Zach Lange, New Orleans and Tubas in Cuba
By Mike Guy
In June the Preservation Hall Jazz Band released the movie A Tuba to Cuba along with its soundtrack. They'll be playing The Music Hall in support of the productions on October 26, 2019. Ben Jaffe is the creative director for the Preservation Hall Jazz Band and plays tuba and bass. In 1961, his parents turned an old art gallery into Preservation Hall, a successful labor of love to keep New Orleans music alive.
The movie is largely Ben narrating a very well filmed and recorded musical trip to Cuba. The underlying story shared is about how the history of jazz is inexorably woven into that of New Orleans.
When planning this article, I realized that I needed someone better versed in jazz and New Orleans history than I am. Knowing that local trumpeter Zach Lange is a fan of Louis Armstrong and New Orleans jazz in general, and a very enthusiastic member of the Soggy Po’ Boys, I asked him to talk with me. He graciously gave me all the time I needed to pick his brain. I'll never meet his parents, but I'm confident that they're justifiably very proud of him.
Besides being a favorite local trumpet player, Zach is an educator as well. He teaches at the Seacoast Academy of Music and has a full-time teaching position at the Sparhawk School in Amesbury, Massachusetts. In January of 2019, Zach took 16 students for two-week immersive trip to New Orleans (yes, we all went to the wrong high school). They spent time laboring to help rebuild the 9th ward and of course heard a lot of music. The students are lucky to have had such an experience and to have a teacher willing to make it happen.
When I asked Zach why he decided to make the Seacoast home, his response was prefaced with a chuckle, he didn't stop smiling until he started laughing at the end of the tale:
Jonny Peiffer was the first to offer me work playing. It was Nick Mainella, Matt Langley, Nate Therrien and Jonny. It was one of those groups (smiles and laughter). I just came from two major cities and was playing in the old PMAC [Portsmouth Music and Arts Center], which is kind of a tough little spot. Just being in the room with those guys, was like “holy crap!” (not Zach's word). This is my first experience (on the Seacoast) and this guy just composed some of the heaviest music you've ever heard. Matt Langley is blowing my mind in between chomping on a cigar. Staying here wasn't just that I could get work, but that the work was rewarding.
Throughout Zach's telling of the tale, I found myself laughing and smiling as if I was there, infectious sincerity and enthusiasm.
Most of us have heard that jazz started in Congo Square in New Orleans. Slaves were permitted to gather socially in Congo Square on Sundays. It was a market where goods were traded, and music was played. Zach tells us that:
It was an important place because it meant that people of African descent or from Africa directly could speak their own languages and mix cultures. You had 3rd, 4th and 5th generation, people from the Caribbean, Europe and all regions of Africa. That melting pot was part of getting that rhythm. That's what is unique about American music, its rhythm. I think of that period as jazz's genesis. From there came the brothels, the Storyville area of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
How did the instrumentation come to be?
West Africa is known for its percussion, which came through the Caribbean. Think of New Orleans as the northernmost city in the Caribbean. There is a reason we see kids in New Orleans playing trombones and trumpets in the streets instead of riding skateboards. The Civil War had a lot of brass bands. After the war there were all these instruments just rotting. A lot of people of color didn't have access to anything, really, let alone rights. With these instruments just kicking around, they picked them up. If you look at pictures of early jazz bands, there are instruments that don't even exist anymore.
Up until Sidney Bechet got his hands on a clarinet, anyone learning to play a wind instrument was learning to play an ideal sound. If you were going to play Mozart or Stravinsky, you wanted to play that ideal sound of, for example, a trumpet. Because people were getting their hands on instruments without being educated in how to play them, there was a personal sound coming out. Sidney Bechet has the least appropriate sound for a clarinet, but it is uniquely his.
So how did the blues come into it? Was it the field hollers of the slaves, sharecroppers and other laborers?
We take for granted that the blues is a part of jazz, but that definitely wasn't the case (in the beginning). The blues was starting to be a thing from south Texas and Appalachia, so blues was its own thing, and there was some ragtime happening. That's (the blues) the contribution of Louis Armstrong, (because of him) they're totally linked now (jazz and blues). It's more than the musical form we call the blues, like B.B. King. It's a specific type of music where the person playing it matters more than the form and structure of it. The nuance and the inflection, it's a sung sound. That's how Congo Square, Storyville and the blues (became our jazz).
I've always had this image in my head of Storyville being a place where every bar, card parlor, and brothel (all at the same address) had the Soggy Po’ Boys, Louis Armstrong, King Oliver or one of their peers playing 24x7. I couldn't resist asking Zach for his take on my ignorant dream:
Not at all. It would probably sound a little bit more like John Phillip Sousa than the blues. He was the best selling pop star of the first part of the 20th century. There was nothing like the street bands we hear today.
There goes that pleasant vision of historical fiction. But why did he have to say John Phillip Sousa?
Zach had a lot of other valuable insights for us. You'll read about them in the coming months.
I confessed to him that I have a fantasy of winning the lottery and financing the Po’ Boys' recording of an analog LP in some exclusive audiophile recording studio. To that he smiled, shook his head in approval. "Hey, play those numbers, I'll tell you my mother's birthday."
One of the reasons that Zach remained on the Seacoast is the respect he has for his fellow musicians and the level of playing he enjoys here (I suspect his girlfriend has something to do with it as well). As listeners, we should be thankful for his playing and all that he brings to the community.
Now that you have my simplistic revision of what Zach tried to teach me, A Tuba to Cuba is well worth your time (it's on Netflix). The story of the Jaffe family is an amazing one. Below is a link to a PBS interview with Ben Jaffe where he discusses his family, Preservation Hall, why jazz is the benchmark for diversity and the movie, of course.