After four members of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band introduce themselves to a handful of youth from the Baton Rouge Juvenile Detention Center, pianist Rickie Monie picks up his melodica.
“Does anyone know what this is?” Monie asks the crowd. The response is silence. “Yeah, I don’t blame you.”
In the span of two hours on this Monday morning, Monie, drummer Joe Lastie Jr., tuba player Ronell Johnson, and trombonist/singer Freddie Lonzo will have performed three short sets as part of Manship Theatre’s partnership with the detention center to bring arts into the lives of the young people serving time there.
For the band members, who have played more than 40 shows in the last 50 days, these young adults might be their toughest crowds yet.
“You just keep playing,” Lonzo says later that morning. “By the end of it, they’ll hopefully be smiling and dancing.”
Each show runs around 30 minutes, featuring a personal concert of traditional New Orleans jazz tunes like “Bourbon Street Parade,” “Hello Dolly” and “When the Saints Go Marchin’ In.” After each song, Monie and the band allow time for questions and quick discussion.
“Would you believe I listen to rap?” Lastie Jr. says from his drum throne. “That’s all I listen to, homie.”
When the young people enter wearing their blue, orange and green jumpsuits, they arrive stiff, not knowing what to expect. Some are cocky, sitting and staring as if to say, “Well, show me something.” Others are more open-minded, their eyes beaming on Lastie Jr.’s barrel of a bass drum. By the end of the first song, the awkward silence leaves the room.
“What did you feel when you heard that music?” Monie asks the first group after the band wraps up “Bourbon Street Parade.”
“I wanted to dance,” one young man says. “Hyper,” another says.
“It’s supposed to make you feel hyper,” Monie says. “We have people who come to our shows, and they’re dressed all formal. But when they hear these songs, they go dancing in the aisles.”
Monie talks briefly about the old New Orleans sound. Before losing the crowd on a tangent about counter-melodies, he tells them about the band’s true chemistry—brotherhood.
“We’re like a family,” he says. “Each song is different every time we play it. But the reason we can do that is because these are my brothers. You have the whole world ahead of you as a young person. If you have an instrument, you will not pick up a gun. This is my weapon.”
The impact of these musicians’ weapon of choice speaks for itself. Individually, the members have history in the Crescent City music scene as some of the best players around. Combined, Preservation Hall Jazz Band is an iconic institution with a legacy that grows in popularity with each passing year. The band celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2012 with a huge star-studded concert at Carnegie Hall in New York City, followed by the release of a live album from that event. In 2014, the Grammy winners also appeared as guest performers on the Foo Fighters’ HBO series and accompanying album Sonic Highways.
During the second song at the detention center, the young men in the audience start to nod their heads. To the right, a guard points his finger at the band to the rhythm of the bass drum, as if to say, “That’s the good stuff.” When it comes time for Lastie Jr. to take a drum solo, the youth who listen to bounce, rap, hip-hop and zydeco are hypnotized. Even they can’t escape the joy of the jazz filling the room.
“You like to cut up, huh?” Lastie Jr. asks another group of young men. “You know where I first cut up? Church.”
By the end of the set, the band has created their own version of the Preservation Hall at the center. The young men are up, dancing with visitors as Lonzo sings “When the Saints Go Marchin’ In.” The center’s counselor Maise Shelmire has given the young men their own makeshift paper towel handkerchiefs, and a second line takes a few laps around the room. Pretty soon, Lonzo is moving his hips in a dance circle with them.
“Having the band here brings the arts to life with these kids,” Shelmire says. “It opens up to them the many facets of music—especially New Orleans jazz. For 30-45 minutes, they were able to forget their problems for the moment and simply have fun, immersing themselves in the arts and becoming a part of the process and not just spectators.”
Starting this week, Manship also teamed up with Jeaneatte Plourde of Brooklyn, New York, to bring a week of art sessions, called The Shakespeare Project, to the center. For more information on the venue’s outreach program, visit manshiptheatre.org. For more information on Preservation Hall Jazz Band’s community efforts, visit preservationhalljazzband.com.