As a young singer making her way on the New Orleans R&B scene in the early 1960s, Irma Thomas didn’t pay much attention to the Preservation Hall Jazz Band.
It’s not that she didn’t care for traditional jazz. But between the generation gap and the racial line, she didn’t see Preservation Hall as part of her world.
“Preservation Hall was a place where the older musicians established themselves,” says Thomas, 76. “I wasn’t a French Quarter rat. It was for tourists, and not somewhere most local people went. The only time black people went to the French Quarter was when you were working as a musician, or at some business. It wasn’t somewhere you’d go hang out.”
The French Quarter can still feel less than welcoming for black residents of New Orleans, but Preservation Hall has become an institution that embraces musicians of many stripes.
As part of a tour bringing together three venerable musical institutions, Thomas, the beloved Soul Queen of New Orleans, performs Monday at Berkeley’s Freight & Salvage and Tuesday at Santa Cruz’s Rio Theatre with the Preservation Hall Legacy Quintet and the Blind Boys of Alabama, one of gospel music’s most celebrated ensembles. (Thomas and the Preservation Hall quintet also perform without the Blind Boys at Sonoma’s Green Music Center on Sept. 30, details at gmc.sonoma.edu).
While the production was engineered by Columbia Artists Management, which represents all three acts, it’s based on more than a decade of collaborations. In the aftermath of Katrina, when Crescent City culture seemed on the verge of extinction, Preservation Hall embarked on a far-reaching initiative to safeguard and promote the unique sounds of New Orleans by joining forces with other bands. In the last dozen years, they’ve performed, toured and recorded with disparate artists such as Tom Waits, Beck, the Black Keys, Del McCoury, Steve Earle, and Arcade Fire.
The Blind Boys of Alabama was one of the first, “a natural fit with a shared song book,” says Ron Rona, managing director of Preservation Hall. The collaboration led to the Grammy Award-winning 2008 Blind Boys album “Down in New Orleans” (Time Life/WEA) and they reunited in 2011 for Preservation Hall’s 50th anniversary celebration at Carnegie Hall.
Irma Thomas came directly into the Preservation Hall orbit via the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival (aka Jazz Fest), during which the Hall hosts the Midnight Preserves series with special guests.
“Irma has participated in every Midnight Preserves for last five years,” Rona says. “It’s a unique thing about New Orleans. The music community is very tight, and Irma is to New Orleans R&B and soul what Preservation Hall is to jazz.”
For the tour, Preservation Hall is sending out a band gleaned from the 50 or so musicians who perform regularly at the St. Peter Street venue. The quintet features some recent members, like reed player Calvin Johnson and pianist/organist Christopher Vaughn, who hails from a respected New Orleans gospel music clan.
Trumpeter Gregg Stafford has been a top New Orleans trumpeter for four decades, with stints in the Olympia Brass Band, the Tuxedo Brass Band and the Royal Brass Band, among many others. Freddie Lonzo is another storied brass player who’s known as a master of the rambunctious tailgate trombone style, with its vivid vocabulary of glissandos, smears, growls, and slides.
The band’s essential component is drummer Joe Lastie Jr., who’s toured with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band since the mid-1980s, though he’s largely stayed off the road in recent years to play with the Lastie Family gospel group while playing regularly at the Hall. He belongs to a distinguished New Orleans jazz family going back for generations. His grandfathers, Frank Lastie and Emille Desvine, played drums in the church. His uncle, Walter “Popee” Lastie, is another respected drummer, and his cousin Herlin Riley is one of the finest jazz drummers in the world (best known for his long stints with Wynton Marsalis and Ahmad Jamal).
For Irma Thomas, finding common ground with a trad jazz combo and a gospel group isn’t a worry. “I still sing in church every Sunday when I’m not on the road,” she says. “I’ve always had both soul and gospel music in my life. I just don’t do them together. It’s one or the other. I started out singing in church, and when I started out singing professionally I needed a job to take care of my family. It has fared well for me.”
Contact Andrew Gilbert at firstname.lastname@example.org
With The Blind Boys of Alabama and The Preservation Hall Legacy Quintet
When & where: 8 p.m. Oct. 2 at Freight & Salvage, Berkeley; $75-$150; 510-644-2020, www.thefreight.org; 7:30 p.m. Oct. 3 at Rio Theatre, Santa Cruz; $40-$60; 831-427-2227, www.kuumbwajazz.org
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