive shimmying skills, and Charlie Gabriel’s (clarinet/saxophone/vocals) endearing charm with “My Sweet Substitute.” All members were prominently showcased throughout the concert.

The audience was truly brought to its feet, however, with the group’s final number, “When the Saints Go Marching In” as band members, lead by Ben Jaffe and his giant, brass sousaphone, paraded through the aisles of a packed Zellerbach Theatre encouraging the audience to join in the procession which culminated in a dance party back on stage with the band. As trumpeter, Mark Braud, chanted “it’s your last chance to dance, GET UP!” children as small as seven or eight years-old shook and shimmied alongside seasoned jazz aficionados, a true testament to the universality of the New Orleans sound and Preservation Hall’s commitment to providing a “celebration of life” through their music.

“It’s a way for us to commune with an audience - for us to allow an audience in Philadelphia, for example, to have a great New Orleans experience,” says Jaffe. ” It’s a chance for them to rejoice, and dance, and celebrate, and nobody does this better than the Preservation Hall Band.”