The Preservation Hall Jazz Band at the Wildwood Festival for the Performing Arts

C. Michael Bailey By

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Springtime is typically hot in Little Rock, Arkansas, site of the annual Wildwood Festival for the Performing Arts. Warm and incredibly humid, Wildwood Park exists in almost tropical opulence. Since its inception in 1991, the Wildwood Festival has been responsible for bringing world-class jazz and classical music to the Little Rock Area. Regarding jazz, the 1996 Festival featured a Jazz Festival that included performances by Joe Henderson, Joe Lovano, Kurt Elling, Charlie Haden; Jimmy Heath, Tootie Heath, Stanley Cowell, and Eddie Henderson. The past several years have seen the performances by artists with wider recognition, such as the Count Basie Orchestra, the Jim Cullum Jazz Band, and The Glenn Mill Orchestra.

In 2003, the revered Preservation Hall Jazz Band made an appearance on June 21st in the Lucy Lockett Cabe Festival Theatre. The concert was preceded by a 45-minute lecture by David Miller, host of Swinging Down the Lane , a nationally recognized radio program that is a mainstay on National Public Radio. Mr. Miller, an authority on Traditional and Swing Jazz, lead the audience of 200 through the early history of jazz, focusing on its Storyville roots and giving musical examples by Louis Armstrong ("West End Blues"), Sidney Bechet ("Petite Fleur"), and Jelly Roll Morton ("King Porter Stomp"). He concluded is talk by carefully explaining the make up of the typical New Orleans jazz band and how it different from what one might expect today.

The Preservation Hall Jazz Band is a septet consisting of piano, string bass, banjo, drums, trumpet/coronet, trombone, and clarinet that has existed in one form or another for over almost 50 years. The music this combo makes is the ground zero of jazz. The building known as Preservation Hall, is located at 726 St. Peter Street, situated three blocks from the Mississippi River in the core of the Historic French Quarter in New Orleans, has served many roles over the years. Originally built as a home in the 1750’s, the structure has also housed a cobbler shop, grocery, photo studio and art gallery.

Preservation Hall formally opened as a performance venue in 1961. From its beginnings, the Hall committed itself to presenting Traditional New Orleans Jazz by many of this style of music’s founders. One of the Hall’s main ambitions was to hire musicians that were responsible for creating the style of music known as Traditional New Orleans Jazz which with the rise of Big Band Swing, Modern Jazz and Rock & Roll, had fallen out of favor. Many of these musicians were well into their 70’s, 80’s and 90’s. Some had retired from music while others had stopped playing altogether.

This show did not change that impression. All members of the band, save for bassist Benjamin Jaffe, were over 50 years old. The band consisted of—

Benjamin Jaffe – Bass
Rickie Monie – Piano
Joe Lastie – Drums
Carl LeBlanc — Banjo
Frank Demond – Trombone
John Brunlous— Trumpet
Ralph Johnson — Clarinet

The Show

8:00 PM. It was a sleepy crowd of about 200 who came out to see how jazz began in the early part of the 20th century. The members of the Preservation Hall Jazz band enter the stage, one at a time, performing the rave "Down on Bourbon Street." As is characteristic of this jazz, the entire band soloed, generally being allowed two choruses each to express their ideas. An interesting observation about New Orleans Jazz is that it is played as an exuberant counterpoint not unlike that employed by J.S. Bach, though I do not think the master would have quite expected this. Regardless, Bach would have been pleased.

This opener was followed with "Ate Up The Apple Tree" sung by Karl LeBlanc. Next was "Boogie Woogie" again a vehicle for all band members to solo. The high points of the show were Ralph Johnson’s beautifully rendered "Petit Fleur," honoring Sidney Bechet, the standard "Just a Closer Walk with Thee," and the necessary "When the Saints Go Marching In," replete with conga line and the stage full of the audience. Closing with "Saints" only Frank Demond remained on the stage, preparing his trombone for travel. A great schtick for the encore, which was as touching as beautiful—joining Demond, was pianist Monie and Trumpeter Brunlous for "God Bless America." A superb ending to a superb show.

For more information, please see Preservation Hall and the Wildwood Festival for the Performing Arts .

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