Hall That Jazz

Preservation Hall Jazz Band
Fifty years ago, with the sole purpose of keeping pure New Orleans jazz alive, Philadelphia transplants Allan and Sandra Jaffe took over a former art gallery that had been turned into a concert space and developed it into a national treasure.

Managed today by their son Ben, Preservation Hall has not only survived Katrina but also expanded over the years to offer three live sets a night and touring bands. Tom Sancton, who learned the clarinet from old in-house musicians and who plays in the hall regularly, recounts the past of this venerable institution and speculates about its future.

Just a single room with worn floorboards, some rough wooden benches, and threadbare cushions. Dust and time and the steamy air of New Orleans have given the place a golden patina, and the peeling walls are covered with smoky paintings of musicians now long gone. Over the two centuries since it was built, this 31-by-20-foot chamber has been a private drawing room, a tavern, a tinsmith's shop, and an art gallery. For the past 50 years, however, it has been known by the name written in brass letters on two battered instrument cases that hang over the wrought-iron entrance gate: Preservation Hall.

Since its opening day, June 10, 1961, more than two million people have walked through that gate, including presidents, prime ministers, movie stars, and rock idols. Paul Newman and Steve McQueen filmed scenes at the hall. Singer Tom Waits, who recorded there last year, called it “sacred, hallowed ground," and bluesman Charlie Musselwhite says it is “the holy grail of clubs." Louis Armstrong, at his 70th-birthday tribute, in Newport in July 1970, said of Preservation Hall, “That's where you'll find all the greats."

Before it even had a name, this little room was the site of a remarkable, phoenix-like revival of traditional New Orleans jazz. Started as a kitty hall, where musicians played for tips thrown into a wicker basket, it gave work to the city's aging, downtrodden jazzmen and injected new life into their dying art form. “There is no question that Preservation Hall saved New Orleans jazz," says impresario George Wein, founder of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival and the Newport Jazz Festival. “When it became an institution in New Orleans, everybody who went down there went to the hall. They paid a dollar to go hear people like George Lewis or Sweet Emma Barrett and made them national figures."

On hot summer nights the crowds still form long lines down St. Peter Street to hear authentic New Orleans jazz. Few of them are locals, and even fewer seem to know what to expect when they get inside. They have been drawn there by tour guides, travel books, or word of mouth. Once past the gates and the kitty basket—the entrance fee is now $12—they settle onto the benches or stand in the back of the un-air-conditioned room waiting for the show to start. At eight p.m., a member of the hall's staff welcomes the crowd, warns them not to smoke or record the music, then introduces the band. Waving and smiling, six musicians wearing black suits, white shirts, and Preservation Hall ties amble onto the bandstand, sit on straight-backed chairs, and stomp off the first number. For the next three hours, with two breaks, they will serve up some of the traditional repertoire—"Bourbon Street Parade," “Original Dixieland One-Step," “Clarinet Marmalade," “The Saints."

The routine is exactly as it was in the 60s, but some things have changed: what were once all-black bands are now racially mixed; the average age of the players is considerably younger; the crowds are much bigger. The quality of the music varies—a different band performs each night—but on a good night customers can count on hearing some of the most spirited traditional-style jazz they'll find anywhere. The amazing thing is that this music—rooted in blues, ragtime, and marches from the turn of the 20th century—is still being played at all. If it were not for Preservation Hall, it might have disappeared as a living art form.

The hall's golden-anniversary year has been marked by a spate of special events. The Louisiana State University Press published a lush photo book, Preservation Hall, by Shannon Brinkman and Eve Abrams (with an introduction by me). The Preservation Hall Jazz Band (P.H.J.B.), the hall's six-man touring group, appeared in concert with the Trey McIntyre Project dance troupe, Del McCoury's bluegrass band, and the indie-rock group My Morning Jacket. The Ogden Museum of Southern Art and the Old U.S. Mint museum presented major exhibitions of Preservation Hall photos, paintings, and artifacts. In 2010, the P.H.J.B. recorded an album titled Preservation, featuring collaborations with a Who's Who of popular singers, including Tom Waits, Jim James, Pete Seeger, Richie Havens, Merle Haggard, Dr. John, and—thanks to the magic of digital editing—Louis Armstrong himself. The coming year will see the unveiling of Preservation Hall West, a bar-restaurant-concert-hall complex in San Francisco's Mission district.

What comes after that is up to Benjamin “Ben" Jaffe, 40, the younger son of the family that has run the hall since 1961. As creative director, he oversees all the hall's operations and plays sousaphone and string bass with the touring band. The key question he faces is this: with all of the original musicians dead and gone, an aging audience base, and a popular culture more interested in hip-hop than old-time jazz, what are you preserving? And how long can you keep it up? Jaffe's optimistic answer: “This anniversary is about the next 50 years."

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