6/4-5/2010: My Preservation Hall Experience

by Joe Alterman, 7/28/2010

I’ll never forget the first time I got chills inside Preservation Hall. It was the first night of my two nights’ run there. My Dad and I arrived at the Hall about an hour before the doors opened. When we arrived at the Hall, there was already a long line of people waiting to get inside. The gate was still locked shut, and as we peered through the cracks in the gate, the Hall looked empty; maybe we were too early. But finally a man came to the gate. He opened it for us and welcomed us to New Orleans and to the Hall. After entering the Hall’s gates, we took a quick left and entered the Hall itself. He was a very friendly guy, very casual, and looked almost surprised when, after asking if he could get me anything, I asked – obviously nervous and very cautious – if I could warm up on the holy Preservation Hall piano. “Of course,” he said, smiling. 

Sitting down at the piano bench brought me back to myself, yet I couldn’t help barely touching the keys of the piano when I first warmed up; I felt like I was in some sort of holy room and I didn’t want to mess anything up.

The man had walked out back to finish getting ready for the night, and my Dad had left the Hall itself to look around outside and see the Hall’s grounds. There I was; alone in Preservation Hall. I looked around. Behind me was the famous Preservation Hall Jazz Band drum set. In front of the set sat a group of rocking chairs. I wondered who’d sat on those. I looked all around me; at the church-like benches, at the walls – showing so much authentic wear and tear. I looked at the benches, the pillows on the ground, the empty seats, the walls; I could hear the sounds of last night, yesterday, yesteryear in my head. I saw the people – the musicians, the crowds – dancing, clapping, and above all, smiling. I knew that a lot of joy and history had gone down in this room, and as I sat there, alone at the holy piano, I could feel its’ echo vibrate all through me. That’s when I got the chills. 

An older man, dressed in a sharp looking suit came in a few minutes later; the first of the band members had arrived. He opened up his instrument case and pulled out a tenor saxophone. He played a few notes before placing it on one of the rocking chairs. He graciously welcomed me to Hall and told me he looked forward to hearing my playing. 

The great trumpeter Leroy Jones was playing that night. (I played solo piano in between each set of Leroy Jones’ group on Friday and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band on Saturday.). Listening to him and his group was a joy; I’d never heard such pure music that swung so hard at such a low volume. “Serious stuff,” I remember saying to myself. I noticed that after each set the musicians would retire to the garden right behind the Hall. I noticed too that during my first set, one of Jones’ band members stayed behind and listened to me play. He must’ve enjoyed it, because by the group’s next set break and my next set, a couple more members stayed and listened to me. By my last set, Jones’ group had taken over a row of side chairs, listening intently to my soft, quiet stride, throwing me “Yeah, you right”’s after each tune. 

There were many moments during that weekend that I remember thinking to myself, “I’ll never forget this moment.” The next night, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band called me on stage to sit in with them for the last few tunes of the night. As we ended the night with a wild version of “St. Louis Blues,” and I looked out into the audience and saw people dancing, clapping, hollering, smiling, I got the chills again. 

These people weren’t the same people I’m used to seeing over and over again at New York City jazz clubs. These people weren’t musicians. These people were regular people, really swinging to jazz music, a music that had been declared dead more times than once. 

I’d watch the people as they took their seats. It was easy to spot a newcomer to jazz; a youngster who had been dragged there by his parents, a curious person, or a person who was there simply because they had to go there (How could you visit New Orleans and not go to Preservation Hall?) I’d watch these people, and I’d watch them as the music overtook them for the first time. First I’d see the smile. Then I’d watch the foot-tap. I’d see the first time that their shoulder would move, up and down, to the rhythm of the song. I’d watch shy looking children start clapping and yelling loudly as they sat next to their parents who were doing the same. It was almost as if they couldn’t help it – that the music had really entered them, had filled their insides with joy. “And they said this jazz is dead,” I thought to myself; “How could it be?”

I once had a talk with McCoy Tyner. He asked me if I love playing the piano. “I do,” I told him. 

He smiled, looked me dead in the eye, and said to me, “Well never give it up. It’s a life force.” 

I never realized how true that was until I watched these people. Jazz music is a feeling that is different from all others; in this sense, it’s impossible for it to die. I thought to myself how no matter what is bothering me, no matter where I am in the world, I can sit down at the piano and feel at home on its bench. I remember a quote by the great Nat Hentoff of how Ben Webster’s ballads were once his cure for illness, and I realized how jazz, more than any therapy or medicine I’d ever been prescribed, has cured me most. 

Jazz certainly is a life force. If you’re one of the doubters, obituary-writers, or simply don’t believe me, I suggest you go to Preservation Hall where you can see it, hear it, and feel it for yourself.