Living history doesn't get much more lively or historical than the Preservation Hall Jazz Band.
The band and its namesake, the Preservation Hall in New Orleans, were founded in 1961. Their mission was to showcase the city's rich musical heritage.
For almost half a century, the band's members have served as goodwill ambassadors to the New Orleans sound and culture.
"We've always toured worldwide and been proponents of New Orleans and our culture," said Ben Jaffe, Creative Director for the Preservation Hall and son of its founders Allan and Sandra Jaffe. "When you see the band now, you are seeing the last of a generation of musicians who have been given this very mighty tradition. It is on our shoulders to pass that tradition onto others."
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The seven-piece traveling ensemble plays a traditions-steeped array of New Orleans jazz, from Dixieland tunes to southern spirituals and vintage pop. They will bring a little slice of the Big Easy to Modesto's State Theatre on Feb. 28.
In 2006, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band received the National Medal of Arts from President George W. Bush, the highest honor given to artists and arts patrons by the United States government.
"To be singled out for your efforts and to receive an award you can't be nominated for or apply for is truly one of the most touching things that has happened in my career in the Preservation Hall," Jaffe said.
But the award cannot erase the hardship the band, its members and their beloved New Orleans faced from Hurricane Katrina.
Jaffe and his wife were in the city when the hurricane struck in August 2005. They rode out the storm with friends and assorted pets in their home on the edge of the French Quarter. The flooding stopped short two blocks from their house.
His bandmates weren't as lucky. Six of the seven touring members lost their homes. As a result, some of the musicians no longer call New Orleans home, instead settling across the country from Orlando to Los Angeles.
Since the storm, Jaffe has stopped touring with the jazz band to devote his efforts full time on the hall and the city's rebuilding efforts.
While the hall itself did not suffer any damage in the hurricane, he and his wife founded the New Orleans Musicians Hurricane Relief Fund.
Since then the group has transitioned from an emergency relief provider to an advocate for the musical community and renamed itself Renew Our Music Fund (more at www.nomhrf.org).
"We're not just an advocacy organization, but want to provide a blueprint for the new music community burgeoning in the city," Jaffe said. "Artists were the first people back in the city to rebuild the city. So I'm seeing a community of dedicated New Orleaneans."
He said the new music scene that has sprouted out of the rubble of Katrina is leaner, but more talented.
"I feel the music coming out of New Orleans today and in the years to come is unparalleled," he said. "I believe it will be parallel to when jazz was born. It's a revolution and evolution. The storm weeded out people."
But he said there is still so much left to be done for the city and its musicians. While he is disappointed by the federal, state and local government's efforts, he is heartened by groups like the Tipitina's Foundation and MusiCares where musicians are reaching out to other musicians to get things done.
"Every day I am discouraged and every day I am encouraged," he said. "We are fighting for our cultural survival as a city."
Now, as the city prepares itself for the second Mardi Gras since Katrina, Jaffe said he hears from fans across the country glad to get a little taste of New Orleans from the Preservation Hall Jazz Band.
"I'm hearing a lot more thank yous," he said. "Thank you for continuing, thank you for pushing through.
"As much as people may think it, we don't always get to hear it. People's letters, emails, people coming up and saying thank you is the reason we keep going."
Bee entertainment writer Marijke Rowland can be reached at 578-2284 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
WHAT: Preservation Hall Jazz Band
WHEN: 8 p.m. Feb. 28
WHERE: State Theatre, 1307 J St., Modesto