Preservation Hall Jazz Band
The Stone Foxes
July 1, 2012
Stern Grove Festival
Better than: An afternoon listening to the drum circle in Dolores Park
The Stern Grove Music Festival is celebrating its 75th year, and it's hard to imagine much has changed in 2012. If you're a diehard music fan -- someone who craves a connection with the band on stage, wants to focus solely on the music and performance -- this isn't the experience for you. A show at Stern Grove is less about what's happening on stage, and more about your surroundings, what you've brought along, and who you're with. That is absolutely okay. Today, even the band recognizes there are more important things.
"It's good to be back," Ben Jaffe tells the Stern Grove crowd about five songs in. The Preservation Hall Jazz Band's current director (and tuba, sometimes upright bass player) reveals PHJB has played here since 1969. Today marks its first Stern Grove show in five years. Jaffe explains that his first Stern Grove experience was 1971; he is the son of the band's original founders (Allan and Sandra Jaffe), after all. But today will potentially be his last Stern Grove show. It's almost certainly his shortest.
"I won't be hanging around long today," Jaffe says, hinting to his later exit about eight songs into the set. "I have a young one coming back in New Orleans. There's only one more flight and I have to get it."
Outside of the afternoon's final round of applause, this is the largest reception PHJB gets all evening. Those paying attention appreciate it for what it is: a cool communal moment for a performer to share with bandmates and audience. It's a huge life milestone for Jaffe, too -- he will soon step down to become a full-time dad, and he introduced his tuba/creative director replacement, Ronell Johnson, during the show.
Stern Grove veterans and newbies alike should catch this for what it is. Jaffe's moment perfectly encapsulates the not-quite-concert-like Stern Grove experience. Maybe it's today in particular -- jazz (and mostly non-lyrical music in general) lends itself to fading into the background at times. But the amount of seating that focuses on the stage, the heavily forested areas... it adds up to a venue apt for an afternoon picnic with musical ambiance, not a major outdoor concert experience. Look around at any Stern Grove show and this is obvious: parents watching their kids, friends chatting over their second bottle of wine, huge portions of the crowd watching individual dancers who've just lost themselves in the music (and maybe something else). The focus for a majority of the crowd is on what's off the stage, not what's on it.
This isn't to say the music disappoints. PHJB reaches some incredible heights during its set. Charlie Gabriel (a fourth generation New Orleans musician) wows the crowd with his abilities during a Benny Goodman, "Mac The Knife"-style clarinet feature. And that follows a classic Krupa-style solo from Joseph Lastie, Jr. The band effortlessly jumps from crooning moments like "Sugar Blues" to uptempo crowd pleasers such as "Old Man Mose," with vocals and solo sections traded constantly between musicians. It even jumps into the crowd to perform at one point during the set, recognizing the occasion of this historic venue's anniversary.
It's a delightful afternoon, a major one even for Jaffe and his bandmates, but not a concert experience you'll brag about for weeks to come. It's why the festival offers performances every Sunday afternoon. The show is not the focus: It's another fun afternoon about family and friends, just with a top-notch soundtrack.
Age is just a number: Charlie Gabriel turns 80 in the next week, yet he's still traveling and killing it when his featured moments come up. I'm not sure what it is about jazz that allows musicians to be somewhat ageless, but can you imagine any rock guitarist being able to perform at such a technically high level at that advanced age?
Update: Jaffe made it back to New Orleans safely and is expecting his child to be born on Wednesday of this week. He will be stepping down only as the PHJB tuba player but will remain with the group as its creative director. Ronell Johnson (not in attendance at the Stern Grove show) was announced as the band's new tuba player.