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Preservation Hall Jazz Band: A Spry 50

Preservation Hall Jazz Band has traditions and can move forward and while DJs can add to it, it is still a bit of an interesting combination. And then I wonder about how purists view it because…

I guess that at the end of the day where the conversation comes to an end is when the purists or traditionalists impart their outside view on what we should be. And you know what? We have different philosophies. I was raised in a living, breathing evolving tradition. That’s who I am. I wouldn’t be true to myself or to New Orleans if it wasn’t constantly evolving. We would have become a repertory band. That’s not what I want to be a part of. If I wanted to be a repertory band, we would be the Preservation Hall Repertory Jazz Ensemble. That’s not what we are.

In regards to being the creative director, were you being groomed as you grew up or did you just get a call while attending Oberlin College, “When you graduate come on back and..?”

BJ: I don’t think it was something that my parents consciously did but very early on, I loved being around musicians. I loved being around my dad. I loved being around marching bands. I loved being around Preservation Hall. And there was something that, you can’t necessarily be trained for it because it’s something that you have to grow up in because it is a tradition. You just don’t take a great opera singer and say, “Sing some Gospel.” Some of the worst Gospel I’ve ever heard has been sung by classically-trained opera singers. If something is a tradition, you have to grow up with it. Either you know it and are a part of it or you’re not.

I was just very fortunate. My dad raised me in this world, the world of jazz funerals and the world of Mardi Gras parades and the world of marching bands and Second Line Parades and Preservation Hall and Sunday afternoon lawn parties. That’s the world I grew up in. I’m just very blessed. I only know a handful of people, not even a handful who were exposed to the world that I was exposed to growing up. It’s hard for me to talk about it with anybody because we’re talking about something from two different perspectives. It’s only when I sit down and have a conversation with people who I grew up with and have a shared similar experience with that they’re like, “Oh, okay I get it.”

Looking at your recent collaborations what was the experience like working with Stevie Wonder for the United Nations concert?

That was like playing with Buddha for me. I can’t think of anybody else living today that is the closest embodiment of…it’s actually what it would have meant to play with Duke Ellington for me or Count Basie. It was on that level, or Louis Armstrong.

We performed two songs with him, “Sir Duke” and “People Get Ready” and to play with Stevie Wonder, the Ambassador of Peace at the UN blew my mind. I still can’t believe that it happened. What was amazing about it, it happened very quickly that it all took shape in about a week. Within a very short period of time, we got all the parts together. When we got to the UN it was sort of chaos and mayhem. They’re filming it and it’s going to be on a worldwide stream on the UN site. BET is filming it. We were actually rehearsing in the UN in the General Assembly. The rehearsal takes place at 10 o’clock at night when everything shuts down. So we’re in the UN by ourselves with a stage in the General Assembly, which was just crazy.

Stevie heard us rehearsing “Sir Duke” off the stage and we were having fun. We were getting a little goofy with it. We started playing it like we would if we were in New Orleans on the street, marching on the street, more with a New Orleans parade beat.

The way Stevie plays it, it’s pretty straight. [he sings the signature horn part.] In New Orleans, they would swing it and they would syncopate the beats more. [He sings it in New Orleans time.] It would be a little bit slower, people would be able to dance to it. So, when we get up on stage, we’re thinking we’re going to play this song with his band. We’re just going to do the horn part. He’s like, “No, no, no. I want to do it like you guys were just doing it.” All of a sudden everything changed and we ended up playing it just with me playing tuba and our horns and him playing piano and singing and harmonica. It just blew my mind. I’m like, “Okay, my mind is officially blown wide open.”

That brings up this. You’ve done a lot of collaborations including Preservation: An Album to Benefit Preservation Hall & the Preservation Hall Music Outreach Program with Jim James, Pete Seeger, Tom Waits, Richie Havens, Del McCoury, Ani DiFranco, Dr. John, Merle Haggard, Buddy Miller, Jason Isbell and Angelique Kidjo. With collaborators is it something you see in them that you think can bring something to Preservation Hall or you think you can bring something to them or just get together and see if some magic happens?

A lot of times collaborations are based on friendships that you’ve developed over the years. It’s kind of like taking your girlfriend, asking her to move in and then asking her to marry you and having a kid. It’s a progression of a relationship.

That’s a beautiful thing when you can collaborate with people who you either have an intimate relationship with on a personal level or, maybe, you have musical kinship that you’re exploring. Different musicians are parts of different musical communities and different musical families but if you dig and you sniff a little bit, you can figure out what musical trunk a musician comes from. That’s important that musicians who come from the same mold, that even though you play different styles of music and you come from different walks of life, anywhere you go in the world, everybody has certain things in common.

We all have to eat. We all have to breathe. Big general things like that. But, you know what? The guys in Nashville have the same traditions that we have in New Orleans but they just come from a different walk of life. You collaborate with someone from the country side in Kentucky and you’re like, “Wow, these guys, they sing the blues but they just sing it a little different than we do, but they’re telling the same story. They’re doing the same thing.” Where do the two intersect with each other? Where do we share a common language? Sometimes, you have to discover the common language but a lot of times, it’s already there for you.

Lastly, I read that you played with the next generation of musicians, the Preservation Junior Hall Band at Voodoo Music Festival.

Our junior jazz band, those kids meet every week. They come and hang around Preservation Hall during the week. They’re part of our family. These are kids who we mentor. The family of junior musicians keeps growing every year as new kids start advancing on their instruments and then older kids transition to other programs.

Part of our philosophy at Preservation Hall is we want kids around Preservation Hall. We want them experiencing our life. We want to let them see into our world the same way that older musicians allowed us to see behind the curtain when we were kids. That’s how you become a musician. It’s not learning the notes. Anybody can learn the notes. How many people actually get the experience of being exposed to this world? It’s so few. It’s always been few. One thing that Preservation Hall does is we’ve always been this place where young musicians like myself…a lot of musicians who play at Preservation Hall today were young kids hanging around Preservation Hall 30, 40 years ago.

That’s a great starting spot. Who knows where they’re going to go? Look where Trombone Shorty’s taken New Orleans music. He’s somebody who’s rooted in the New Orleans music tradition. He comes from an incredible musical family with deep, deep roots in New Orleans music. It’s amazing to me to think what’s going to happen. Where’s Preservation Hall gonna be when I’m gone? It’ll be a beautiful thing even if it has to end someday down the road. That’s part of life, too.

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