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Preservation Hall

New Orleans's Preservation Hall is a traditional jazz music venue in the French Quarter and the historic center of a worldwide revival of traditional New Orleans jazz.

Preservation Hall

Courtesy of Alan Flattmann

Preservation Hall Brass Band. Flattmann, Alan (Artist)

Headquartered in a centuries-old structure in New Orleans’s French Quarter, Preservation Hall is an internationally known cultural institution that has served since its founding as the informal home base and inspirational centerpiece for traditional New Orleans jazz. Preservation Hall was originally conceived in the early 1960s as a low-profile performance venue for neglected, aging black musicians who had come of age during the emergence of early jazz in the 1920s and 1930s. It has since become a multifaceted organization that sponsors nightly ensemble performances in the French Quarter, a globe-trotting touring ensemble, collaborations with artists and musicians in a range of disciplines and American roots genres, a catalog of self-generated recordings as well as recording contracts with nationally prominent record labels, and a nonprofit foundation dedicated to engaging children in the musical and cultural practices associated with traditional New Orleans jazz.

After more than half a century of continuous operation, Preservation Hall remains committed to its original mission as “an important force for reviving traditional jazz,” in the words of clarinetist Tom Sancton. But its specific focus has gradually shifted, intentionally, into a place “to perpetuate cultural traditions and embrace the artistic spirit of New Orleans,” as today’s second-generation torchbearer Ben Jaffe describes it. As a family owned and operated business functioning under the larger umbrella of a family owned, limited liability company—with an annual income of approximately $2 million, a full-time staff of roughly a dozen employees, and impressive, international name recognition—Preservation Hall is a cultural endeavor of worldwide significance unique unto itself: a small-scale, private business whose operation has consistently resulted in a large-scale social and cultural impact, and one whose operating philosophy has been, and remains, to survive solely in the interest of promoting cultural understanding and appreciation.

Preserving Jazz

Fully understanding Preservation Hall requires seeing its founding as the culmination of the initial stage of the traditional New Orleans jazz revival, a cultural phenomenon that first emerged in the early 1930s in a variety of underground movements in Europe, Australia, and the United States. The animating principle of this musical revival was a common understanding that the commercial introduction and dominance of mainstream big-band music in the 1930s swing era obscured the more deeply felt passion of small-combo jazz from the middle and late 1920s—music rooted in an ensemble style of polyphonic improvisation that was prevalent in New Orleans prior to its formal designation as jazz and subsequent adaptation as a commercial commodity. Of particular relevance for Preservation Hall was the publication of Jazzmen: Hot Jazz as Told in the Lives of the Men Who Created It, a 1939 collection of articles now considered the first attempt at a written history of American jazz. William “Bill” Russell, a formally trained violinist and highly regarded avant-garde American classical composer, played a central role in the creation of Jazzmen. While conducting research for the book and acting on a tip from Louis Armstrong, Russell made contact with one of those living representatives of New Orleans–specific jazz, Willie “Bunk” Johnson, a trumpeter and cornet player who had retired to rural New Iberia.

Thanks to efforts organized by Russell and guided by his uniquely impassioned enthusiasm, Bunk Johnson was encouraged to record and eventually perform once again with a band of similarly gifted but previously obscure New Orleans musicians. This rediscovery was capped by a lauded, year-and-a-half residency at the Stuyvesant Casino on New York City’s Lower East Side from 1946 to 1947. Inspired by the musically enlightening impact of Bunk Johnson’s successful resurrection, Russell purchased a portable recording machine and launched a long series of recordings of many more retired and semi-retired New Orleans jazz musicians on the American Music record label, distributing new releases to individual buyers by mail. Simultaneously, as word of the New Orleans jazz revival spread nationally and internationally, an increasing number of New Orleans jazz devotees began making their own pilgrimages to the French Quarter. Sancton, himself a student of George Lewis, recalls, “[We] felt that we belonged to a big family—almost a movement, a cause.” In 1956 Russell relocated permanently to New Orleans, opening a combination record store, instrument repair shop, and de facto visitors’ center for jazz-revival pilgrims in a storefront on St. Peter Street, directly across from the location that would eventually house Preservation Hall. Two years later, with a generous, five-year Ford Foundation grant, a New Orleans jazz oral history archive was established at Tulane University with Russell at its helm.

New Orleans Jazz Revival Attains Critical Mass in the Late 1950s

Allan and Sandra Jaffe met in Philadelphia, where Allan was studying at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business; Sandra worked days at a local advertising agency and took classes at the university at night. Before they were married, Allan had served in the military and was stationed near New Orleans, which he visited on weekends. An amateur musician whose father and grandfather had also been musicians, Allan knew about the New Orleans jazz revival and, on the couple’s return from an extended honeymoon in Mexico, he decided to show his new bride the French Quarter and then take in an evening of music. “When I heard the music for the first time,” Sandra recalls, “it felt like a total transformation … [But] we didn’t come to New Orleans to start a business, run Preservation Hall, or save the music. We just came to hear it.” They decided to postpone their return trip to Philadelphia, becoming charter members of the same social/music scene they’d only recently discovered. Almost before they knew it, Allan and Sandra Jaffe had become impresarios, in the summer of 1961, of a series of informal concerts, which they then institutionalized as regular nightly performances, ran as a business, and called it Preservation Hall.

But Allan, who worked days at a New Orleans department store, soon came to understand the nightly performances would never be financially self-sufficient. He developed an alternate business strategy: evening performances in the French Quarter combined with a touring band simultaneously playing concerts around the world and bringing in competitively set fees for concert-hall and summer concert series performances. By 1963 he had booked the newly minted Preservation Hall Jazz Band for their first series of Midwest concerts, with both Japan and Russia indicating interest; after that point, the Hall’s operations as we know them today began to take shape under a unique business model that held the promise of both financial sustainability and broad cultural influence. “As long as there are musicians playing traditional New Orleans jazz,” Allan Jaffe told an interviewer in the mid-1980s, “I would like to have a place where they can come and play for an audience who will come and listen.” Dozens of performers appeared in rotation at the French Quarter location, including “Kid Sheik” Colar, “Sweet Emma” Barrett, George Lewis, “Punch” Miller, Peter Bocage, Chester Zardis, and the husband-and-wife team of Dede and Billie Pierce.

Home in the French Quarter Reflects Preservation Hall’s Mission

Preservation Hall’s building—a rustic, unimproved structure from the early 1800s—stands out even in the historic French Quarter as old, atmospheric, and a hardy survivor of history, not unlike the music played within it. Before it became home to Preservation Hall, 726 St. Peter Street had housed an informal art gallery run by E. Lorenz “Larry” Borenstein, a Milwaukee native drawn to the French Quarter, no doubt, by the strong bohemian presence. Borenstein was first and foremost a real estate investor, buying up old buildings undervalued by the market; he owned the building in which he ran his gallery and then rented it to Allan Jaffe to make permanent the music presentations Borenstein had begun to hear on a sporadic basis. The two ultimately became friends and fellow real estate investors, Jaffe using funds earned on stocks recommended by his old Wharton School classmates. Those investments were available to offset any losses in years when the expenses of operating Preservation Hall outstripped its revenue.

Then in a state of flagrant disrepair considered “chic” in the free-spirited French Quarter, the building the Jaffes rented needed a major makeover, but the couple eventually decided to leave it “as is,” complete with crumbling plaster walls, worn wooden floors, and a weather-beaten façade that revealed washes of various, bleached-pale coats of paint. The Jaffes also kept the building devoid of modern amenities: no restrooms, no air-conditioning, and no refreshments. The main performance space and schedule conformed to the building’s no-frills approach: flattened pillows on the floor and a pair of timeworn benches for seating, standing room around the edges and in the back of the hall, a nominal door charge, and three concise, forty-five-minute sets. In addition to playing their standard repertoire, the veteran performers would take requests from the audience, for a price: one dollar for traditional jazz tunes, two dollars for others, and for “When the Saints Go Marching In,” the most frequently requested song, five dollars. No photography or recording devices were permitted.

Gaining Fame and Recognition

By the early 1970s, the Jaffes also had established an informally systematized roster for both the weekly French Quarter lineup and a primary touring band—with Allan Jaffe often playing sousaphone and string bass—as well as ancillary touring bands, if needed. A dress code was established as well, following the style of traditional New Orleans brass band uniforms. Eventually, the fixed lineup of the “A-list” touring band—led for roughly two decades by brothers on trumpet and Willie Humphrey on clarinet—became the Preservation Hall Jazz Band for impassioned audiences around the world.  

Preservation Hall had established its identity and gained wide recognition by the late 1960s and early 1970s, just as a second New Orleans jazz revival was kicking into gear—thanks, in part, to Preservation Hall’s popularizing both traditional jazz and the musicians performing it. At the same time, interest in other forms of New Orleans popular music was emerging as well, including barrelhouse piano, 1950s and 1960s rhythm and blues, and modern jazz. The growing popularity of New Orleans music led to the founding of The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival in 1970, which celebrated local food and crafts along with the broadest spectrum of music possible. Preservation Hall was very much at the center of the festival’s early evolution and remains so, with one of the festival’s ten stages, Economy Hall, devoted exclusively to bands playing variations of traditional New Orleans jazz.

By the mid-1970s, the Hall was quickly attaining mainstream legitimacy and respect, a milestone marked by the Hall securing a recording contract with Columbia Records, then America’s most prestigious label. Although recordings released on Preservation Hall’s in-house label had contributed part of the income stream in the Hall’s earliest years, subsequent pressings and sales became more of distraction than a significant source of financial support. The first eponymous Preservation Hall album, featuring the Humphrey brothers’ touring band, was released in 1977 and remains a classic today; two more albums with the same lineup, produced by Allan Jaffe himself, appeared in 1982 and 1983.

A New Generation in the Twenty-First Century

Although the Columbia contract called for more recordings, Allan Jaffe would never live to see them; he was diagnosed with melanoma in 1985, and he died on March 9, 1987, at the age of fifty-one, leaving behind a wife and two sons as well as the vast extended family of Preservation Hall supporters, musicians, and fans. In 1993, at the age of twenty-two, Allan Jaffe’s younger son, Benjamin, also a sousaphone and string bass musician, graduated from the Oberlin Conservatory of Music and assumed the mantle of leadership at Preservation Hall. He was immediately struck by the advanced age of the Hall audience—especially after Willie Humphrey died in 1994 and Percy Humphrey passed away in 1995—by the dwindling number of earliest-generation musicians, and by the rote performances of the touring band, which had now been following the same set list for years. “I saw what happened to the Duke Ellington and Count Basie bands after their leaders had died,” Ben Jaffe told Sancton in a January 2012 article in Vanity Fair. “They were lifeless caricatures of what they had been. I was so scared that was what Preservation Hall would become—already had become.”

He set about making changes that were not subtle in the orthodox Preservation Hall formula: new musicians, new repertoire, new performance venues, and a new attitude toward musical and artistic collaboration that repositioned New Orleans jazz within the “American roots” movement that had begun during the late 1980s. This movement was an amalgam of folk, country, blues, swing jazz, modern rock, and, now, traditional New Orleans jazz. In 2011 Ben Jaffe unquestionably established the Hall’s new identity with a fiftieth-anniversary series of collaborations across the artistic and cultural spectrum, from avant-garde dance and DJ remixes to memorial concerts and museum exhibits. He achieved yet another milestone in 2012, when the Preservation Hall Jazz Band became the first act ever to play both the Newport Jazz and Folk Festivals in the same year. For Jaffe, the signal event of his successful transformation of the Hall was a guest-star-filled, fiftieth-anniversary Carnegie Hall concert. “It was magic. It almost felt like we were taking over the world that night—like a movement,” he later told DownBeat magazine. “There was an incredibly diverse group of musicians on stage that evening, and then to cap it with Tao Seeger singing to his grandfather [folksinger Pete Seeger] sitting in the audience. And for George Wein to be there and symbolically acknowledge that this was the next thing. This is where we are today.