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Exploring the New New Orleans

Ben Jaffe (left) and Charlie Gabriel of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, outside the French Quarter club.

Photo: Cedric Angeles

Dreaming in NOLA

But whatever one imagines for the future of New Orleans, the past is always nearby, and it is felt most viscerally in music. My favorite place to experience it is at the legendary Preservation Hall, a tiny hole-in-the-wall in the French Quarter dedicated to traditional New Orleans jazz. It’s run by Ben Jaffe, who plays tuba in the band. Like so many New Orleanians, he is in the same business as his dad, who took over the Hall in its early years and ran it for decades.

The tuba, the trumpet, the trombone. Brass instruments and marching bands. These motifs permeate the city; you can see it in the obsessive band-formation drawings by Bruce Davenport, on display in Prospect 1.5; Treme’s logo incorporates a trumpet. I never thought I cared for marching bands until I saw them at Mardi Gras. My first encounter with those parades reminded me of a fashion show, when it all seems silly and then suddenly you can’t believe what you’re seeing. Except in the case of Mardi Gras, the runway goes on for miles and there is a real cultural resonance and populist joy.

One sunny autumn afternoon as I was driving through the city, I turned a corner somewhere in Uptown and was confronted with a marching band consisting of what appeared to be eighth graders. They wore gold jackets and Prussian hats with white feathers and were on the march, cheeks puffed out, mallets swinging. Something about the hats with their plumes made the old Ottoman Empire briefly materialize on Dufosset Street. The low, bright sun exploded off tubas, trumpets, trombones; their jackets seemed to glow. It was an astonishing sight. The sound, cacophony. Like a dream, unreal, and like in a dream, they were a mysterious impediment. I had to back out of the street. As I was backing up, the noisy, brazen sound of the marching band and their brass instruments filled the car. I was stunned at the sight of this little army. I drove away through the nestlike, sun-drenched streets, past the pastel houses and their ornate details. The music was still in the air. I was glad for the fading thump and crack of the drums and the bleat and honk of the trumpets. They assured me I hadn’t imagined the whole thing.

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