Sauna night at Preservation Hall

It’s 9:30pm on a August Sunday in New Orleans, and I’m drenched in sweat. I’m indoors but that doesn’t matter here. At least, not now.

My little brother and I have come down to the Crescent City for a long weekend. I take an annual trip here, but it’s James’s first time here outside of a church trip which, given the nature of the city, doesn’t really count. Still, we’re no Bourbon Street poonhounds looking for a whiskey fix. We avoided Hustler’s Barely Legal Club—James said, “Aren’t they basically asking for a police raid?”—and its like. This afternoon, we’ve taken the Canal Street streetcar to the New Orleans Museum of Art, and shivered through the new exhibits (magnificent Albrecht Dürer engraving, and a lush, gold-strewn set of Russian Orthodox paintings and iconography) and the more-or-less permanent Fabergé collection. Last night, we ended up at Mona’s for some Middle Eastern cuisine, and some fruity, exquisite gelato off of Oak Street.

Still, we’ve stayed for the most part in the Quarter, which means we’ve been walking for most of the weekend. This morning, before the museum trip, we took a $12/person mule tour through the Vieux Carré, and the rambunctious guide pointed out good shops, old history, and interesting places to eat. (During the ride, we ventured into the gayborhood part of Bourbon Street, and one woman said to the guide, “I see all these rainbow-colored balloons around. See, right by that bar. Are the Saints about to start playing?” James and the guide had to suppress laughter.)

Now, the Quarter is not just pedestrian-friendly but probably pedestrian-essential. Parking’s a nightmare; we left our car at our lovely hotel, except for the trip out to Mona’s. Streets are blocked from vehicular traffic for large chunks of the day, and I couldn’t figure out a schedule for when those times might be. The streets are narrow, so even the rare two-way street is clogged enough to make me long for my own two feet.

All that’s terrific; I’m a big fan of older, pedestrian cities. (This is why New Orleans, New York, and especially my love of loves Chicago will always be treasured by me.) But walking in the Quarter, in early August, means two things: 1. You’re always smelling new, and not quite fresh or savory, aromas, in the early morning on your way to Café Du Monde on Decatur, or Café Beignet on Royal Street; and 2. you’re always sweating and looking for an interesting shop in which you can cool off for five minutes.

So, James and I have strolled into toy shops—in one, James found a Curious George tea set; in another, we found a collection of handmade, wooden toys and puzzles—and hat stores with Panama fedoras and bowler hats. We wandered into the St. Louis Cathedral, Faulkner House Books, and Jean Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop, which is lit only by candles and serves a great amaretto sour; the latter was the tour guide’s recommendation.

Another Quarter-specific thing: French Quarter architecture surprises outsiders. The exteriors of the buildings—dilapidated, with peeling paint, facades from the mid-1800s, and ancient wrought-iron gates—do not often reflect the tenor of the interiors, which can be luminous and sumptuous. Because the buildings are packed together so tightly on the narrow streets, it’s hard to tell how deep most of them are. A doorway no wider than a phone booth might show a glimpse of green and chairs through a long, dark hallway. You pass through the hall, and discover you’re in an open-air ivy-and-palm-tree-strewn courtyard, with building walls all around you. We wandered into Pat O’Brien’s, and were surprised by how vast the courtyard is, by how much space there is amidst the red brick to stretch out and unwind. James ordered the world-famous Hurricane; I had a mint julep, complete with a huge sprig of mint and a maraschino cherry. True to our nerdy selves, we nursed our drinks over the course of an hour, reading Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (James) and Daniel Pinkwater’s The Neddiad (me), and occasionally people-watching.

After reading a few chapters apiece, we left Pat O’Brien’s pleasantly buzzed and entered the humidity and stumbling walkers on St. Peter Street. Just down the street, we saw Preservation Hall. James immediately suggested it as a place to visit.

Now, I’m a big jazz fan but the moldy fig stuff leaves me cold. Yes, I own and enjoy a collection of Jelly Roll Morton’s recordings from 1926-27, and I’ve given R. Crumb’s old-timey tastes a try. Mostly, though, my jazz love runs post-1945, and against crackly vinyl and the rattling, slurred trombone and banjo. And what Preservation Hall wishes to preserve, of course, is the ragtime/stomp/moldy fig ramshackle jazz of the pre-1930 era.

But this trip was about searching out new avenues in one of my favorite cities, and about doing what James wanted to do. So I said, “Let’s go.”

And that’s why I’m standing up, on a Sunday night, in a rundown building that doesn’t have air conditioning, and that’s crammed with 50-60 enthusiastic fans, yelling my head off. This incarnation of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band (there have been several incarnations over the years) is blowing hot fire. We’ve reached that crescendo signaling the end of the first set, with the lead singer/trumpeter leading call-and-responses to the audiences and coming sly come-ons to the comely female singer who’s a student at Tulane University. The band engages the audience; the music comes from us as much as it comes from the folks onstage.

In fact, the “stage” is level with the audience floor, and the musicians sit unless they are moved to stand and wow us. Improvisational pyrotechnics threaten to ignite the walls. One thing about early jazz that’s been hard to get used to is that it seems like everyone is soloing all at once. For a good description of what’s going on, it’s useful to turn to Tom Piazza’s Understanding Jazz:

…Contemporary ears may be so used to hearing a sharp distinction between foreground and background, between a solo voice and its accompaniment, that a performance such as [King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band’s] “Weather Bird Rag” may come as something of a shock. In it, almost every instrumental voice, certainly every wind instrument, seems to be in the foreground at the same time.

[…]

Once our ears get used to the limited acoustic range, we can hear something like a musical miracle in progress. All the musicians are playing at once, each is playing something different, and yet the music doesn’t sound chaotic. There is a unified effect consisting of very different elements.

Those things—the limited acoustic range, and the blurred border between foreground and background—is what’s always bugged me about the oldest school of jazz. Tonight, though, this raucous energy and sexy musical slurs is getting me worked up. The crowd, too. We’re singing along, clapping energetically (even if we’re sometimes a little off the beat), and dripping with sweat. Old-time jazz blurs lines, exposes and takes advantage of the porous borders between instruments, between band and audience, between genres (jazz, blues, folk, country), and between solos and group swing. Band members traipse onto and off of the stage. The trap-kit drummer doesn’t show up to join the tuba-and-bass-drum rhythm section until the second song. The Asian clarinetist hops on stage around song four, plays two dynamite and insinuating solos for two respective songs (Is there a more immediately erotic sound than a clarinet blowing smoothly? I think not), and then quietly leaves the stage. He was in the fifth row before he joined the band; I thought he was just part of the audience.

Still, it’s a sauna in here, and not just because of the female singer glistening in the low-cut black dress. The set break comes as relief. James and I buy bottled water—no alcohol here, nor a restroom; the staff welcomes you to cross the street to a bar with both available—and check out the CDs. We rest. We know we’re sticking around for at least one more set.

During the second set, I realize that preservation doesn’t mean cryogenically freezing the sound. In rousing versions of “St. James Infirmary” and “This Little Light of Mine,” the singers adapt the lyrics to make hilarious, in-meter references to Playstation 2 and cellphones. For these kids—because none of the black musicians on stage is over 30—this music is far from “old-timey” or “moldy fig” or “old hat.” It’s contemporary, it’s right now. They feel it freshly, and make it fresh for the audience. We’re all rolling along, singing and clapping to songs twice as old as we are, to melodies that we’ve known in our bones since our first Sundays in church.

Indeed, the concert reminds me of church, but without the sermons or the bombastic moralizing. Just the communion, and a lot more sexual heat. Around 10:15pm, after the second set, James and I leave. This isn’t because the show wasn’t good—it was, in fact, overwhelming. So overwhelming that we needed a slow night walk back to the hotel—well, after a piña colada—to wind down and process it. And I’ve been thinking about the concert ever since.

About Walter Biggins

Walter Biggins is a writer based in Athens, GA. His work has been published in RogerEbert.com, Bookslut, The Comics Journal, Salon, The Baseball Chronicle, Jackson Free Press, and Valley Voices: A Literary Review. Follow him on Twitter (@walter_biggins), and check out his bimonthly newsletter (https://tinyletter.com/Walter_Biggins).
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2 Responses to Sauna night at Preservation Hall

  1. LMc says:

    Your description is wonderful (of course!) and I only wish I could have been there to share it with you two.
    LMc

  2. Wax Banks says:

    Lovely, Walter. This is the kind of writing I wish I had more of a knack for – as well as a way of goingplaces I wish I tended more strongly to.
    Either way, your affection for the Preservation Hall stuff has determined my music queue for the morning (after listening to a Squeeze song ten times in a row): Mingus at Antibes, then some Masada. Though I gotta say, this foreground/background blurring should be old, old, old hat to any Phish fan – I remember being in All-County jazz band in high school, and during this improv workshop with the director, I started blowing a quiet counterpoint line underneath his blues solo. That’s what improvisation is, right? or so went my thinking. Listening through your horn.
    He stopped the band to chastise me and I didn’t listen to jazz again for a couple of years after that. The guy on clarinet was a professional player while still in high school; he took this fast solo that sounded like a skilled player jacking off, his tone irritatingly breathy to my ears, and I was nervous, but only for a second. Came my turn to stand and I played long slow notes hanging off the bottom of the treble clef – where the tenor saxophone lives and breathes, for my money, but what the fuck did I know – and out the corner of my eye I saw the director nodding his head in that time-out-of-time way that says he heard the pulse underneath. I wasn’t trying to talk over him, I just needed a way to show I was listening. But I never did speak to him about it. Or maybe I did and didn’t care by then. At 17 or so shit gets that way.
    I had to sit second chair to that fucking clarinetist in the concert band several years running (and way down in second section at Area All-State), but for a day I realized I’d heard something he had neither affection nor affinity for, really heard it, and a little puffery never hurt anyone. I was comforted by having that secret.
    Which is a long way of saying back, ‘Christ, I know what you mean.’ Which may be the wrong words, but I trust you hear the pulse.

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