Words by: Eric Podolsky
Images by: Drew Altizer Photography
SFJAZZ Honors Preservation Hall :: 2.01.18 :: SFJAZZ
San Francisco, CA
San Francisco, CA
There are few institutions in the Bay Area that give back to the community like the non-profit SFJAZZ Center does. SFJAZZ is on a mission to spread music education through the region. Recently, thanks to a remarkable donation, SFJAZZ announced it will provide jazz instruction for every single public middle school in the Bay Area.
In many ways, SFJAZZ’s educational program was based on the template created by New Orleans’s Preservation Hall, the cherished institution that has been keeping traditional New Orleans jazz music alive by educating kids and adults alike since 1961. That’s why it made perfect sense that SFJAZZ’s 2018 Gala honored Preservation Hall with a Lifetime Achievement Award.
The award was presented at a formal, red-carpet gala celebration concert that showcased an all-star lineup of revolving musicians playing music from NOLA and the Caribbean. This carefully curated performance was a stunning revue that included the rhythms and traditions of Haiti, Cuba and Puerto Rico, which all went into the melting pot of NOLA to create the gumbo that we know as New Orleans jazz.
The night began with a second line by the Pinettes Brass Band, which quickly set the tone by getting the gala crowd’s butts moving to that unmistakable NOLA swagger. A few Mardi Gras Indians from the Hard Head Hunters Tribe of NOLA’s 7th Ward were also on hand to strut and prance in their ornate feathered suits, truly setting the tone for what was to come.
The Preservation Hall Jazz Band then took the stage led by band director and bassist Ben Jaffe and showed us all what they do. Helped out by a couple of friends, including percussionist Airto Moreira and the incredible young trumpet player Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah, this multi-generational band launched into the music like they had been playing it their whole lives (which they had) — the NOLA vibe was as thick as the summer air in NOLA, with four horns flowing and interweaving between each other in a true conversation — the Dixieland tradition at its best.
This was only the beginning of an epic night of music that took the audience on a whirlwind journey through many different musical colors and palates. The music shifted from boisterous to introspective, to bluesy and back as world-class musicians entered and left the stage faster than I could keep track of. Musician and poet Saul Williams lent his thought-provoking, playful-yet-gut-wrenching slam poetry to a number of songs, exploring America, class, race, and our tech-driven modern world over elemental, tribal percussion from Moreira.
But it was the voice of the Afro-Cuban jazz singer Daymé Arocena that completely stole the show. Barefoot and clad in a white dress, Arocena enthralled the room with a hushed piano duet that showcased her deep, soulful, pitch-perfect voice.
Things then took a turn toward virtuosic latin grooves with the help of pianist Ellis Marsalis, the patriarch of NOLA’s first family of jazz. The music soon broke down to a playful duel between Marsalis and Pedrito Martinez, whose clean and lean Afro-Cuban conga playing brought down the house more than once. This was followed by “Closer Walk With Thee,” a slow blues blowin’ session that showcased the wailing, old-school clarinet playing of 85-year-old Preservation Hall member Charlie Gabriel.
The show then culminated in a huge jam featuring all the performers of the night on stage at once — the stage exploded in a raucous Dixieland party with multiple horns interweaving, guttural trombone bursts, driving percussion, and topping it all off, Arocena’s soaring vocals taking everything over the top to a spiritual climax.
We retired to the lobby buzzing as the Pinettes Brass Band kept the second line party going through the crowd, but the music wasn’t even close to over. After a brief intermission fueled by complimentary drinks and NOLA-inspired food, Galactic took the stage and showed everyone why they’re still the best after-party band in all the land. Their organ-driven swampy grooves were icing on the cake for an incredibly special night of music, especially when they were joined by the SFJAZZ Collective horns and Martinez near the end. The highlight of the intimate set (probably only 100 or so people were left in the room by this point) proved to be a playful duel between Martinez and drummer Stanton Moore, whose exhilarating drum solo was extra inspired by Martinez’s lightning-fast conga playing.
The fact that such a diverse, multicultural, multi-course meal of music was able to all come together in one amazing night is a testament to SFJAZZ and the magnetic draw it has for musicians and those that support musicians. It’s special nights like these that remind everyone that the healing power of music is always worth supporting.