How Preservation Hall Has Kept New Orleans’ Iconic Jazz Alive
The plucky institution staged a brassy comeback for America’s signature music
The seats are simple benches. The space is small. To stand at the back of the hall is to be only 20 or so feet from the band. The wooden walls are washed out. Even the instruments used by the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, founded with the hall in 1961, feel a bit old: It’s been a while since clarinets and tubas were central to popular music. And then, of course, there’s the traditional repertoire, comprising standards that reach back to the first decades of the 20th century, like “Little Liza Jane” and “St. James Infirmary.” Unlike other famous jazz venues that have changed their décor and ethos with the times, Preservation Hall remains the most authentic, with a pure emphasis on the music.
In some ways, the antiquity of the scene is the point: It feels like going back in time. The hall, which didn’t even have air conditioning until 2019, has persisted against steep odds, much like the city of New Orleans. And at the time of the hall’s founding, New Orleans jazz was in need of preservation: Traditional jazz had enjoyed a resurgence in the 1940s, but just a decade later, rhythm and blues, bebop and rock ’n’ roll were dominating American airwaves and venues, and traditional jazz halls closed around the city.
To some degree those hot new genres of popular music were largely drawn from the traditional jazz that had been born in New Orleans. Joel Dinerstein, a professor of English at Tulane University and author of the 2020 book Jazz: A Quick Immersion, says these new forms of pop were in fact “different idioms of jazz.” Yet despite having provided the roots of this new music, jazz itself was taking a back seat.
Recognizing the need to keep traditional jazz alive, New Orleans art dealer Larry Borenstein invited his favorite musicians to rehearse in the garden of his gallery in the French Quarter. A crowd started to form, and over time, people from around the world visited what was then called the New Orleans Society for the Preservation of Traditional Jazz, where they heard the greats of the 20th century, including George Lewis, Punch Miller, Sweet Emma Barrett and the Humphrey Brothers.
Around the same time, in Philadelphia, a young couple named Allan and Sandra Jaffe were falling in love with jazz. Returning from a honeymoon in Mexico, they stopped in New Orleans in 1961. They decided to stick around. That same year, Borenstein handed his performance space over to the Jaffes, who rented the gallery at 726 Saint Peter Street, for $400 a month, and moved the music inside, and the venue soon became known as Preservation Hall. Allan managed the artists and occasionally picked up his sousaphone and played with the band. Sandra assisted her husband with the books and worked the door. Trained as a journalist, Sandra helped advertise the bands and organized a weekly schedule. Originally, the shows were free, with a request that visitors make a donation, but eventually the pair started charging a dollar to hear the music. Still, the hall wasn’t profitable until at least a decade into their ownership.
In 1963, the Jaffes created a touring ensemble to spread the traditional jazz that was enjoying a renaissance in New Orleans. The band’s first tour, through the Midwest, was a success, and by the end of the year the Preservation Hall Jazz Band was playing to fans around the globe. The group has performed everywhere from the Fillmore West in San Francisco to Thailand’s royal palace.
New Orleans police cited the Jaffes more than once for providing a space for mixed crowds, in violation of the city’s segregation laws. After Sandra got arrested one day, according to her son Ben, the judge said: “In New Orleans, we don’t like to mix our coffee and cream.” Ben says Sandra “burst out laughing and said, ‘That’s funny—the most popular thing in New Orleans is café au lait.’”
While rejuvenating the city’s jazz scene, the Jaffes also materially improved the lives of the artists who performed in their space. “A lot of [the musicians] were older, and they didn’t have any money,” Dinerstein says. “Some of them were ill. And they were revived by this. They were great musicians.”
Allan Jaffe died in 1987; a few years later, Sandra moved to Florida, and Ben took over the family business. But she visited New Orleans often. Each time, she stopped at Preservation Hall before even going to her hotel. “She would stand in the carriageway and listen to the bands play,” says Ron Rona, the hall’s current artistic director. Today, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band still travels the world as a rotating collective of more than 60 musicians, led by Ben Jaffe, a fine tubist and bassist in his own right. In recent decades, the band has broadened its audience through collaborations with pop artists like Tom Waits, Ani DiFranco and Arcade Fire. And though the band plays many of the same tunes as the original lineup in the 1960s, Rona says the word “preservation” can be misleading. “Jazz is an evolution,” he says. “The melodies might be the same, the forms might be the same. But the musicians put themselves into it.” In that sense, he says, “these are brand-new tunes.”
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