When Hurricane Katrina shrieked into New Orleans five years ago, the city's world-renowned Preservation Hall Jazz Band (PHJB) was out of town performing on tour. Troopers to the last man, they pulled off the near impossible by playing effervescent Big Easy jazz even as Mother Nature was aiming a wrecking ball at their beloved hometown.
Katrina's wallop was every bit as brutal as predicted, causing the dozen or so band members to lose either loved ones or friends. It appeared that the mammoth storm had even brought about the PHJB's demise: The magnitude of the devastation in New Orleans prevented most of the musicians from returning for months, and also hampered their communicating with one another.
"The band was spread out [around the country], and every member of the group lost their home in the storm," recalls bassist and creative director Ben Jaffe.
But what are the odds of keeping down an iconic New Orleans musical group with the word "preservation" in its title? The band could no more vanish from the Big Easy's cultural landscape than jambalaya and shrimp étouffée could disappear from city menus.
Regrouping for the mission
The PHJB players slowly reestablished contact with one another in the months following Katrina, and it became apparent that reuniting and eventually performing again wasn't an option, it was an imperative.
"We all reconvened in New York City, where we had our first performance," remembers Jaffe, 39, one of the younger members of the group, who range in age from 37 to 78. "It was our first time seeing each other, and a lot of guys literally showed up with the clothes on their backs."
Gigging in Manhattan is always a good thing, but it wasn't long before the band members felt themselves being inexorably drawn back to New Orleans, the wellspring of their creative and artistic energy.
"The band has always been committed to its original mission, which was to present, protect and perpetuate New Orleans musical and cultural traditions," says Jaffe. "It was important after the hurricane to regroup as a city and an organization and to take inventory."
Musical gems saved
The eponymous Preservation Hall, located in New Orleans' French Quarter, was turned into a music venue by Jaffe's parents, Allan and Sandra Jaffe, in 1961. Fortunately for the PHJB's musicians, the building is located on high ground within the Quarter, minimizing damage to the two-story, 260-year-old structure, which served as a tavern during the War of 1812.
Another stroke of good fortune involved priceless audio tapes of PHJB performances that had been stored in a New Orleans recording studio. Jaffe says flood waters inside the facility lapped a mere three inches below where the tapes had been stored on a top shelf. Scores of other invaluable New Orleans jazz recordings inside the building were lost.
During all of 2006, PHJB members toured to raise funds to refurbish Preservation Hall. "Our band leader and trumpet player at the time would end every set with 'Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans?' " remembers PHJB publicist Ron Rona. "You never heard it played with more conviction."
Still going strong
Today, band members have pretty much settled back into their pre-Katrina routines, although piano player Rickie Monie, 58, relocated to Mississippi and drives an hour to New Orleans for PHJB gigs and practice sessions.
The band performs a grueling 150 road shows annually, along with 300 performances at Preservation Hall, an intimate place that seats only 100 people.
Interestingly, group members 50 and older are reluctant to talk about Hurricane Katrina, which made landfall in Louisiana on Aug. 29, 2005, wielding 125 mph winds. "It would be difficult for someone to recount any tragedy in their life," Jaffe says. "I did lose family and I did lose friends in the hurricane. We continue to be a people suffering."
Rona has a somewhat different take on the band members' reticence to discuss the storm. "It's … something we're kind of past, and it's all about 'What the heck are we going to do now?' " he says.
Supporting Gulf relief
One thing the band will always do is protect its home turf. After disgustedly watching the three companies involved in the Gulf of Mexico oil spill point fingers at each other during Senate hearings, Jaffe had a brainstorm.
At his urging, the group joined forces with musicians Lenny Kravitz and Mos Def and actor Tim Robbins to make a video of a song titled "It Ain't My Fault." Shot at Preservation Hall, it raised funds for the nonprofit Gulf Relief Foundation.
As tragic and devastating as Katrina was, the PHJB players were in some ways enriched by the disaster, Jaffe says. "Artists are social commentators, and when you go through something as dramatic as this hurricane, you have a lot of information to reflect upon and write about," he says.
Hurricane Katrina, Jaffe observes, "gave me a reason to embrace even more the culture that I grew up with."
Blair S. Walker is a writer in Miami.