Preservation Hall Jazz Band: A Spry 50
When you came there in 1994, let’s face it you’re a 22 year old guy who came out of college and even though you had connection there, were you immediately trying to change things? Were you met with resistance?
No, I was at Preservation Hall for probably 12 years before I even suggested that we change our set list. Probably the first 12 years that I performed there, literally, we played the same repertoire at every concert. I can even tell you the set list because it’s ingrained into my brain, but Narvin Kimball was in the band playing banjo. And you know what? We were there to support Narvin Kimball. He was the senior member and the last living original member of the Preservation Hall Band. We were there to support him and allow him to tell us what direction the band should go in.
But it was very, very rare that we ever even introduced a new old number. Probably, the first thing I did that seemed a little bit curated was a record called In the Sweet Bye & Bye, which was an album of spirituals and hymns. I did that. I think we actually recorded that in ’94 or ’95. So, I guess I did start curating things but all I did was take songs that were already in our repertoire and select from them. And there were a couple songs that we had performed in the ‘60s and ‘70s that I brought back like “Do Lord,” but those were songs that these guys had grown up on. It wasn’t like I was introducing anything new. I was just bringing back something from our past.
Until you actually become one of the elder members of the band, you don’t really have a voice. Your job is to carry suitcases and get coffee and make sure all the older members are taken care of. That’s really you’re responsibility. You’re making sure that they get to the shows on time and that they’re healthy on the road. You’re basically mentoring. You’ve got to earn your stripes to carry this torch.
Also, those 12 years let you settle in.
Oh yeah! I had to discover my own voice as well. I had to discover what it was. I had to discover what was important to me as an artist and as someone who had a responsibility to a community and its traditions. I never wanted to do anything that was disrespectful to our musical tradition. That’s always first and foremost, is what we are creating right now respectful of the tradition that we’ve inherited and the people whose shoes or whose shoulders we’re standing on? That’s always front and foremost for me. And sometimes, people even disagree about that. It’s a question that I ask myself, and it’s a debate that I have internally. Ultimately, I always side on the side of respect and whether or not it’s something that I consider respectful. After I weigh all the pros and cons and listen to everybody’s opinion you filter it all down and then make the best decision that you’re capable of.
That brings up this. I saw a photo of you onstage with a DJ. Was that his set and you guys just joined him or was that your set and he was playing with you?
Recently, we had Kid Koala who we’ve worked with before. He came and played on our set. We’ve done that on several occasions, not just with Kid Koala but also with King Britt. He was the first DJ that we ever worked with.
I guess what I’m getting to goes to traditions and not being static. Was that something that you had to go back and forth with yourself and convince others?
For me it wasn’t huge dilemma ‘cause I know King Britt and I know Kid Koala personally and I I know how much respect and dignity they have for music and how much respect they have for our tradition. I mean anybody who knows Kid Koala, all you have to do is search his name online and you’ll see some of the most brilliant work that any DJ…he’s beyond a DJ. The same with King Britt. King Britt is involved with everything from dance to the visual arts. You can’t lump every DJ together just like you can’t lump every musician together. There’s some DJs that I wouldn’t work with, who I don’t think bring the appropriate attitude to the stage or who represent the right music. There’s certain people who I wouldn’t get on the stage with. We’re very selective about the projects we do, who we work with and who we collaborate with. I wouldn’t be able to sleep easy at night if I didn’t respect all the people that we collaborate with.
I wasn’t trying to infer that it was some sort of ploy to get 18 year old kids to your concert.
Oh no. Jesus Christ, no. If we wanted to do that, we’d have naked girls dancing onstage. Really, if Preservation Hall wanted to attract more people, we would start selling drinks and put air conditioning in. (slight laugh). For whatever reason, we have this death wish that we’re happy with where we are. We’re able to sustain ourselves. We’re able to at the end of the day go to bed feeling like we didn’t sell our soul to get to do what we do and it’s a blessing. We might not be here tomorrow. We’re the dinosaurs. We’re like the last men standing in a lot of ways. We’re an endangered species.
I found the line that line that made me want to bring up why it’s interesting to use Kid Koala and King Britt. It was a review of the box set in Offbeat, which said that you’ve “insisted that it’s entirely possible to change the band line up, change the band’s repertoire, change performance venues and dramatically change the band’s audience demographics without once endangering the inheritance of tradition established in 1961…” And so, using a DJ relates to that idea.
Man, I can tell you this much. If you’re not hip to DJ culture by now then I would say that you’re pretty much out of touch with music for the past 30 years. That’s something that I always tell people. You know what? You would have had to have been blind and deaf not to have been influenced or heard or seen or experienced DJ culture in the past 30 or 40 years. I mean really even more than that because Jamaican music is so influential in New Orleans. I’ve been listening to dub and reggae since the ‘70s when I was growing up. It was huge in New Orleans. DJs scratching and dubbing for 45 minutes.
Hip hop, everything that came out of New York and the Bronx. I mean, anything. Madonna. Everybody uses DJs. Herbie Hancock, for God sake, was the first person. A lot of people don’t acknowledge that a jazz musician was the first person to ever use a live DJ in concert as an instrument, that he was the first person to ever record scratching. Herbie Hancock, the world ambassador of jazz. He was appointed (a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador). So, there is a history of jazz musicians always being on the vanguard of whatever’s happening. I mean…
I’m not trying to make you angry, it’s just…
Oh, no, no, no. I get excited about these things because I find it all very interesting.