Preservation Hall Jazz Band To Turn MC Into the Big Easy for a Night

They haven’t been active in a while, so it’s perfectly understandable if you’ve never heard of The Boxer Rebellion, but they’re most definitely a band worth checking out.

For one thing, they’re fronted by a Maryville native, Nathan Nicholson, who moved to London and hooked up with a few guys and eventually made a record called “Union.” Within 24 hours of its release, “Union” had entered both the U.S. and the British charts, peaking at No. 6 on the iTunes U.S. Albums Chart and No. 2 on the iTunes U.S. Alternative Chart, a previously unheard-of feat for a band without a label and with no physical product in brick-and-mortar record stores. iTunes (now Apple Music) named “Union” as the 2009 Alternative Album of the Year, and The Boxer Rebellion became the first unsigned band in history to enter the Billboard Albums Chart with a digital-only release.

Sonically, the band’s music shimmers with palpable frenetic energy, swirling guitars waltzing around Nicholson’s operatic vocals (think Lost in the Trees, or Queen, for reference). The pace is deliberate — frantic in places, languid in others, like the current of a river rushing over jagged pieces of rock in some spots and eddying into quiet pools in others. In other words, it was ideal for an on-campus rock show at the Clayton Center for the Arts back in October 2010, but only 200 people showed up.

At the time, I didn’t understand it: This was a rock show by a contemporary indie band that was on fire: A few years later, the guys would open for The Rolling Stones, and every date on repeated European tours would sell out. Why, then, didn’t y’all fill the Clayton Center to capacity? What would it take to get Scots to show up to a Clayton Center event so good it was recorded and released as an album in the band’s catalog (“Live in Tennessee,” put out the following year)?

I get it. Collegiate poverty is real, but so is temporal poverty: not enough time and too many things to fit into it. But hey, you hit up “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” You hit up the APO ghost tours of the MC Woods during Homecoming. You make time for the things that seem important … which leads me to a Clayton Center performance that is, in my opinion, very important because of the historical nature of the group that will be on stage.

When the members of Preservation Hall Jazz Band take the stage, they turn any venue into the historic New Orleans French Quarter performance space, where the light is dim and the music pushes plumes of smoke around a room that smells of gin and the sweat of dozens of fleet-footed dancers. Built as a residence in the heart of New Orleans’ French Quarter around 1750, Preservation Hall later served as a tavern during the War of 1812. 

In 1952, the Hall’s owner, who used the building as an art gallery, indulged his love of New Orleans jazz by inviting the musicians who helped create the style back to the Hall to “rehearse” for his friends. Music became such a draw that the art gallery moved next door, and in 1961, Allan and Sandra Jaffe took over, and their son, Ben, serves as the bandleader today.

“It’s something I grew up with, not just observing, but really being a part of, and with my dad being a member of the band, I was a participant at an early age,” Jaffe told me several years ago. “I never had to study New Orleans music. None of us did. We learned to play through knowing the people who played it before us — not just as musicians, but also as friends.

“You get a sense of warmth knowing that what you’re doing is tied into a tradition going back hundreds of years, and you’re just another link in the chain. That’s what’s amazing about Preservation Hall Jazz Band — everybody in the band has a connection to New Orleans that goes back generations, so when you hear the band, it’s really a reflection of the culture and history and depth of New Orleans. You’re not just hearing guys playing a bunch of songs out of a songbook. 

“You’re hearing New Orleans, and it’s like going to New Orleans and eating the food and walking down Bourbon Street and taking in all of that culture,” he added.

At 7:30 p.m. Friday, Nov. 18, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band will perform its “Pass It On 60th Anniversary Celebration” in the Ronald and Lynda Nutt Theatre of the Clayton Center for the Arts. Ticket prices for the public start at $32.50 … but I’ll let you in on a secret: MC students can get balcony tickets for only $10. You can always choose to sit closer, but even then you’ll get a Maryville College discount. (Call the box office at 865-981-8590 for more info, or visit www.claytonartscenter.com.)

Ten dollars? To see a historic jazz band that’ll blow your troubles away on a few mellifluous notes of joyful noise guaranteed to make you feel some kind of way? You won’t find a better deal for some Friday night entertainment, so don’t let it pass you by.

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