The very name Preservation Hall conjures images of a certain past, captured and saved in a timeless state. But Ben Jaffe, creative director of the New Orleans institution his parents helped found and develop, begs to differ.
“It’s always been my opinion that what Preservation Hall does, and what happens in New Orleans culturally, is not old at all,” says Jaffe, 41, who also plays bass and tuba in the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, which opens Coral Gables Congregational Church’s Summer Concert Series on Thursday.
“It’s still very, very much modern, very much rooted in tradition, yet still relevant to people today. And I think that’s what makes our music and our traditions and the culture of New Orleans so unique.
“The food we eat is still the same recipes we’ve been using here for hundreds of years — gumbo, jambalaya, crawfish etouffee, soft-shell crabs, red beans and rice,” Jaffe says. “And nobody ever says ‘Oh man I’m not going to eat gumbo. That’s old-time. It’s been around hundreds of years. I don’t want that.’ In New Orleans, food nourishes our bodies and music feeds our soul. One is as important as the other – and sometimes I think in New Orleans music is more important than food.”
Located in the French Quarter, Preservation Hall was built in 1750 as a private residence, and over the centuries has housed a tavern, an inn, a photo studio and an art gallery. Doors open at 8 p.m. daily and the music begins at 8:15. No drinks are served, admission is $15, and all ages are welcome.
In January, the Hall celebrated its first 50 years with a concert at Carnegie Hall; a four-CD retrospective is due in September.
Preservation Hall evolved from pass-the-hat sessions in the mid 1950s into “an experiment, a kind of attempt to create a noncommercial environment for the long-term preservation and popularization of New Orleans jazz,” says cultural historian Bruce Boyd Raeburn, curator of Tulane University’s Hogan Jazz Archive.
The venue was launched in 1961 by the Society for Preservation of Traditional New Orleans Jazz, Raeburn says, but “it quickly became apparent that they were ill-equipped to run a live music venue, and that’s when Allan and Sandra Jaffe became absolutely crucial. They were the ones that created the successful formula that made Preservation Hall an international brand.”
Then a young couple from Philadelphia, the Jaffes stopped in New Orleans on their way home from a vacation trip to Mexico.
“And when you visit New Orleans you either move here or you wish that you were here,” their son says.
His father played tuba and his mother the piano, but they weren’t professional musicians, Jaffe says. “And while they liked jazz, they were in no way experts in New Orleans jazz.”
But the allure of the city and the moment in American history proved a powerful combination.
“You have to feel a sense of a mission, a certain calling, to uproot your life and make such a major choice,” Jaffe says. “A lot had to do with their youth and their strong convictions about right and wrong.”
In the New Orleans of the early 1960s, “It was still illegal for African Americans and whites to congregate socially,” he says. “And New Orleans jazz wasn’t considered an art form. People like [folklorist] Alan Lomax and [folk singer] Pete Seeger recognized it as a cultural treasure, but nobody had really figured out how to make it profitable for the musicians who were actually playing it.”
Allan Jaffe, a graduate of the Wharton School, brought his considerable management skills to the cause. According to a 1987 story in The Jazz Archivist newsletter, legendary New Orleans musicians including singer and piano player Sweet Emma Barrett and bassist Chester Zardis “spontaneously and sincerely expressed their gratitude and warm feelings for him. … What really counted were simply good jobs, under decent conditions.”
Ben Jaffe took over as director of Preservation Hall in 1993 (his father died in 1987; his mother retired and lives in New York City). A dozen years later, the challenges of the music business were dwarfed by the tests posed by the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
The building survived the storm, but performances were halted for eight months. Jaffe and his wife, Sarah, organized the New Orleans Musicians Hurricane Relief Fund, which reports providing more than a half million dollars in grants to local artists and institutions. (Due to the imminent birth of the couple’s first child, Jaffe expects to miss the Coral Gables performance.)
Hurricane Katrina also proved unexpectedly beneficial as the country, and indeed the world, rediscovered New Orleans.
“I can honestly say that all of the projects we’ve participated in the last six years, they have all been a result of the flooding of New Orleans,” Jaffe says.
“When you consider the magnitude of that disaster, it’s hard to think anything good came out of it. But it gave us the opportunity to work with people who otherwise we wouldn’t have had the opportunity to collaborate with.”
They include artists as disparate as The Blind Boys of Alabama, rapper Mos Def, country-folk singer Steve Earle, singer-songwriter Tom Waits, bluegrass master Del McCoury and the rock group My Morning Jacket.
“Ben has taken Preservation Hall Jazz Band in new directions, and there has been some controversy about that,” says jazz archivist Raeburn, who also teaches in the history and music departments at Tulane University.
“But that kind of adventurous experimentation is in fact true to the very origins of jazz. That’s the kind of experimentation that produced jazz in the first place. There’s always a balance; you have to respect the tradition but you have to grow.”
And for that balance, Jaffe has a simple rule: “Follow your heart. It will tell you when something is right and when something is wrong.”
“I very rarely use the word ‘change.’ Tradition to me is about evolution. It’s always been my belief that cultural traditions naturally evolve over time,” he says. :If they don’t, if they became stagnant, they become museum pieces. When a tradition becomes defined as one thing and stops evolving, it’s is the death of that tradition.”
There is no danger of that with the music of Preservation Hall, Raeburn says.
“In New Orleans authenticity means music that has communal connection,” he says. “This was music developed to go with the lifestyle of the people who live in New Orleans. That’s what New Orleans jazz was always all about — and that connection is still strong.”