New Orleans band in a jam perseveres

The Baltimore Sun

Ben Jaffe pursed his lips and whistled - a short, melodious bird call of a sound. As he did, he was reminded of how much he has lost.

"There are certain things that, if you aren't from New Orleans, you have no idea what they mean," says Jaffe, artistic director of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, which performs this weekend with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.

"That particular whistle means, 'Listen up - the song is about to start.' It doesn't mean anything to you. But if I did it on the street in New Orleans, 10 people would turn around."

He paused.

"Or, at least, they would have."

What Jaffe is referring to, of course, is that the musical phrase would have elicited a predictable response before Hurricane Katrina hit on Aug. 29, 2005.

Eighteen months later, rebuilding the city - and its music - is still very much a work in progress. If New Orleans is a gumbo, then jazz is the dash of cayenne, the spice contributing both flavor and heat.

Audience members attending this week's performances at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall and the Music Center at Strathmore will find plenty of both.

They also will witness the fusing of two very different cultures: the regimentation of a classic symphony orchestra with the more free-wheeling improvisatory style of a jazz band.

"One of the great challenges and opportunities is trying to incorporate a very spontaneous method to something that by its nature is not," Jaffe says. "The beauty of what we do is watching the amazement on the faces of classically trained musicians, after we play a song one way in rehearsal, only to have it come out completely different in performance."

But improvisation is much more than just a musical style. It's also a life skill. And never has it been more needed than it has since the deluge.

Katrina didn't damage Preservation Hall, the most famous jazz venue in New Orleans. The hall is in the French Quarter on relatively high ground. But it decimated the population of 70 musicians who had performed regularly there and the visitors who applauded them.

Before Katrina, Preservation Hall was jam-packed every night, despite its tiny size, smoke-stained walls and wooden benches, which could seem unforgivingly hard to soft tourist behinds. The hall reopened in April of last year, eight months after the storm. Performances now occur weekly, Thursday through Sunday nights.

"A great part of the New Orleans music economy has always depended on tourism," Jaffe says. "New Orleans practically does not have a tourism industry right now. The revenue for the hall is off 90 percent what it was before, and we're not open 364 days a year anymore. Our core group of musicians has shrunk from 70 to about 35."

The lack of tourism, he says, "affects everything, from how often music is played, to where it is played, to what is being played."

A case in point is the group of seven musicians who make up the touring arm of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band.

"Just one of them lives in New Orleans," Jaffe says. "The rest are scattered around the U.S., from Houston to L.A. to Florida."

That's a more significant detriment than it might first appear. Traditionally, jazz has been taught through the generations, with the old masters passing on their hard-won wisdom and techniques to a new generation. In that way, jazz is not unlike cooking; it's extremely difficult to master both from the written notations alone: For instance, how large, exactly, is a "pinch"? In a similar vein, how fast, precisely, is a "medium groove"? It's much easier to get a feel for these crucial distinctions by watching and hearing someone who knows how to do them.

"One of the things that jazz in New Orleans always benefited from was an older generation, who bestowed on the younger generation the knowledge and expertise they had," Jaffe says.

"The people who have been able to come back to New Orleans have tended to be younger. Right now, a lot of the older musicians who were the pillars and torch-bearers have not returned. The loss is unfathomable."

One example, Jaffe says, is the legendary guitarist Arthel Lane "Doc" Watson, a winner of the National Medal of Arts. He remains in Houston, where he sought refuge when Katrina struck.

"He's 83 years old," Jaffe says. "His house was destroyed by the flooding, and all he got for it from the insurance company was $5,000, which was what his house was worth in 1934."

That's why Jaffe and his wife, Sarah, founded the New Orleans Musicians Hurricane Relief Fund. To date, the fund has given about 1,000 grants to New Orleans music makers.

"We make advocacy grants to individuals and institutions that we think will help to rebuild and redefine the culture and music economy of New Orleans," Jaffe says. "We want to help musicians and venues change and adapt to meet the needs of the community."

One of the group's projects, he says, is helping Watson to rebuild his house and move back to New Orleans.

There's a reason, perhaps, that the band and the hall where it plays are named "Preservation."

>>>If You Go Mardi Gras Celebration with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and vocalist Banu Gibson. 8 p.m. tomorrow at Music Center at Strathmore, 5301 Tuckerman Lane, North Bethesda; 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, 1212 Cathedral St. $25-$80. 410-783-8000 or

An article about the Preservation Hall Jazz Band in the Today section yesterday identified the wrong Doc Watson as a musician displaced by Hurricane Katrina. Ernest "Doc" Watson plays the tenor saxophone, is in his 70s and has not been awarded the National Medal of Arts.THE SUN REGRETS THE ERROR
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