Established in 1961 by Allan and Sandra Jaffe, Preservation Hall functions as a living monument to New Orleans Jazz. Preservation Hall is never stagnant due to the changing membership of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, as well as the various artists which perform at the venue. While it never changes location, it’s always changing, always growing, always carrying the traditions of jazz forward. In 2014, the Obama Administration reopened travel to Cuba. Ben Jaffe, current Preservation Hall Jazz Band leader and son of the founders, took advantage of this opportunity and organized a two-week trip to Cuba for himself and the 2015 iteration of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band so that the group could explore the Afro-Cuban roots inherent in New Orleans Jazz. Captured by documentary directors T. G. Herrington and Danny Clinch, A Tuba to Cuba presents the sights, sounds, and profound revelations each member experiences as they learn of their spiritual, musical, and cultural connection to a place they’d never seen, but whose energy they know all too well.
Jazz hounds and newbies alike will find themselves tapping their toes, shimmying their butts, or out-right dancing in their seats all through the musical journey created through Tuba. Though not every scene is music-filled, music remains the life blood of the experience. As the members of the Jazz Band frequently mention, music is transformative. It’s able to connect the present to the past with each passing note. In this regard, directors Herrington and Clinch craft their narrative to tell three stories: that of the Jaffe Legacy, of the Cuban visit, and of the connection between Cuba and New Orleans. Through a near-constant juxtaposition of images, press footage, and music, the audience is transported back and forth through time as Tuba highlights the connections between the past and present.
In the first narrative thread, and the anchor for the whole film, Ben Jaffe provides the majority of background on New Orleans, his family’s, specifically his father Allen’s, relationship to jazz and, the journey itself. These moments offer the first of several emotional beats within Tuba as the connection between the music and his family is strong. Ben’s parents’ work allowed the jazz community to thrive during a time when Jim Crow was in full effect in the South. The Jaffes offered a chance to preserve these traditions in spite of segregation and horrific poverty. In the creation of Preservation Hall, a life line opened up in New Orleans and across the globe, so that musicians had a place to perform in safety. Adding to the emotional weight of the history is the action Ben is taking while walking the audience through the history of Preservation Hall: he’s decorating his tuba for the journey to Cuba. It’s a significant tradition for the instrument to be accessorized during second line performances (that of the musicians which follow the main procession of a parade), so before leaving for Cuba, in respect for their destination, the tuba must be prepared. It’s a meticulous process which Tuba continually goes back to, allowing the audience to observe Ben at work, while also gaining insight into his family’s deep connection to the jazz community.
The second narrative thread within Tuba is the journey itself, in which each member of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band is given a singular moment to stand out. Through Tuba, Herrington and Clinch don’t just take the audience from place to place, but also show us Cuba through the eyes of the members. They do this by providing each member a chance to speak about their personal experience as a musician, express their view of music, and then engage with their relative counter-part in the Cuban community. As the goal of Preservation Hall is to educate and continue the traditions of jazz, these members immerse themselves in this slightly foreign community. I say “slightly” because everything about Cuba feels spiritually similar to New Orleans. It’s not just comparable architecture or the mix of Spanish and French cultures on the island, but it’s also their similar approach to music. Using the members as a cipher, Herrington and Clinch provide the audience with a deeper understanding of the Cuban community.
The final thread is perhaps the most poignant of them all. Given the political history between the United States and Cuba, there’s a tension which exists and is difficult to shake off. The journey shown in Tuba acknowledges these issues, however, the trip to Cuba is not a political one. The Preservation Hall Jazz Band views itself as the culture bearers of the New Orleans jazz community, making the trip to Cuba a historical fact-finding mission, one driven by pure, unadulterated love of music, with the intent of discovering the roots of the music they love and cherish. In Cuba, the Jazz Band learns how musical recordings are largely non-existent, requiring the community to share what they have. The band learns of the different styles of music, dances (like the tumba francesa genre of dancing created by the slaves to demonstrate they could perform the dances of their masters), and instruments (like drums designed to look like chairs in one community as the Masters forbade drumming), all born out of the slave culture in the Afro-Cuban community. The music is as unique as the communities who perform it, the performers carrying their traditions forward by taking agency over their past. The history of New Orleans Jazz bears similar marks across its history, signifying a deeper connection between the two than merely the instruments they play or the rhythms they create.
Inspired by their journey to Cuba, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band released the album “So It Is”. On this 34-minute record, a sharp ear can hear the blending of cultures as New Orleans brass meets the rhythm of Cuba. The creation of the album seems like a natural extension of the journey, one which Tuba doesn’t track specifically; however, it does fit in line with the goal of Preservation Hall: to collect, dispense, and preserve jazz for all. In the end, for Ben Jaffe, the trip to Cuba meant a great many things, including taking a trip his father always wanted to attempt. For the band as a whole, exploring Cuba meant a chance to learn about the music, the culture, and the community of an island which seemed so different, so intrinsically different based solely on geography. What the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, and the audience, learn and experience, is the true power of music in its ability to cross over the language barrier and connect us through a rhythm which runs through us all.
For information on upcoming screenings, head to the A Tuba to Cuba official website.
In select theaters beginning February 15th, 2019. Available on VOD beginning March 15th, 2019.
Final Score: 4.5 out of 5.