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Jazz Fest celebrates Preservation Hall's 50th year

Associated Press Modified: May 6, 2012 at 7:16 pm •  Published: May 6, 2012
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NEW ORLEANS (AP) — For five decades, Preservation Hall has served up New Orleans jazz for music lovers the world over.

The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, on its closing weekend, marked that achievement by showcasing the world-renowned Preservation Hall Jazz Band in concert twice.

On Sunday, the band closed the festival's Gentilly Stage with friends including Allen Toussaint, Trombone Shorty, the Rebirth Brass Band and Jazz Fest founder George Wein.

In a rare performance, the 86-year-old Wein introduced the band then played piano on their opening number — "Basin Street Blues." He got a rousing ovation after the song ended and he left the stage.

"Fifty years later, we're not too much different," said Ben Jaffe, the Hall's director and son of Allan and Sandra Jaffe, who founded the Hall in 1961. "The faces may be a bit different, but the experience is not tremendously different."

"It's important that the Preservation Hall people keep playing," said Wein, who also founded the Newport Jazz Festival in Rhode Island. "Times have changed, but the spirit and feel remain the same."

The French Quarter-based music venue was founded in 1961 to protect and honor New Orleans jazz. Jaffe said his parents' goal in founding the Hall was to make sure New Orleans' unique musical traditions would be kept alive.

"New Orleans music is passed on through its traditions, with younger players learning from older ones," Jaffe said. "That remains central to our mission and even today, 50 years later, it's a continuing goal to cast a spotlight on the old and young that's very much alive."

The Preservation Hall Jazz Band's members include 79-year-old clarinetist Charlie Gabriel, a fourth-generation musician; trombonist Frank Desmond, also 79; pianist Rickie Monie, 60; drummer Joseph Lastie Jr., 53; saxophonist Clint Maedgen, 42, on tuba; Jaffe, 41; and trumpeter Mark Braud, 38.

"I have so much respect for them as musicians and for what they do," said Toussaint, 74, who at one time was the band's opening act. "It's a wonderful thing for our city and the world."

On Saturday, the band performed in the Economy Hall tent, the festival's traditional jazz venue.

Jaffe has been criticized by some for moving the band away from its traditional roots into different musical genres through collaborations with artists like rapper Mos Def and rockers Lenny Kravitz and My Morning Jacket.

"I think when you talk of change, it's a part of the evolution of our traditions," he said in an interview during the festival. "Keeping any cultural tradition alive must reflect the generation of today or it will die. We generally play almost the same set that we have been playing. What changes most is the audience more than anything else.

"I think it's important to find a way to pay respect to the past while still balancing and staying true to yourself. That's the only way you're going to leave your own imprint on the music."

Jaffe related a story of how pianists Henry Butler and Davell Crawford recently shut down the Hall with a performance he won't forget anytime soon.

"Thank God for them," he said. "...I tell you that was a little bit of piano happiness right there."

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Associated Press writer Mary Foster contributed to this report.