Preservation Hall Jazz Band plays to a "passionate, sold-out audience" at the Annenberg Center

December 31, 2009

Preservation Hall Jazz Band Brings Creole Christmas to the University of Pennsylvania

By Wade Luquet

December 31, 2009

For jazz enthusiasts, December often brings opportunities to hear their favorite bands playing Christmas-spirited tunes that bring in the holiday season. This was certainly the case for the 950 devoted listeners who had the pleasure of experiencing the Preservation Hall Jazz Band at the Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania, where the famed exponent of classic New Orleans jazz performed its Creole Christmas concert. This band of eight represents the best of New Orleans traditional jazz players. And they did not disappoint this passionate, sold-out audience that was treated to a range of emotions, from pure joy to awe, as these gifted musicians ranging in age from 38 to 78 took command of the stage to demonstrate how Christmas jazz is done in New Orleans.

The evening began with the horn section—consisting of creative director and sousaphone/bass player Ben Jaffe, Freddie Lonzo on trombone, and Mark Braud on trumpet—along with Charlie Gabriel playing clarinet and Clint Maedgen on saxophone performing a slow version of Vince Guaraldi's "Christmas Time is Here." They were then joined by the rest of the band, including Joe Lastie, Jr on drums, Walter Payton on bass, and Rickie Monie on piano, as the band exploded into an inspired version of "Bourbon Street Parade," with the musicians warming up the audience with their individual and collective talent on this favorite traditional tune.

Maedgen, the band's newest member, is a double threat on saxophone and vocals. He was discovered by Jaffe singing in an alternative rock band, The New Orleans Bingo Show, and was subsequently invited to bring his rock crooner voice to the hall. Maedgen no doubt brings a youthful experience to the band, as could be heard on his vocals on "Short Dressed Gal" from a PHJB compilation New Orleans Preservation, Volume 1 (Preservation, 2009). The band played several other tunes from the CD, including "Can You Shimmy Like My Sister Kate," sung and shimmied to by 67-year-old Payton. The bassist, a long-time New Orleans music teacher and father of Grammy Award winning trumpeter Nicolas Payton, smiled, high kicked, and shimmied his way through this traditional tune to the encouraging cheers of the audience. Seventy-eight-year-old, fourth-generation clarinet player Gabriel took up the vocals on "Sweet Substitute," with trumpeter-band leader and fifth-generation musician Braud impressing with his soothing voice on "Basin Street Blues."

Longo took on the role of the clown this evening when he demonstrated just how low a note he can strike on the trombone and then performed a comic version of "O Christmas Tree" that involved audience participation. Jaffe, son of the Hall's founders Allan and Susan Jaffe, had his chance to shine with an impressive performance on Jelly Roll Morton's renowned "Tiger Rag." His hard-plucking slap-bass solo might have reminded listeners of the reason Morton gave for the song title—"because it sounds like a tiger howling."

To the delight of the audience, the stage was turned over several times to pianist Rickie Monie to play several solo pieces while the band took a well- deserved rest. Because early jazz musicians in New Orleans were not respected by the dominant classical and opera music community—a 1917 New Orleans Times Picayune article regarding jazz stated that the city should ... "be the last to accept the atrocity in polite society, and where it has crept in we should make it a point of civic honor to suppress it. Its musical value is nil, and its possibilities of harm are great"—many club owners required that the jazzmen also know at least one classical tune.

Monie proved his legit credentials when he played a classical piece to perfection. The piece he chose, moreover, would seamlessly alternate from classical to jazz, demonstrating his musical knowledge of both genres. Later he played a medley of Christmas tunes that left the audience in rapt silence during an extraordinary demonstration of piano skills as Monie performed not only Christmas standards that were familiar, including "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," but was able to play as though expressing the emotions of the audience, who no doubt felt they were experiencing a level of musicianship completely out of the ordinary. In the end, calls of "Bravo" could be heard from this sophisticated Philadelphia audience, which had certainly been exposed to piano virtuosos in the past. But Monie was something else: in New Orleans terms, a "piano professor."