Olympia Brass Band had a standing Sunday night gig at Preservation Hall for more than 20 years. Among its ranks was legendary bandleader Harold "Duke" Dejan, who died in 2002.
"He was my godfather, my parrain," says Ben Jaffe, Pres Hall's creative director and tuba player. "It was a tradition for them to play, like the Rebirth on Tuesday nights (at the Maple Leaf Bar). It was a thing."
The group also inspired Jaffe and another generation of players, including the Jr. Olympia Brass Band, which became "like the minor league, the college version of the granddaddies," Jaffe says. Members of that junior crew, as well as veterans of the Young Tuxedo Brass Band, now compose Preservation Hall's current resident brass outfit, the PresHall Brass. Trumpeter Will Smith, drummer Kerry "Fat Man" Hunter and trumpeter Kenneth Terry also are members of New Breed Brass Band.
Tuba player Anthony "Tuba Fats" Lacen influenced a generation of players, providing brass bands' big, colorful bass.
"All the guys in Dirty Dozen Brass Band, their dads were in Olympia," Jaffe says. "Those guys grew up being influenced by Tuba Fats and my dad."
The Olympia dissolved permanently after Hurricane Katrina, and its last surviving member, saxophonist Ernest "Doc" Watson, died in 2010.
"We didn't want the band to die, but there were no members any more," Jaffe says. "It became apparent [we needed] to carry on the legacy with younger musicians. Look around; we're not the younger guys anymore. We feel like we're young. ... We are the last musicians who played with Milton Batiste, played with Harold Dejan, with Doc, marched in Zulu and Rex with those guys. We had the experience of wearing the uniforms — those things that were important to Harold were important to us."
The PresHall Brass repertoire spans "what we grew up playing — 'Lord Lord Lord' and 'You Are My Sunshine'" as well as New Orleans' evolving modern brass sounds. "The 'modern brass band repertoire' found its way into Preservation Hall," Jaffe says.
That modern influence in Preservation Hall also makes connections within other New Orleans music scenes, including hip-hop and bounce. Recently, PresHall Brass backed rappers Nesby Phips and Fiend inside the famous jazz hall.
"Nesby and Fiend, they go out at second lines, they grew up with Olympia," Jaffe says. "They never had the opportunity to connect. ... A lot of songs bands end up writing are the result of instantaneous chanting that goes on at second lines, chant turns into a riff, a riff turns into a groove, and all combined turns into a song. [We] take what's happening in the city and say, 'Let's see what happens when we put it on a stage.' ... All the time we have that conversation: Why haven't we bridged that gap, why haven't we reached out?"
Those connections also are made at Preservation Hall's late-night Midnight Preserves series, during which a who's who of touring performers on the Jazz Fest circuit stop inside the hall for one-night-only, highly secretive performances. It's also a major fundraiser for Preservation Hall's Foundation efforts, which include putting instruments and music programs in schools across the city.
"The next Louis Armstrong is a 4- year-old kid in New Orleans," Jaffe says. "Everybody in New Orleans has some sort of appreciation for music. You don't have to play music to be a member of the family."