The name itself provides a pretty good clue as to what it’s all about: Preservation Hall dedicates itself to the preservation of New Orleans-style jazz through in-house performances, a self-titled house ensemble that also tours, and an active educational program. While 1961 marked its official beginning, the hall feels like the granddaddy of all clubs. Not only does this institution make its home in a historic Crescent City building, but it’s firmly planted in the birthplace of jazz and has sustained a living musical tradition from the turn of the century in its indigenous environs.
Like many other visitors, Jimmy Carter sat on the floor when he came in 1984. The well-worn structure with its loose floor boards, mismatched furniture, and peeling paint may suffer from benign neglect, but the visible wear and tear symbolizes its loving use. The original building dated from around 1750, when it was built as a residence on St. Peter Street in the heart of the French Quarter. Records show that it served as a tavern during the War of 1812 before burning down in an 1816 fire that claimed all the houses on St. Peter Street, more than 60 total in the French Quarter.
Rebuilt in typical Creole fashion, the main wing is a “porte-cochère” or carriage house. Heavy French doors open onto the street and a wrought-iron balcony graces the second story. The double parlor now serves as the modest music hall. Many artists – including painter Knute Heldner, photographers Woods “Pops” Whitesell and Dan Leyrer – occupied the space earlier in the 20th century. Larry Borenstein by all accounts a colorful figure, set up an art gallery in 1952. When he began inviting veteran musicians, many poor and out of work, to perform for his friends, the idea was born. The sessions were called “rehearsals” to avoid union trouble and the same wicker basket which served for donations still sits by the door today.
Eventually, the gallery moved next door and after some trials and tribulations, Allan and Sandra Jaffe took over the space in 1961. The young couple from Pennsylvania were both musicians: Sandra played piano and Allan played helicon, later with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. They began organizing tours for musicians and a series of brilliant recordings were made in the hall beginning in the early 1960s (which are currently available through Preservation Hall and Sony Masterworks).
Benjamin Jaffe, the son of Allan and Sandra, a recent graduate of the Oberlin Conservatory, and the hall’s current manager, expresses the spirit of community embodied there: “It became a natural extension of New Orleans – it became its own neighborhood. Here, musicians, artists, and patrons often brought their children, and grandchildren to receive the same love and respect they would amongst their own family members. As a child, it felt like I had dozens of grandparents watching over me, answering my questions, reprimanding me when I was bad and teaching me an appreciation for music and life.” Many lives centered around that hall and through it formed a special kinship. William Carter’s Preservation Hall: Music from the Heart, an enthusiastic, intimate portrait of the hall and its musicians, touchingly conveys the strength of their bonds and of their music.
Their relatively new educational program consists of a two-hour field trip for elementary school children who learn about traditional New Orleans jazz ensembles, second line dancing, folk-story telling, and parading. While it presents historic music, no one could accuse Preservation Hall of being a stale museum piece. Whether it’s made for 9 year-olds by 90 year-olds – the band is still driven by veterans – the music is rollicking and rolling. The granddaddy of them all is alive and kicking. It’s still got a lot to teach us.
From America’s Most Fascinating Jazz Clubs
by Lara Pellegrinelli
© 2000 NewMusicBox