Wednesday, February 13, 2019

A Tuba to Cuba: On the Road with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band

Don’t expect to hear “When the Saints Come Marching In.” Hip jazz fans know requests of that “good old good one” will set you back a whopping twenty bucks in Preservation Hall. Honestly, it is probably worth it, but the band will really stretch themselves in new directions during this goodwill tour. Forget the politics and get ready to get down during T.G. Herrington & Danny Clinch’s A Tuba to Cuba, which opens this Friday in New York.

There are not a lot of seats in Preservation Hall and it is not well-air-conditioned, but they still pack in the standing-room-only crowds for every performance. The Hall was founded by the late, beloved Alan Jaffe, whose son Ben succeeded him both as the Band’s tuba player and the artistic director of the Hall. Having grown up in the middle of New Orleans jazz, Jaffe is particularly aware of its Latin influences—what Jelly Roll Morton called “The Spanish Tinge.”

It turns out the NOLA-Cuba axis was a two-way street, as demonstrated by a sizable expat population that migrated to Santiago de Cuba, due to dissatisfaction with the Louisiana Purchase. Yet, that free-flow of culture and people was shut off when Cuba became a closed Communist police state.

There is some terrific music in Tuba to Cuba that more than compensates for the problematic way the film ignores the merciless human rights abuses that still continue unchecked under the Royal Castro family regime. There is no mention of the violent thuggery directed at the Ladies in White or the jailing of dissidents, like Dr. Oscar Elías Biscet. However, there is plenty of music and it sounds terrific.

As you would expect, the Preservation Hall band-members and the local musicians (whether they specialize in jazz or rumba) mesh together seamlessly. In fact, they immediately recognize a kinship between the second-line and rumba traditions. They also feel a deep rhythmic connection that runs through Congo Square back to Africa.

Hopefully, Tuba to Cuba will also lead to more recognition for the world class musicians of Preservation Hall. Arguably, Mark Braud is younger than modernist snobs would expect, but he has masterful chops worthy of the city’s great trumpet tradition. On the other hand, the sunnily charismatic Charlie Gabriel is everything you could ever hope for from a New Orleans jazz statesman.

The music will recharge your batteries and the human connections forged during the film are genuine, so you might as well overlook the ugly truth, including widespread censorship and street violence employed as a tool of state intimidation, which Herrington and Clinch clearly did their best to conceal—but let’s not make a habit of it. Recommended for fans of New Orleans-style jazz, A Tuba to Cuba opens this Friday (2/15) in New York, at the Village East.

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