Larry Blumenfeld: Preservation Hall in All Its Forms

January 6th 2008 10:52 pm

Copyright © 2008 Larry Blumenfeld

New Orleans — Three distinct groups lined up on St. Peter Street, just off Bourbon Street, one recent Sunday evening. The first awaited tall cocktails called “Hurricanes” at Pat O’Brien’s bar. The second had signed up for a “ghost tour” through the French Quarter. The third sought passage through the iron gates at 726, better known as Preservation Hall. Once inside, that last group sat in a dusty room on benches and narrow floor cushions, sans food or beverages, seeking to drink in only traditional jazz and to commune with a singularly haunted spot.

Around 1960, Larry Borenstein first began inviting musicians to perform in the art gallery he’d created within a c. 1750 building, once a private home, in the French Quarter. But when Allan Jaffe, fresh out of Wharton Business School, and his wife, Sandra, took over the operation in 1961, the place became a full-time music hall dedicated to a style that was, then as now, threatened with extinction. Mr. Jaffe hired standard-bearing players and paid full union scale (a rarity in those days). He began making recordings and assembled bands that toured under the Preservation Hall name.

Always a strong tourist attraction, the hall has also held special appeal for some locals, occasionally with life-altering effect. In his book, Song for My Fathers: A New Orleans Story in Black and White, Tom Sancton, a New Orleans native and former Time magazine Paris bureau chief, offered this 2005 reflection upon returning to Preservation Hall:

“I placed my hands on the wrought-iron gates and peered into the carriageway. It looked just like it had on that hot summer night when my father first took me there, more than forty years earlier, and opened the door to the most profound experience of my life. . . . I immediately fell in love with the music, the people, and the funky atmosphere — and decided to become a jazz musician myself.” Mr. Sancton, who once studied clarinet at the feet of one of Preservation Hall’s masters, George Lewis, still plays his instrument. Now a visiting professor at Tulane University, he occasionally performs at Preservation Hall (billed as “Tommy”), often sitting in the same chair Mr. Lewis once occupied.

For those who’ve never visited the place, the touring band is the face of Preservation Hall. Yet, good as the group is — little can rival, for instance, the two-beat-to-the-bar swing conjured by drummer Joe Lastie on his stripped-down kit — there’s more to Preservation Hall than just music: There’s a sense of place and purpose, history and context.

All this comes alive through Made in New Orleans, a fascinating new boxed set created by Ben Jaffe, the 36-year-old son of Allan and Sandra, who has run the hall and all its associated activities ever since he graduated in 1993 from the Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Ohio. Most will purchase Made in New Orleans: The Hurricane Sessions for its 17-track CD of old and new recordings and its companion DVD. But many will end up treasuring the package as much for the accompanying memorabilia: publicity photos and casual snapshots; business cards and invitations; even the first artist contract issued by the hall in 1961 — $13.50 per musician and double for the leader, Punch Miller. Mr. Jaffe created 504 collector’s editions — the number signifying the local area code — each of which contains some original photos and an unreleased seven-inch vinyl recording; he sold them for $150, initially only in New Orleans, through the annual Jazz & Heritage Festival and at the hall. The collector’s edition and a deluxe edition ($70, sans only the original photos and bonus seven-inch disc) are now available nationwide.

Mr. Jaffe plays tuba in the Preservation Hall Band, as did his father. But arriving for an interview at a favorite coffee shop on his bicycle, his unruly tangle of dirty-blond curls swaying in the breeze, he didn’t look much like a traditionalist. “My father was always conscious of the tender tension between the past and present in New Orleans and in this music,” he said. “The name ‘Preservation Hall’ never meant that things should not evolve.”

Indeed, the new CD masterfully blends old and new: Some tracks predate even the hall’s name (via 1959 recordings by street poet, painter and singer Sister Gertrude Morgan), while others introduce both new voices and new repertoire (Clint Maedgen sings a version of Ray Davies’s “Complicated Life,” a song made famous by the British rock band the Kinks). Yet there’s fascinating continuity from, say, the DVD’s gorgeous c. 1960s clip of George Lewis playing “Red Wing” to the current band’s 2006 version of “Last Chance to Dance.” The studio trickery that mixes banjoist Carl Leblanc’s vocal on “Over in the Gloryland,” recorded last year, with a 1976 instrumental version emphasizes this point.

Like Mr. Jaffe, trumpeter John Brunious, who has led the Preservation Hall band since 1996, was born into this tradition. As a boy he watched Paul Barbarin, who didn’t read or write musical notation, hum “Bourbon Street Parade” as his father, also a trumpeter, transcribed; even today, Mr. Barbarin’s song is a staple of the Preservation Hall repertoire. “We all have our own styles,” Mr. Brunious said recently after a performance, “but we strive most of all to play the music as correctly as we can, to keep the music honest and going strong.”

Preservation Hall’s traditions — its very existence — are important keys to recovery in New Orleans. “There aren’t too many places left near Bourbon Street where you can play traditional jazz,” said trombonist Glen David Andrews, whose Lazy Six Band often plays there on Sundays. “And playing this one means that you’re authentic.” The hall has aided rebuilding in more direct ways, too. Shortly after the floods, Mr. Jaffe co-founded a musicians’ relief effort now known as the Renew Our Music Fund, supporting the New Orleans music community with everything from gig subsidies to “community leader” grants. That fund was, in turn, instrumental in creating Sweet Home New Orleans, an umbrella organization helping musicians and other tradition-bearers with a range of services, including relocation and housing assistance.

“It always comes back to what the musicians want and what the music needs,” says Mr. Jaffe, sounding quite a bit like his father, as glimpsed on the new DVD, during a 1961 episode of the “Brinkley News Hour.”

“Jazz here on Bourbon Street is what people seem to think is going to sell drinks,” Allan Jaffe says on camera. “What we’re trying to do here is just present the music the way they want to play it. . . . The people come here to hear just the music, and I think the men realize this. The men play it the way the want to play it, and the people hear it.”

Larry Blumenfeld is editor-at-large for Jazziz and a contributor to the Wall Street Journal, which originally published this article. He is currently working on a book on New Orleans.

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