"This is a music of the heart. It touches a place in people whether we play it in Caracas or London or Los Angeles. You start seeing people smiling as we play, even if they've come in grouchy. It's really exciting to be a part of that."
Trombonist Frank Demond is talking about the universal appeal of New Orleans-style jazz--that joyous amalgam of melody, improvisation and rhythm that was in vogue in the 1910s, '20s and '30s--and, in particular, the brand that's offered by the Preservation Hall Jazz Band--with which Demond has performed for 20 years. The septet plays Tuesday at the Embarcadero Marina Park South in San Diego and Friday at the Wadsworth Theater in Brentwood.
"It's a great vehicle for awakening the life force," continues Demond, 58, a former resident of Newport Beach who has lived in New Orleans since 1974.
"(Pianist) Sweet Emma Barrett--who was with the band from 1961 to 1983, played with just one hand during her last years and played with us up until 10 days before she died--used to tell me she felt like death warmed over going to the hall but by the middle of the night, she'd feel alive," remembers Demond.
New Orleans jazz can be characterized by a flavorful sense of melody, employment of collective improvisation by the front line of trumpet, clarinet and trombone, and individual solos as well--all delivered with a wonderful air of spontaneity. Underpinning the proceedings is a steady, four-to-the-bar beat, a pulse that many musicians feel is the key to the music's universal appeal.
"The beat . . . well, you know it when you hear it. It's solid, down home," says Demond.
"The beat in New Orleans jazz is irresistible in a way," says banjo player Narvin Kimball, 82, who played banjo and string bass with such early jazz notables as trumpeter "Papa" Celestin's Tuxedo Jazz Orchestra and trumpeter Sidney Desvignes in the '30s, '40s and '50s before becoming a founding member of Preservation Hall in 1961.
"Unconsciously you'll pat your feet, clap your hands or get up and just start dancing," Kimball says. "It has something that's jubilant, that will make you move."
On the current summer tour, which includes 30 dates nationwide, Kimball and Demond are joined by Wendell Brunius (trumpet), Dr. Michael White (clarinet), James Prevost (bass), John Royen (piano) and Joe Lastie (drums).
This ensemble--one of three bands that alternate at Preservation Hall, a small, atmospheric room on St. Peters street in New Orleans, and also tour--is known as "the Percy Humphrey band," named for the trumpeter who usually leads it.
Humphrey, 86, and his brother, clarinetist Willie Humphrey, 90, are ill and unable to travel. Substituting for them are Brunius, an outstanding musician who can play in any style, and White, who has played with Wynton Marsalis at the Hollywood Bowl and whose latest album, "Crescent City Serenade," has just been released on Antilles Records.
The inclusion of Brunius, White, Royen and Lastie--all under age 40--with the older musicians (Prevost is 72) gives an indication that the Preservation Hall band is honoring its name and indeed preserving an early American art form.
"We're perpetuating it," says Demond, who graduated from Pomona College with a degree in economics in the mid-'50s, built custom homes in Orange County from 1960 to the early '70s and then became a full-time musician in 1974.
"I remember (clarinetist) George Lewis saying to me about 40 years ago, 'Pretty soon you won't be able to hear this music,' but that hot New Orleans jazz is still going on. People say it's dead and dying, but it's like crabgrass, it's here and growing."
"The younger musicians are keeping it going," says Kimball.
Michael White is one of those players. The 37-year-old White--a native of New Orleans--recalls what happened when he was 22 and heard "Jazz at Preservation Hall," an Atlantic Records album that featured the clarinetist Lewis--a renowned jazzman who played at the hall from 1961 until his death in 1968.
"I put on that record by accident and that was it," says White. "It opened the way to something that was inside of me, and a spiritual transformation took place. That was the beginning of this search that's led me back to become a fan of all of the forms of New Orleans jazz, from the classic period of the '10s and '20s with (trumpeter) Buddy Bolden and (pianist/composer) Jelly Roll Morton to the revival of the '30s and '40s, with (trumpeter) Bunk Johnson."
The Preservation Hall band mostly plays tunes from the above eras, such as "When the Saints Go Marching In," "Bourbon Street Parade" and "Tiger Rag." Still, songs from almost any genre can fit the form.
"Within that style you have infinite possibilities," says Demond. "A song written 10 years from today could be played in the New Orleans style and it would still be valid."
Old tunes, new tunes, older musicians and those not so old, avid fans worldwide--they're all part of an art form whose popularity peaked decades ago yet retains its contemporaneousness. Perhaps White's assessment of New Orleans jazz best explains this phenomenon.
"Playing it, listening to it, you can transcend many of the normal preoccupations and worries of life," he says. "It's like simultaneously making an ascent and a descent to the inner most part of man's spirit. This music has an almost limitless potential to arouse and to excite the basic sentiments and emotions of life, from joy to sadness. And it's not a music you have to analyze, it comes out to you. It's a people's music."