Think of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band as a bridge across the ages, a link between the present day and the heyday of traditional New Orleans music, a span that stretches from banjo player Narvin Henry Kimball, who'll be 86 next month, to 24-year-old bassist Benjamin Jaffe, son of the Hall's late founder.
The mission of the ensemble--which plays tonight at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts--is to preserve the kind of music that developed in New Orleans around the turn of the century and to bring it to modern-day audiences. But that doesn't mean its sound is stuck in the past. As new members take the places of those who pass on, subtle changes occur; the younger musicians bring their own experiences to the Hall's bandstand.
"People always saw the band as a museum piece, but it never was," notes 40-year-old Wendell Brunious, the trumpeter who leads the group that will play Cerritos (the Hall has three bands, with two doing most of the traveling). "It just happened to be older guys playing the traditional New Orleans jazz as they knew it. But quite naturally, if you get someone who was born later, he is going to change the style somewhat."
New Orleans music was a big part of Brunious' upbringing. "I heard all the brass bands that were around, and heard the music at parades and parties," he recalled earlier this week on the phone from a tour stop in San Luis Obispo. "My uncle Willie Santiago played with Buddy Bolden (the shadowy trumpeter credited with inventing New Orleans jazz) before the turn of the century. This music is in my blood.
"But my dad used to write for Billy Eckstine and Cab Calloway, so I also came up around that music. And I also listened to Clifford Brown and Freddie Hubbard and Miles Davis. My brother (John Brunious), who's 14 years older, is a great trumpeter, and I grew up listening to him play all those great records from Dizzy (Gillespie) and people like that."
Preservation Hall, which Allan Jaffe and his wife, Sandra, established in 1961, also was a big part of Brunious' musical development. "My dad, who was also a trumpet player, brought me down when I was first starting to play back in '63 and '64. I remember one of the guys, Albert Burbank, used to sing through a megaphone, and that really impressed me. That's the first impression I had of Preservation Hall."
Benjamin Jaffe's memories of the New Orleans landmark founded by his parents go back to his infancy. Trying to recall his first impression of the place is, he said, "like trying to remember the first time you ate. It was such a big part of my life. We lived a few blocks away. I was on the road with the band when I was a month old. All the musicians were like my uncles."
Jaffe, who trained to play the tuba like his father, switched to electric bass in high school, then gravitated to the upright. His first lessons on the upright were with the well-known jazz bassist Walter Payton, father of one of Jaffe's high school chums, hot young trumpeter Nicholas Payton.
Like Brunious, Jaffe has wide tastes when it comes to jazz. "I love anything that swings: Duke Ellington, Oscar Peterson, Ahmad Jamal. Ray Brown is probably my favorite bassist of all time. I played in a modern jazz group when I was in college, and I still perform modern jazz in New Orleans.
"But (playing New Orleans music) really helped me create a foundation. A lot of young musicians come up listening to Charlie Parker and Miles Davis and John Coltrane and never go back to investigate the music that happened before 1940. Wynton (Marsalis) has started people looking back to Ellington and Louis Armstrong, but there's a whole group of musicians that Armstrong and Ellington pulled from. A lot of the stuff we play in performance dates back before them."
Again like Brunious, Jaffe sees New Orleans music as an evolving art form. "The wonderful thing about New Orleans musicians is that they grew up listening to the bands marching by their houses, heard them in church or in concerts. But then they might go to a club that night and hear some modern jazz. That kind of exposure affords them the opportunity to play in any style. And it shows up even when they play traditional music."
Brunious feels that the music has less to do with a period or style and more with the individual musician and his experiences. "Those kids (Payton, Marsalis) can play, they're great players. But you can't buy experience. That's something you have to live through. It's just the way the world goes.
"When I play, I play from the heart. I think music, but the notes come out of my heart. I don't think of a certain sequence of chords, or think that I should do this or that. I play what I feel, what goes best with what I'm hearing."
Both men are bullish on the future of Preservation Hall. "I'll stay with the band as long as it's a vital part of New Orleans," says Jaffe, "as long as it still has a function. Someday when it happens that this music no longer exists for the people, that's the day we stop playing it."
* The Preservation Hall Jazz Band of New Orleans plays tonight at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts, 12700 Center Court Drive, Cerritos. 8 p.m. $20-$35. (800) 300-4345.