Preservation Hall Jazz Band and Hancher are indelibly linked, not only because the New Orleans jazz masters were the first touring musicians to help open Hancher Auditorium in Iowa City in 1972, but because the two river city institutions share the same scars — and the same unwavering spirit.
“In New Orleans, we have a way of celebrating life and we have a way of celebrating even at times when you’d think it’s impossible to celebrate, it’s impossible to find anything redeeming about the circumstance. And yet at probably one of the most difficult times of our lives, such as the passing of a loved one, at a funeral we play music,” says Ben Jaffe, 42, of New Orleans, creative director of the venerated Preservation Hall Jazz Band. He’s also a tuba and double-bass player with the band his late father founded 50 years ago.
“Most people can’t understand how you can play joyous music at this very somber, sad time. The truth is, to us it’s a celebration of the person’s life. It’s not a time to mourn. It’s a time to mourn AND celebrate. That’s what makes New Orleans to me, such a vital part of our country,” he says.
“There’s so much to be learned in that — to be able to find something to look forward to, something that helps you get through the day. Something that helps you wake up in the morning, something that allows you to sleep peacefully at night. That’s what New Orleans celebrates. It’s what got us through one of most difficult, challenging, hard times of our lives.” One that etched deep scars on a city and its people still in recovery from Hurricane Katrina’s 2005 devastation.
The band will bring its jubilant sound to a seven-city tour of Iowa this month, as the musical centerpiece of Hancher’s “Living With Floods” initiative. Free outdoor concerts will be staged in Des Moines on June 7, Council Bluffs on June 8, Muscatine on June 11, Brucemore in Cedar Rapids on June 13, Davenport on June 14, the UI Pentacrest in Iowa City on June 15 and Dubuque on June 16.
- Hancher presents Preservation Hall Jazz Band, “Living With Floods” free concert tour
- Des Moines: 7:30 p.m. June 7, The Venue, 216 Court St.
- Council Bluffs: 7 p.m. June 8, River’s Edge Park; part of Bluffs Bash, starting at noon
- Muscatine: 7 p.m. June 11, Riverfront Park
- Cedar Rapids: 7 p.m. June 13, Brucemore Greenhouse Lawn
- Davenport: 6:30 p m. June 14, LeClaire Park Bandshell; Ellis Kell and Williams Intermediate Hornet Band at 6:30 p.m.
- Iowa City: 4 p.m. June 15, UI Pentacrest, downtown
- Dubuque: 3 p.m. June 16, McGraw Hill Parking Lot; part of America’s River Festival, The Upper Main Street Jazz Band at 1 p.m.
- Information: Hancher.uiowa.edu/events/preshall.html
- Artist’s website: Preservationhall.com/band
Born out of conversations between Hancher and the University of Iowa College of Engineering in February 2011, “Living With Floods” is a UI interdisciplinary effort designed to spark flood education for middle- and high school teachers and students; community forums on flood recovery and mitigation programs; STEM science, technology, engineering and math festivals for young people; and artistic connections with the seven concert cities impacted by the Floods of 2008 in Eastern Iowa and on the state’s western border in 2011.
Partnering with Hancher and the College of Engineering are the UI College of Education and its Interdisciplinary Flood Institute, the Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research, the Iowa Flood Center, the State Hygienic Laboratory and iExploreSTEM, all housed or initiated at the UI.
“One part of the strategic plan is improving the lives of Iowans. This definitely is right in line” with Hancher’s mission “on so many levels,” Chuck Swanson, Hancher’s executive director, says. “There’s so much in terms of the educational part. From a cultural standpoint, I love the idea of mixing the sciences with the arts. That’s a really important part of this project. In this particular case, it works so well. It just seemed so natural. It just fit together extremely well. We didn’t have to explain it to anybody — everybody got it right on.
“We are the University of Iowa, we’re not the University of Iowa City. I love traveling 300 miles from here and talking about the University of Iowa. What’s great about it, is you come to these communities and there are so many alums and there are so many people care deeply about the University of Iowa. When you can connect and then bring wonderful things to their community, it’s quite magical. It’s very important for us to get out there and be connecting throughout the state, and what love more than anything is when can do it together as a team. And also, it builds camaraderie with the different areas of the university,” Swanson says.
The floods are “a big thing to commemorate,” he says. “Some of us are still living with floods. I know there’s a lot of people in Cedar Rapids that are. Then take a look at Hancher — we’re still living with floods every day,” with the new Hancher facility not expected back before fall 2016.
Bringing Preservation Hall Jazz Band onboard also was most appropriate.
“Their music is so joyous (with) such a sense of celebration, that I really feel like this a perfect way for us to commemorate that five-year anniversary — and in Council Bluffs, the two-year anniversary,” Swanson says, as well as to close out Hancher’s 40th anniversary season.
“It’s so fitting for outdoors, and it’s so fitting for community spirit, and it’s just so fitting to be able to celebrate the collaboration that’s happened with a part of this project — how many people have come together to make a difference in the lives of people in each one of these communities.
“We chose the right artists,” Swanson says. “They’re so geared up. They are really excited because of what this is all about.”
Music has been a lifeline for Jaffe and his hometown. It’s what got them through the hurricane floods that wiped out people’s lives, homes, livelihoods and history.
“It’s still difficult and personal and very close to our hearts,” Jaffe says. “It’s something you’ll never heal from completely, but something that becomes part of your identity, that’s where we’re at with it.”
The floods closed Preservation Hall — home to half a century of the region’s greatest jazz sounds — for a year. It took a full five years to restore this historic building to its pre-Katrina days, Jaffe says.
“In the physical rebuilding of a city, there’s two things that take place simultaneously. One is a physical rebuilding and the other is the rebuilding of the community and the part of yourself that gets lost in the storm — the memories, the personal effects — they get lost in the storm,” Jaffe says.
“In the case of New Orleans, we not only physically lost a lot of our history, but we also lost individuals and families and that part of our community, as well. They estimated that about 80 percent of our city had to be rebuilt, as a result of the hurricane,” he says.
“That’s just something that it’s hard to even wrap your mind around — the extent of that damage. You can’t even prepare yourself for it. You think of the devastation of one house burning down, and how that impacts a neighborhood, and then you think about an entire neighborhood disappearing. It’s something that takes years and years of dedication and hard and diligent commitment. There are still parts of our city that we’re still in process of rebuilding. What I am happy to say is that the hard work does pay off. It not only makes physically, parts of the city stronger and better, but it also, in our case, made our community stronger,” he says.
And yet a certain fear still bubbles up with extreme rains and flood warnings.
“You never get over that,” Jaffe says. “Katrina was in 2005 and you still have moments where you’re pushed to brink of exhaustion. Families are still torn apart as a result of that. It’s something that you never completely heal from. It just becomes like a scar, something that becomes part of your identity as a person.”
Even in their darkest hours, however, New Orleans musicians have shown the world how to find the spirit to move on.
“When thinking about this (Iowa) residency — what we can offer musically and what it was that got us through these times — music was something we looked forward to. It was all we had,” he says. “That’s something that we’ve never forgotten. When we started talking about being a part of this (Hancher) celebration of this anniversary — of this rechristening, this rebirth — where it feels like you have these moments where you start over — that’s what our music does.”
The Iowa tour also gets back to New Orleans jazz roots.
“We’ll be playing outdoors, we’re going to be playing at fairs, we’re going to be playing by the river, we’re going to be playing at all these different places,” Jaffe says. “I thought to myself, that’s exactly what we do in New Orleans. We don’t even need electricity — we just show up and start playing. That’s what’s so beautiful about it.
“The flood actually put us back in touch with something that has existed in New Orleans, but often has been forgotten — that our music, literally, is generated by us, by human beings,” he says. “We’ve become so reliant on electricity just to get us through the day, what happens when it’s gone? It was gone in New Orleans for so long. It was gone for almost six months, and how do you survive on something that really nourishes your soul? That’s what music has done.”
Related event: Arts & Minds: A Celebration of Partnership, 3:30 p.m. June 14, UI East Pentacrest, downtown Iowa City; free public event honoring campus, state and federal partners whose dedicated efforts are bringing world-class arts facilities to Iowa. Featuring Preservation Hall Jazz Band, remarks by university and government leaders, and performances and exhibits from students in UI arts programs. Bring seating.