Inspiring Contemporary Blues Artists: The Preservation Hall Jazz Band & Keb’ Mo’

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In this new series of articles, I’ll profile some of my favourite African American Blues artists. Up first are two contemporary acts with varied styles: one inspired by the traditional Jazz of New Orleans, the other, a post-modern Blues artist.


I’m a passionate fan of Blues music and dance, and while I started out as a relatively passive “consumer”, my curiosity has since grown and I wish to understand more about the fascinating cultural history of this artform originating in African American communities. I’m also lucky enough to teach Blues dance in London and we’ve done classes themed on certain artists- these posts are based on my research and notes (the class recap videos are also on our Facebook page if you want to dance along).  I’ll give a short biography of their influences, rise to fame, and achievements, and close by sharing a little personal reflection on the impact of their music on my life.


My first two  are contemporary Blues artists, producing music and touring today, but both have a longer history and are influenced by the roots of this genre. The first is a little unusual; a band formed of around 60 individual artists from a cultural centre in New Orleans, while the second artist is a 5-time Grammy Award winning singer, actor and activist…


The Preservation Hall Jazz Band

Members of The Preservation Hall Jazz Band outside the Hall in New Orleans (source: photo by Infrogmation, wikimedia commons)

This band has it’s history in a famous venue and cultural centre, The Preservation Hall, in the vibrant, Jazz-filled French Quarter of New Orleans. Established in the 1950s, the hall is an unusual “venue” in that it was originally an art gallery run by Jazz lover, Larry Borenstein. As Jazz was declining in popularity due to the rise of Rock ‘n’ Roll, gigs were hard to find and so Borenstein invited local musicians to play practice jam sessions in the space (plus it also drew in customers to his gallery!). Not designed as a music venue, there was no amplification, no liquor license, no air conditioning, and no official “marketing”. Despite this, the popularity quickly grew and attracted some of the best local musicians. 


In 1960, the hall was taken over by Alan and Sandra Jaffe who visited while on honeymoon and became passionate about supporting this venture. The jam sessions became nightly and gained in popularity so much so that the gallery was moved to the next door building! The Hall was run as a “Foundation”, a family business and with the goal of supporting local artists and preserving and promoting traditional jazz to a wide audience. Initially, musicians played for donations and when a door cover charge was introduced, much of that was invested back into the artists themselves, many of whom were older and struggling.


Jaffe recognised that further funding was needed to secure the venue’s future and so a “house band”, The Preservation Hall Jazz Band, was established in 1963. This was formed from around 50 musicians from economically disadvantaged backgrounds and of all ages (some in their 80s). They set off on tour around the world to promote traditional jazz, and played in diverse locations including the palace of the King of Thailand (who apparently sat in on alto sax for a few songs!).


The Hall’s cultural impact is significant: it furthered the careers of greats such as Jelly Roll Morton and Louis Armstrong, and it was run as a racially integrated venue during the time of the Jim Crow segregation laws which did not permit African Americans access to white spaces. Here, all racial identities were welcome to make music and listen, something radical for the time in the American South. A large part of the work of the Foundation today is educating young people about traditional jazz and keeping this artform alive for the future generations. In 2006 the Foundation was awarded the National Medal of Arts to acknowledge this important contribution. 


The Band and Hall are going strong to this day, with the Foundation still being managed by the Jaffe family. In 2014, a new audience was brought in through the Foo Fighters documentary, Sonic Highways, in which Dave Grohl wrote a song inspired by and physically recorded in the Hall (“Something from Nothing”). He is one of the artists supporting the venue with an online fundraising concert on Saturday 20th June- check it out and send a donation to help keep this important venue going through lockdown! 


The influence of this music for me is significant- my first ever Blues performance (choreographed by Adamo & Vicci) was to their track “Rattlin’ Bones” back in 2013 (find this track below), and their up-tempo tunes have been some of my favourite tracks when dancing Lindy Hop. I have also been lucky enough to see them live and was blown away (almost literally as I stood in the front row by the giant sousaphone played by Ben Jaffe!) by their energy and talent. They whipped up the room into a joyous, pulsating, mass, all feeling the positivity and skill of these brilliant musicians.



Some sources for further info

  • The Preservation Hall website
  • An interview with Ben Jaffe by Jazz FM.
  • More details of the history and interviews with several members of the Jaffe family in this Vanity Fair article


Keb’ Mo’

Keb’ Mo’ on stage in 2013 (source: photo by Piotr Drabik, wikimedia commons)

Keb’ Mo’ was born Kevin Roosevelt Moore in LA in 1951. His musical influences are diverse, having been introduced to Blues music through his mother’s record collection as a child, playing upright bass and steel drums in a Calypso band as a teenager, and playing guitar on records with Jefferson Airplane violinist, Pappa John Creach, in the 1970s. It is no surprise then, that Mo’s style is characterised as post-modern Blues, mixing in flavours from the histories of folk, jazz, R&B, rock, soul, country, pop, with traditional Delta Blues.


He started releasing solo material from his first record, Rainmaker, in 1980. Mo’ has turned his hand to many to many successful ventures in his career, including writing music for other artists (he was a staff songwriter at A&M Records), participating in several musical theatre, TV, and film projects (for example, portraying Blues legend, Robert Johnson, in documentary film, Can’t You Hear the Wind Howl? in 1998, and a guest appearance on Sesame Street in 2001), he released a Grammy-nominated children’s album in 2000, and even produced a Christmas album!


He has been recognised as one of the true greats of contemporary Blues, winning 5 Grammy Awards, including the 2020 Grammy for best Americana album with his latest release,”Oklahoma”. He has played for President Obama at the White House in 2012 and 2015, and has toured all over the world during his 40-year career, including headling twice at the Mahindra Blues Festival in India, and was on the line-up for Glastonbury festival in 2019. 


He also identifies as an activist on many issues and includes these messages in his music. He has spoken out about slavery, racism and immigration (“Oklahoma”, “This Is My Home”), politics and feminism (“Put A Woman In Charge”), the environment (“Don’t Throw It Away”) and many more.  Speaking with Rolling Stone, he argues that reflecting current issues has always been a key element in Blues: 

Listening to the blues was like a timeline of African American history….Music is the sound of that time. It just really reflects what was going on – you can hear it… 


Some of my favourite tracks include his collaboration with Taj Mahal on the paired-back, sweet, and uplifting song, “Diving Duck Blues”, the punchy staccato vocals and interesting guitar rhythms on “Am I Wrong”; and “She Just Wants to Dance” has become an anthem of lockdown! The music video I’ve shared below is for “Put a Woman in Charge” from his latest album, featuring the vocals of Rosanne Cash. I enjoy the celebratory feminist message as well as the “full” sound of the melody where you feel his diverse R&B, Soul, and Americana influences coming through. The song is dedicated to his mother who recently passed away at age 91- a lovely tribute. He has just announced dates for a European tour in 2021, so I hope to be able to see him play some of these tunes live soon!



Sources for more info


It’s been really interesting for me to reseach these pieces and learn more about the artists that pop up on my playlists on a daily basis and are always assured to get me on the dancefloor! Up next, I’ll look at some of the inspiring women of Blues- don’t miss it!


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