Even beloved traditions can benefit from an evolutionary kick in the pants - at least according to one long time Preservation Hall fan.
- by Nan Parati
Me, I’m an old-fashioned traditionalist, me. I like old. I like what used to be. What came before us. How it’s supposed to be done.
I knew the Humphrey Brothers.
A few years after I tripped and fell into moving to New Orleans, I wandered equally as luckily into an apartment in the Treme. It was a house owned by Allan Jaffe, the man who didn’t start Preservation Hall, but furthered it into the powerhouse it was to become by taking over and managing it.
Allan and his wife Sandy moved here from Philadelphia in 1961, also by accident when they came to the French Quarter on a honeymoon side-trip, wandered into the art gallery Larry Borenstein had opened with rooted jazz on the side, and knew they wanted to help fill a big-ass hole where traditional music was supposed to be.
Allan sought out the old jazz musicians, many of whom, due to poverty, racism and age, were living on the street, in the backs of bars, destitute and invisible to listeners of modern music. He bought up some houses in Treme and offered them to the musicians as a place to live while they played at this new club he was opening next to Borenstein’s gallery, a place on St. Peter Street called Preservation Hall.
Would they play? Would they! Would it work? Oh yes indeed! Admission into the Hall was 50 cents by the time I arrived in the early ‘80s. Can’t imagine what it had worked itself up from to get there.
By the time I come along in the early 1980s, Jim Robinson, Punch Miller, Billie and De De Pierce and others Hall originals had moved on to the big jam in the sky, leaving the younger’uns behind to carry the traditions: Percy and Willie Humphrey, Frank Demond, Narvin Kimball, Allan himself, and others.
By then Preservation Hall musicians were financially stable enough to afford housing on their own, so Allan rented his Treme houses out to others looking for an interesting place to live. Frank got the house on St. Philip, and I came along looking for an apartment at just the right time in history.
Though I wasn’t a musician, I was an artist of the drawing and sign-writing variety, and was thus allowed to move in downstairs from Frank for 15 of the most exciting years of my life.
Frank was a happy man who enjoyed playing at the Hall and throwing concerts in the courtyard, inviting the celebrated Humphrey Brothers to come and play for invited guests. Evenings I’d go to the Hall just to stand in the back and listen to the musical history pouring out of those people. It was magic, a time that seemed would go on forever.
And then, one day in 1987, Allan died without much public warning. Biggest jazz funeral and second-line I’d ever seen, and I’ll bet it remains one of the largest in New Orleans history. Everybody knew Allan, his generosity and all he had done, not only New Orleans, but for musicians and for traditional music. Not many people can leave that kind of signature.
But the music played on and Allan’s son, a young man we knew as Benji, took over running the place. We were all proud of him, and the tradition, we were assured, would go on forever.
But then! Suddenly!
In the early oughts of the new century, things started sneaking woozy. Preservation Hall added dancers! Preservation Hall didn’t have dancers! In cute little outfits! Didn’t make sense at all. What would Allan say? Nothing good, we all assured each other.
And then a guy joined the band – a white guy with a pencil-thin moustache. A young guy whose other gig was something called the New Orleans Bingo Show. Something with that name is fine for Frenchman Street, but not for no Preservation Hall!
It wasn't his whiteness that was troubling; Preservation Hall bands always had been integrated. It was his flashy, hip, modern, Bingo-Show style. You ‘posed to be old and reverent like bassist Frank Fields was, before he passed.
And the music was changing. You didn’t recognize all the tunes anymore. The old standards were getting knocked aside for new, crazy-ass stuff.
“It’s called Preservation Hall,” we said, “You want something else, go someplace else!” What would that boy’s daddy think of what he was doing? Old Jim Robinson would be rolling in his grave!
Oh the humanity! Oh the modernization of Preservation! How could it possibly end, if not badly?
I blamed the moustache guy, myself. Didn’t he understand who he was playing with? Did he not know the legends like Walter Payton, Charlie Gabriel and the rest? They were still alive! How could he mock them with his hipster clothing and moustache? That guy just pissed me off. Every time I saw him.
So I stayed mad and I stayed away.
And then, in 2015 I was working at the Green River Festival up in Massachusetts (part of my annual festival-sign-writing tour) when Preservation Hall itself got booked to play. I made the band’s signs, and I stood and watched the show, arms folded, mad, disdainful as only true Preservationists can be.
And BOY was that show great!
They knocked it off the stage and over the distant mountains with a sound that had its deepest roots in New Orleans tradition. You could hear the old guys laying in the beats back a hundred years ago, but the newsound! It grabbed your soul up by its underwear and made you dance.
There were no on-stage dancers, there was nothing weird, just young guys playing a new kind of preserved music that didn’t exist anywhere else on earth.
I watched that show, I loved that show. Afterwards, I went backstage and found the Guy with the Mustache, though, by that time he had shaved it off. Didn’t matter. I was still full-up with suspicion and defense of Willie and Percy, even if I had liked the show.
“So,” I believe I opened with, “Who do you think you are?”
I reckon he got that sort of thing quite a bit from people like me, as he returned my salutation with happy interest in whatever it was I might be thinking.
Turned out he was Clint Maedgen, a young feller who had played saxophone all his life, finding it a chore until about the age of 15 when, while listening to someone he really liked, he got captured by the sax bug and knew what he wanted to do. At 15 it all caught fire, and practice became a religion.
He hadn’t planned to join the old guys; he wanted to do his own stuff. But a Bingo Show at Fiorella’s on Decatur in 2004 sparked the attention of Ben Jaffe who approached him to say he liked Clint’s voice and sax and wondered if he might be interested in a new idea.
Clint was excited – he cherished the old traditions. Growing up in Lafayette, he knew the sound. He’d heard the music of Preservation Hall on records his mother owned, but he’d never played it. He saw himself as more of a theater guy, a rock and roll man.
Ben was interested in just that - the theater of a new look, a new sound fused with the old, and he thought Clint might be just the guy to help with that.
Clint slid into the existing band with John Brunious, Joe Lastie, Lucien Barbarin, Ben Jaffe, Don Vappie, Ralph Johnson, Ricki Monie -- some older musicians, some new ones. But he saw what Ben was seeing: not only were older band members receding, but audiences were fading as well.
“About 40 percent of the concerts had an ambulance call to take someone in the audience to the hospital,” Clint says. The grandchildren weren’t coming. The band needed to update. Ben and Clint had long confabs. They needed to figure this out.
How do we preserve the music while interesting new audiences? They talked to younger musicians with wider backgrounds. They poked around at the inspirations, and in 2013 released the first Preservation Hall Jazz Band album of brand new music.
Jim Olsen, producer of my conversionary Green River Festival said of that show: “They were great, but I recall there were a number of subs on that gig. I felt we didn’t really get the full band.”
What Jim didn’t know, what I didn’t know was that the “subs” were the band in transition, sliding into a new world of Preservation, preserving a sound that would kick the band into orbit.
The older guys weren’t gone completely; musicians came and went, depending on where they were in their careers and lives. Some stayed in town and some toured.Walter Payton and Charlie Gabriel joined the band shortly after Clint, and the stories of their days with the band are worth preserving.
“We were in Oslo, Norway, on tour with the Blind Boys of Alabama and had a 6 a.m. lobby call to board the bus. They did the head count and one guy was missing: Walter Payton. The road manager sent the bellman up to Walter’s room. He knocked, went in and grabbed Walter’s suitcase to take it to the bus. They loaded it on, and moments later Walter himself came to the bus, dressed only in a raincoat. He had been in the bathroom at the taking of the suitcase, and his pants were in that suitcase.
“I see how y’all gonna do!” he fussed. His pants were too locked up to get to, so he was stuck in his raincoat for the ride.
In the commotion, Charlie Gabriel decided to get off the bus and go to the store –the store right there! - to get something to eat. This was the days before cell phones, and the bus was two mountains down the road before they realized Charlie wasn’t on it.
Forty-five minutes later the bus pulled back up in front of the hotel where Charlie stood, mad, angry and disgusted. He got on the bus talking about how this was IT! He was DONE! Sat down near the front of the bus and nothing could talk him out of it.
Finally Walter ambled up to the front in his raincoat, flashed Charlie with what was underneath and cajoled, “Charlie, don’t be mad. See what they did to me? I ain’t got no pants on!”
It was the line, the only line that kept the band together.
Now the middle-aged guy - Clint’s turning 50 as we speak - he considers himself truly blessed to be submerged in the old ways at home. They now play only traditional jazz at the Hall, kicking the new stuff on tour. And most exciting, he’s up and running with his own work at home and on the web.
Besides being a musician, he’s a photographer whose work is displayed at the New Orleans Gallery for Fine Photography. He’s a writer of stories as well as music, an illustrator with his own line of pillows featuring French Quarter doorbells, an idea he got as the bicycle-delivery boy for Fiorella’s.
A 2005 video featuring Clint at his job as a delivery boy for Fiorella's on Decatur.
He sees the world these days as a Gold Rush for artists, having recently been introduced to Patreon, an on-line platform where creators join up, connect to their fans and followers, and get paid by them, directly. He can be found at any hour of the day or night, live, on-line performing, writing, drawing and entertaining his people, and it makes him happy to do so.
“So many opportunities to reach so many!” he says.
“Music continues to show up and push me to better myself. There’s always somebody better than you, so you gotta keep practicing. I may be good, but this guy levitates with the sax! I got to get to that level!”
The band is younger. This band mixes the jitterbugging “That’s It!” with the reconciling “I Ain’t Mad at You, Babe” and then, floats out a gorgeous rendition of “St. James Infirmary,” nothing like how Narvin Kimball played it, but a version that will catch you up and hold you in its arms till it’s gone.
This band, remixed and rejuvenated by Ben Jaffe - who turned out to be every bit as smart as his dad was, keeping the music simultaneously preserved and alive - knows its heritage and loves those roots like the true sons of jazz they are. Well sir, what has jazz ever been but brash, cocky and innovative? From the very beginning.
I, the Preservationist, had forgotten about that. That guy out front there, the one without the mustache, is doing just what he's supposed to – preserving the tradition by sailing it forward.
As the sign writer for the Jazz Fest, Nan Paratimay be the most collected artist in the world, but nobody knows who she is. Other than that, she’s lived in the French Quarter and the Treme, was the sign writer at Whole Food Company (before Whole Foods Market,) worked for Jimmy Buffet for a while, has made a life’s work out of festival design all over the country, has won awards for her plays, has a film script revving up for production and just sold a restaurant she opened in Massachusetts after Katrina took out her house and sent her out of her mind. Now she’s back in her right mind and having a real good time.