On the Preservation

The sweet sad sounds of a New Orleans jazz hall
By BRUCE MORGAN  |  September 20, 2006

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There were two kinds of weather in the Crescent City: raining and about to rain.  It had been coming down all evening in great sheets, but now the deluge had tapered off.  Inside: a musty, dank odor, perfume of the basement.  I heard the trombone crooning low, almost in a whisper, and the upright piano, smitten note by note, that resonated across the melody line.

Perhaps a hundred people were crowded into the shabby hall, where seven musicians formed a tea-leaf-colored tableau.  The trombonist was standing at the far left; the pianist was seated with her back to him, the width of the room away.  (I couldn’t think what the scene reminded me of: Grant and Lee at Appomattox? The Dutch Masters’ cigar-box lid?) Just the two of them were playing.  I could see both musicians across the shoulders of the crowd. She was small and birdlike, bowed down by age, but – using only one hand – she worked the keys with an angular authority, as though driving nails.  The music trailed behind her at a slight disadvantage; she did not lag.  He, in contrast, stood shyly erect and searched within the horn for some properly laden reply.  They were playing an old, sweet tune.

The voice of the trombone was tentative, barely audible, its motion slow and liquid.  Raised on tiptoe, I strained to hear more.  The piano advanced at a stately pace, while that horn slid in out and beneath the melodic elms.  Suddenly it was all too much – the beauty a kind of punishment.  Touching my forehead with one hand, I began to cry.  Oh boy.  All this time, without my knowing it, I had carried around a weakness for sublime duets in decrepit chambers.

I used to wander into Preservation Hall nearly every night when I was in New Orleans, looking for – what?  Home?  The wholeness of the heart?  Peace everlasting?  All of these and more, I suppose.  I was starved.  I had been traveling by myself for a hundred days by the time I reached New Orleans, and the absence of company had left me vulnerable to any display of emotion.  After several thousand miles on the road, even something as slight as a stranger’s smile in a supermarket moved me far more than a comparable act of kindness would have if I were still in Boston, surrounded by familiar reference points and a galaxy of friends.  Solo travel peels away that referential sense of who you are and plants a hunger for connection where previously the appetite was faint and small.

Located on St. Peter Street, smack-dab in the middle of the French Quarter, this begrimed and blackened room qualified as the town’s ethereal heart.  The performance area was at the front of a pigeon-colored edifice that dated from 1750 and had served variously as a home, tavern, art gallery, and musicians’ rehearsal space.  There was no air-conditioning – only a single giant floor fan to the stir the heat around.  Except for those drinks carried in from adjoining bars, there were no refreshments offered in the establishment.  The conditions tested the will of insincere jazz lovers.

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