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.”