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Joyous jamming: Preservation Hall Jazz Band swings into Austin

Eric Pulsifer

Tell someone you’re from Louisiana and you’re bound to get a few questions: “Are there swamps everywhere? How about alligators?” The answers to these mostly disappoint for those who fancy the state nothing but Bourbon Streets and black bayous teeming with reptilian killing machines. Louisiana is complex, but there’s a simple sense of freedom and joy in the music of its most famous city.

Peddling that pure, joyous Crescent City sound for a packed house at the Mohawk, New Orleans’ legendary Preservation Hall Jazz Band delighted and dazzled dancing, adoring fans Wednesday night. Impeccably dressed in suits, ties, hats, and shoes of vibrant colors and outlandish patterns, the band got down to business just after 10 p.m.

Employing percussion, two saxophones, trumpet, keys, trombone, upright bass and sousaphone (the massive wrap-around-the-torso tuba-ish instrument of marching band fame that was stolen from and just recovered by the band), the seven-piece band brought down the house, putting smiles on faces and making hands clap and feet dance. Preservation Hall Jazz Band is the ultimate pretense-free party band, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a crowd displaying such genuine enthusiasm for a show anywhere else at SXSW.

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With minimal vocals beyond short group-shouted refrains of “I ain’t mad at you” or “keep your head up high,” the instruments were the stars of the show, and they did shine. Each song served as a showcase for multiple solos—chances for the band to playfully one-up each other in improvisation before passing the spotlight to the next musician—with each solo testing how much further an already dropped jaw can drop.

Energetic and charismatic trombone player Ronell Johnson was a crowd favorite, spraying his trombone from side to side at the crowd like a brass bazooka, hamming it up for fans and roping them in with each slide and pull, and always keeping the crowd clapping along. Not to be outdone, 85-year-old saxophonist Charlie Gabriel dropped to his knees for a solo. Gabriel’s is an impossible cool that we are all either too young or too old to ever be but are welcome to witness in his unyielding, infectious smile, furiously flying fingers, and confidence on stage.

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Preservation Hall Jazz Band takes its name from Preservation Hall, the legendary French Quarter home to live jazz nearly every night of the year. This sacred jazz site was founded in the ’60s by Allan Jaffe, whose son, Ben Jaffe, carries the PHJB torch to this day as the group’s tuba-toting leader.

Jaffe closed the celebratory set with a suggestion for fans looking to embrace a more jazz-inspired carefree existence. “Before you turn your phone on in the morning—turn your phone off when you go to bed, get an alarm clock… Wake up, take a deep breath, stretch and touch your toes, and put on Preservation Hall Jazz Band,” Jaffe said. “Start your morning right!”

Preservation Hall Jazz Band was in town for their lone day of SXSW 2018 performances alongside the SXSW debut of the documentary “A Tuba to Cuba,” which follows Jaffe as he travels to Cuba tracing the roots of New Orleans jazz. The band marched down the street following the film’s afternoon screening hours before their nighttime set at the Mohawk. “A Tuba to Cuba”plays again Friday afternoon at the Alamo Ritz.