Allan Jaffe’s move in 1961 from Philadelphia to New Orleans, where he established the jazz music sanctuary Preservation Hall, is presented in “A Tuba to Cuba” as a sort of parallel for his son Ben’s visit to Cuba half a century later. The documentary, which screened Saturday at the Alamo Drafthouse Lamar during the SXSW Film Festival, is good at building those kinds of bridges: across time, across the sea, across cultures.
Preservation Hall Jazz Band, founded by Allan and helmed by Ben after his father’s passing three decades ago, is one of the nation’s most celebrated traditional music ensembles. Their music has a lot in common with that of their Cuban counterparts, and as “A Tuba to Cuba” unfolds, they discover firsthand just how close those ties are, and why.
In the meantime, new music arises from their collaborations with Cuban masters such as Ernan Lopez Nussa, Conga de San Agustin and Tumba Francesa. Though the Jaffes’ story is at the center, the film makes a point of introducing everyone in the Preservation Hall group, intentionally interspersing those passages with min-profiles of various Cuban musicians so as to underscore the degree to which it’s all intertwined.
As the film progresses those ties draw even tighter. By the time the band has visited Havana, Santiago — which they suggest is actually closest in spirit to New Orleans — and Cienfuegos, it’s clear their lives have changed. Wonderful footage from a live performance at the historic Teatro Terry, with members of Tumba Francesa joining them onstage, underscores the bridge that has been built.
In the process, Jaffe and his bandmates internalize the connection of Crescent City and Cuban styles to the roots African music. Slave ships from Africa, the film notes, stopped in Havana en route to New Orleans. It’s a sobering reminder, but, as Jaffe says in regard to the music, “There is something beautiful that emerged from it.”
“A Tuba to Cuba” screens again at 3:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Paramount Theatre. Preservation Hall Jazz Band members will attend that screening and will perform a second-line musical march outside the theater afterward, before heading to the Mohawk later that evening for a 9:50 p.m. official SXSW Music showcase. The film gets its final SXSW screening at 2:30 p.m. Friday at the Alamo Ritz.