20 September 2015

Post 264: PRESERVATION HALL, 1998


Let me tell you about four evenings I spent in Preservation Hall, New Orleans, in 1998. Important musical history has been made there during the last 60 years and I would like to give you my own little contribution to recording that history.

As an English jazz fan, I was keen to catch as much of the Preservation Hall music as I could during my four-night stay. So I was there in the audience each evening. This meant missing some good bands playing at the Sonesta Hotel and at the Palm Court Café, but you can't do everything. (In those days, Frenchman Street was yet to emerge as the place to be at night.)

In 1998, the Preservation Hall entrance fee was only 4 dollars a night (about £2.40 at the time) – tremendously good value. The acoustics were marvellous and the bands of course played with no amplification – something the audiences appreciated very much: you heard the instruments in all their purity. Even songs were sung without a microphone. Those conventions have not changed, I'm pleased to say, in the years that followed.

On those four nights, all the bands had seven players. This should mean that we heard 28 musicians in all, but in fact two or three of them played in more than one band. 

There were a few of the very elderly musicians still turning up, but it was sad to see them playing weakly now. In particular, 'Frog' Joseph (trombone), then aged 80, was a passenger, though I know he was a great player in his time. He died not very long afterwards. 

The best surprise was that Narvin Kimball at the age of 89 was still there – playing banjo so tastefully and creatively and still singing Girl of My Dreams movingly, with a rich voice. (He lived to the good age of 97, passing away on 17th March 2006.)

Harold Dejan (saxophone) still nominally led the Sunday night band (actually The Olympia Band) but arthritis and near-blindness prevented him from playing: he merely performed a few vocals. He was 89 and looked very ill. It was a pity to see a musician still turning out in such a state, but he must have been proud of the long history of this band, which he founded many years earlier. 

On the other hand, James Prevost (string bass) at the age of 79 played vigorously on two of the nights, giving a real swing to the bands. But he too, alas, died not long afterwards. 

The best clarinettist was Dr. Michael White. He was good when I heard him in 1993 but seemed to be playing even better with the passage of years, responding skilfully to the phrasing of the trumpet. I believe Michael White is also a professor at the Xavier University of Louisiana. 

Also Jacques Gauthé (playing soprano saxophone this time) was brilliant and often put us in mind of Sidney Bechet. 

There were superb drummers (including Leroy Breaux, Joe Lastie and Nowell Glass), some good pianists and (best trombonist) Frank Demond – the only other survivor (with Narvin Kimball) of the great Preservation Hall Band that toured the U.K. in about 1980. Frank Demond played in a beautifully simple, lyrical style and it was terrific. For solos, he usually took two choruses, the first close to the melody, concentrating on tone, the second letting loose. 

The trumpet players were unbelievably brilliant. Wendell Brunious (two nights – a man with a degree in Marketing!) and Milton Batiste (one night) did things that ought not to be possible! They made me want to practise for hours and hours – or just give up and throw my trumpet away! Milton Batiste, who specialised in excitingly syncopated rhythmic improvisations and riffs, with plenty of high notes, always wore his topi to conceal the scar from a childhood baseball injury. He was the very first person I spoke to in New Orleans (apart from customs officials) on my second visit to the City. His band was playing at the airport. (It is very sad that he died in March 2001 while still in his early 60s.)

The other trumpeter was Reginald Koeller, whom I had not heard before. He played with a marvellous instinct, giving the impression that he knew nothing about written music and musical theory but just played straight from the heart. (I have since read that he was in fact classically trained!) 

One of the best musicians of the four nights was Les Muscott (banjo). He achieved such variety and colouring that he was quite in the Narvin Kimball class. He was capable of doing on the banjo anything you would expect from a piano, or so it seemed. Les (who has also since died) was English, but emigrated to New Orleans in the 1970s and worked in music there until his death. He acquired an authentic New Orleans accent.

The tunes we heard everywhere in New Orleans (including Preservation Hall) were familiar. They included Tiger Rag and When the Saints (a lot) and also Royal Garden BluesHindustanBogalusa StrutBye and ByeBasin Street BluesBugle Boy MarchDown By the RiversideSweet Georgia BrownEh La BasHow We Danced at the Mardi GrasButter and Egg ManI Get the Blues When it Rains (James Prevost was the vocalist for this after a very wet day), Sister KateSweet SueJa DaJust a Closer WalkLily of the Valley (with the last 16 bars played as introduction), Little Liza JaneLord, Lord, LordMargieMy Blue Heaven, (interestingly played very slowly), Nobody's Sweetheart NowThe Old Rugged CrossOn the Sunny Side of the StreetSavoy BluesSecond LineSome of these DaysSweethearts on ParadeThat's a PlentyTing-a-lingWalking With the KingYou are My Sunshine and When You're Smiling. This last one was performed on two nights at Preservation Hall and both times turned into a hilarious community sing led by brilliant banjo player Don Vappie, with full audience participation. He insisted we should all sing it properly - as 'when you're smiling, the whole world smiles wit chew'!