The members of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band occupy a singular position as ambassadors of the unmistakable sound of contemporary New Orleans, while also having deep roots into the Crescent City’s storied musical past. The group’s current lineup is helmed by tuba and upright bass player Ben Jaffe, son of founding members Allan and Sandra Jaffe.
The band has been continuously active since the early ‘60s, when it launched from its namesake venue at 726 St. Peter Street in the French Quarter. Preservation Hall itself was shuttered for several months during 2005 and 2006 in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, but the PHJB played on. The group has outlived most of its founding members, who held pride in seeing their legacy continue as a living history. The ranks of former members number into the dozens, including pianist “Sweet Emma” Barrett, trumpeter Kid Sheik Cola, clarinetist Willie Humphrey and tuba player Walter Payton. The current lineup features longtime members Ronell Johnson on trombone and saxophonist Clint Maedgen.
At 84, saxophonist, clarinetist and New Orleans native Charlie Gabriel is PHJB’s ranking senior member and a fourth-generation New Orleans musician. His playing was sufficiently sharp at age 16 that he was hired by Lionel Hampton. Gabriel later assumed key positions with artists including Aretha Franklin. He has led his own Gabriel Traditional Jazz Band at venues around the world in addition to his work with PHJB. Gabriel returned to New Orleans following Katrina’s devastation, with a mission to rebuild and promote his home city’s vibrant culture.
The Preservation Hall Jazz Band continues its role as principal purveyors of traditional jazz, while also engaging the present. The band has made multiple appearances at the annual Coachella festival, toured with My Morning Jacket, and was featured on the Foo Fighters’ “Sonic Highways” album.
The group’s sprawling discography expanded with the April release of “So It Is.” Songs were composed primarily by Jaffe and Gabriel, with production by David Sitek of TV on the Radio. The music is anchored by the band’s traditional roots, but expands to embrace the rich influence felt during group travel to Cuba. The Afro-Cuban roots already present in New Orleans’ musical heritage are amplified in the musical gumbo. Newer songs like “La Malanga” and the sinewy funk of “Santiago” add spice to the band’s live show alongside vintage fare like “St. James Infirmary” and “Tiger Rag” or stylized covers of songs by New Orleans legends Allen Toussaint and Fats Domino.
Jeff Elbel is a local freelance writer.