WILLIAMSTOWN -- Whether for the occasional Super Bowl, the annual Mardi Gras parades or just a casual holiday, no trip to New Orleans would be complete without a pilgrimage to Preservation Hall.
Tucked into the middle of the city's French Quarter, the tiny, supremely unostentatious club at 726 St. Peter St., is jammed most evenings with more bodies than it can comfortably accommodate, there to hear music sublime and raucous at the epicenter of the great New Orleans jazz scene. A tavern during the War of 1812, later a photo studio and art gallery, the hall is said to be among the few places affording a pure music experience, for neither food nor drink is served, and it is not air conditioned.
While Preservation Hall is teeming nightly with its own activity, similar ensembles travel to share The Big Easy's vibrant spirit in more spacious surroundings. The Sterling & Francine Clark Art Institute has beckoned one of these itinerant groups of jazz missionaries on Friday evening at 8 for a little celebration. The concert was rescheduled due to a winter weather cancelation.
There's a pre-concert dinner at 6 for which reservations are required.
In approaching Preservation Hall, one is cautioned about using the term New Orleans Jazz in discussing the exuberant music made by its musicians -- most assuredly not Dixieland Jazz, which is most pejorative, asserts Ben Jaffe, the group's creative director and keeper of the tradition.
"We don't use the word ‘D
-land' in New Orleans," he stressed in an exchange of emails. "The word is used as a reference to the pre-civil rights south, so it's way beyond just a term used to refer to music.
"There are a lot of words we don't use any more because they are outdated. I think of ‘D
-land' as the cartoon version of New Orleans jazz. Preservation Hall is the evolution of hundreds of years of New Orleans culture," added Jaffe, son of the late Allan and Sandra Jaffe who founded the hall in 1961.
In addition to Allan Jaffe, the long honor roll of Preservation Hall members indeed is distinguished, among them the pianist "Sweet Emma" Barrett, double bassist Walter Payton, trumpeter Percy Humphrey, clarinetist Willie Humphrey, trombonist Louis Nelson and dozens more of similar stature. All of the performers, both on the road and performing nightly at the Hall, share a lineage to the instrumentalists who played before them, according to Jaffe.
"Passing on the tradition is at the core of what we do," he explained. "As in any good ‘recipe' that gets passed on through the generations, these musicians put a bit of themselves into the music. You'll never hear it played the same way. That's the beauty of it, really."
Aside from lineage through tradition, Jaffe noted that many of the players have emerged from families steeped in New Orleans music: "Take our clarinetist, Charlie Gabriel, as an example: He's a fourth generation New Orleans musician." Others in tonight's lineup are Mark Braud, trumpet; Clint Maedgen, saxophone, and Ronell Johnson, trombone, all participating with Gabriel on vocals, along with Rickie Monie, piano; Jeffrey Hills, tuba, and Shannon Powell, drums.
Jaffe said the evening's music will include many of the classics, in addition to new material. The group is preparing for a forthcoming CD to add to the band's collection of releases. "Our next recording will be made entirely of new compositions," he declared.
New Orleans, during and after Katrina, was on the minds of most Americans. Preservation Hall reopened in April, 2006, after being closed during the previous fall and winter.
Jaffe said he prefers to use the word "evolved" rather than "changed" in describing life in post-Katrina Crescent City and its people: "The hurricane put New Orleans in front of the world. Not only is New Orleans important as an American institution, we are important to world culture. We are one of the last, if not the last, cultural center in the United States.
"Yes, our music has evolved. We are not the same people we were pre-Katrina. And that's good.
"If something like Katrina doesn't open your eyes, make you more aware of your surroundings and appreciative of the gifts you are surrounded by, nothing ever will."