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The American ideal in music for July 4? Think Preservation Hall in New Orleans

The American ideal in music for July 4? Think Preservation Hall in New Orleans
The Preservation Hall Jazz Band is among several ensembles that hold court regularly at the New Orleans venue built in 1961 to preserve and promote the traditional style of jazz born in the city more than a century ago. (Preservation Hall)

There’s no shortage of music closely associated with the Independence Day holiday and the American spirit.

For some, it’s traditional patriotic fare such as “Yankee Doodle” or “God Bless America,” while for others the marches of John Philip Sousa — or songs out of the time-honored tradition of political protest by the likes of Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan. Some may even gravitate toward the celebratory rock ‘n’ roll sounds of Chuck Berry and the Beach Boys.

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But as I’ve been reflecting during this week in which we celebrate the Fourth of July, for my money the music that most fully embodies the ideal of what it is to be American is the traditional jazz born in New Orleans more than a century ago.

This point was brought home once again when I returned to the Crescent City for a week of reveling in its endless panoply of musical, gastronomic, historical and cultural riches.

One thing I never miss when I go there is a visit to Preservation Hall, the tiny club on St. Peter Street started in 1961 by jazz fans Allan and Sandra Jaffe, and which is overseen today by their son, tuba player and bassist Benjamin Jaffe.

I sat on a small bench, with my wife and one of our daughters, on a Saturday evening for one of five performances offered every day at Preservation Hall. The space can handle about 100 listeners at most, if everyone sucks in their guts and doesn’t mind standing or sitting shoulder to shoulder.

The intimate surroundings are exceedingly humble — no food or alcohol service, no air conditioning, just fans that help cool things down a bit on hot and humid summer nights.

An announcer precedes each set with a firm but polite admonition to fans to stow their cellphones and fully immerse themselves in the musical moment.

Any of a number of combos take the stage at various performances: Foremost is the Preservation Hall Jazz Band itself, which recently signed a contract with Seattle-based Sub Pop Records, signaling a new era in the group’s storied history. There’s also the Preservation Hall Jazz All-Stars and the Preservation Hall Brass Band, among others.

These bands bring together players black and white, old and young, men (mostly, still) and women, even U.S. and foreign-born in alternately exquisite and raucous harmony. Most, however, are New Orleans natives, steeped in the tradition of jazz that was born there at the end of the 19th century.

It was Preservation Hall’s Brass Band that played on my latest visit.

What I find so eminently inspiring every time I take in one of these ensembles is just how quintessentially American it all is.

Any musical ensemble involves a spirit of cooperation among its members that’s necessary for it to function, be it a German symphony orchestra, a Viennese boys’ choir, a Mexican mariachi group or an L.A. rock band. All players must work together lest things quickly dissolve into chaos.

Yet even within that common parameter, the trad-jazz outfits have something extra going for them. Within the structural confines of each song that musicians are working with, there’s an extraordinary degree of individual freedom accorded each player.

You could break the band down to its individual components and find much to admire with the melodies, countermelodies, harmonies and improvisations offered up by the trumpeter, trombonist, banjo player, saxophonist/clarinetist (yes, they fudged it just a little, allowing one woodwind player into the brass band), as well as the bassist and drummer.

Each musician exhibits considerable skill and dedication on his respective instrument. But only when the disparate parts are brought together does the full measure of joy and musical acumen materialize.

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Were each musician afforded complete individual freedom, the result would be cacophony. Instead, each player yields a degree of his own freedom in service to a greater good, which in this case, is the song at hand.

This collective subservience to the common goal still allows each member of that collective wide latitude for individual expression, which comes out with solos set aside for each player in every song as well as in the “comp” parts they play during ensemble sections.

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect is that at any given moment in songs such as “Just a Closer Walk With Thee” or “St. James Infirmary,” the central melody may or may not be evident, yet the song’s guiding principle keeps the players unified no matter how far afield each may get in his or her own interpretation of that melody.

It’s a miraculous recipe that never gets old to these ears: Individuality expressed creatively, joyfully and unreservedly, in concert with peers in service to a unifying, higher principle: That’s America to me.

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