It’s 2 a.m., and there’s a crowd on St. Peter’s Street in New Orleans’
French Quarter; people are waiting to see the Stanton Moore Trio play
Midnight and early morning shows during Jazzfest are part of a new
tradition initiated by Benjamin Jaffe, Preservation Hall’s creative
director, the man charged with safeguarding New Orleans’ musical
traditions, managing the Preservation Hall Jazz band and preserving
Preservation Hall itself. The weekend I was there, the hall featured
midnight performances by Tab Benoit, John Hammond Jr. and the Rebirth
Rebirth is the right word for New Orleans jazz.
Jaffe, who’s in his late 30s and sports a serious Jewfro, is New
Orleans born and raised. He comes to Preservation Hall both as a tuba
and bass player who has toured with the band, and by birthright, as his
parents, Allan and Sandra, launched what we’ve all come to know as
Preservation Hall in 1961.
Allan Jaffe was born in Pottsville, Penn. (home of Yuengling beer), and
graduated with a business degree from the Wharton School of the
University of Pennsylvania, where he met his wife. His military service
took him on his first trip to Louisiana and, after he finished serving,
he and Sandra found themselves back in New Orleans as part of an
extended honeymoon — and they decided to stay.
In New Orleans, the Jaffes became part of a group interested in
preserving and promoting traditional New Orleans music. At 726 St.
Peter St., also in the French Quarter, Larry Borenstein, an art dealer,
devoted part of his gallery, The Associated Art Studios, to
performances by these musicians. There was a not-for-profit Society for
the Preservation of Traditional Jazz that had operated without much
success. The Society dissolved and, as was noted in a memo in the Hogan
Jazz Archive at Tulane University, “beginning September 13, 1961, the
work will be continued on a for profit (or loss) basis, by Allan Jaffe
and his wife Sandy.” Thus, the current Preservation Hall was born.
As Ben Jaffe explained when we talked in the courtyard of Preservation
Hall a few weeks ago, his parents were interested in the music, in
preserving a tradition and a culture that they were shocked to learn
was in danger of disappearing, but they also got involved out of a
commitment to the Civil Rights movement.
“To put things in perspective,” Jaffe said, it was 1961, and “The civil rights laws were not passed until 1964.”
In 1961, some white New Orleans musicians, such as Pete Fountain and Al
Hirt, were finding popularity nationwide, thanks to television programs
such as the “Lawrence Welk Show.” However, the African American New
Orleans artists, many of whom were elderly, not only weren’t getting on
TV, their music wasn’t getting attention on radio, on records or in New
Orleans, for that matter.
Preservation Hall was a godsend for them. New Orleans musicians were
eager for the gig — to play at Preservation Hall, Jaffe called upon
such legendary figures as trumpeters Kid Thomas Valentine, Kid Punch
Miller, Kid Howard, De De Pierce, Percy Humphrey; clarinetist Willie
Humphrey; and pianists such as Billie Pierce and Sweet Emma Barrett.
Given the pervasive segregation of the South at that time, white
performers did not play with African American bands or tour with them
— but Allan Jaffe did. He played tuba with the band and, as I learned
from a publication of the Louisiana Historical society, he was said to
be “the son of a mandolinist and music teacher and the grandson of a
French horn player in a Russian Imperial band.”
Preservation Hall’s formula was simple and is followed to this day: No
reservations, no food, just music in a small room. Shows began at 8
p.m. Each set lasted around 35 minutes, and tickets were priced low
(they’re now $10 a show, Wednesday through Sunday).
Part of Jaffe’s plan to popularize New Orleans traditional music was to
take the Preservation Hall Jazz Band on the road. In 1963, he took the
band to Japan. Eventually it would play between 150 and 200 dates a
year. Over the years, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band has played at
such esteemed venues as New York’s Lincoln Center, Symphony Hall in
Boston and Royal Festival Hall in London, and has toured Israel and
The band in its touring incarnation became the public face of
traditional New Orleans jazz, but Preservation Hall itself became the
The Jaffes became the custodians of an African American culture that
they themselves became immersed in, as much as they became part of the
city — and as much as they became part of the rich history of New
Orleans’ Jewish community.
Ben Jaffe told me that New Orleans was “a great city to grow up and be
Jewish in.” This was in part, he explained, “because we have so much
respect for history and for culture and tradition, whether it’s our own
New Orleans traditions and cultures, whether it’s African American,
whether it’s French or Spanish or our own Jewish traditions.”
The Jewish community in New Orleans, Jaffe said, is “fairly
tight-knit.” He explained that he knew many of the families who formed
the core of New Orleans’ Jewish merchant class.
“The Rubenstein boys and I went to school together,” he said,
referencing the family whose department store, Rubenstein Brothers, is
a New Orleans institution. “Their parents knew my parents from shul.”
“When I think of New Orleans,” Jaffe said, “I think of a city that
embraces tradition and who we are, and celebrates it in a ways
completely unknown to the rest of the United States.”
What is important to note about New Orleans, Jaffe said, is that “The
Jewish community here has had a long and very healthy relationship with
the African American community. It was the Jewish community that was
the first to open its doors to the African American community, and open
its store doors — clothing stores, furniture stores, appliance stores.
There are a lot of African Americans that still only purchase from
those furniture stores that originally sold only to African Americans.
“Rosenberg’s on Tulane Avenue was the first furniture store that opened
in an African American neighborhood, and to this day African Americans
are loyal to that furniture store. Overwhelmingly,” Jaffee said.
Allan Jaffe died in 1987, at the age of 51, of cancer. Ben was 16 at
the time. Sandra continued to run the Hall with her sister Risa, who
took over the day-to-day operations.
Ben Jaffe’s own involvement in Preservation Hall was not planned; it
just evolved. He grew up in the Quarter, living a few blocks away from
the hall. As a boy, he watched jazz funeral parades and Mardi Gras
marches, and he hung out at Preservation Hall, where he heard many of
New Orleans’ greatest performers. Without any conscious effort, he
absorbed it all. But he was more interested at that the time in reggae
and rock ‘n’ roll. New Orleans jazz — that was his parents’ music.
Looking back with 20/20 hindsight, Jaffe now says of hanging out at Preservation Hall: “That was my school.”
He went to Oberlin College, known for its music program, and the day
after Jaffe graduated in 1993, he flew to Paris and joined the
Preservation Hall Jazz Band as its regular bass player. I asked Jaffe
if he had to audition. He laughed, saying that it was a coincidence
that the bass player had recently taken ill and stopped touring.
“The timing could not have been better,” he said.
However, for him, “stepping into the band was a natural progression.”
Jaffe played some 200 dates a year with the band and eventually took on managing the band and Preservation Hall, as well.
“At the time I simply felt motivated to keep Preservation Hall open and
running,” he said. “I never really had a mission statement or a
No plan could have prepared anyone for Hurricane Katrina in 2005, or
its aftermath. Knowing that Preservation Hall, being in the French
Quarter, was on high ground and that he could go there if needed, Jaffe
remained in New Orleans. “We weathered the storm,” he said, helping
musicians get out of town — among them banjo and string bass virtuoso
Narvin Kimball, then 95, whom Jaffe helped evacuate to Baton Rouge and
whose banjos and photographs he helped remove from his home — luckily,
because that’s all that survived the storm. (Kimball died in South
Carolina in 2006.)
“As everyone saw on television, it was a national embarrassment what took place here,” Jaffe said.
He said the financial hardship was great and continues: “Our lives were shaken around like a snow globe.”
Five out of seven members in the band lost their homes. They all suffered tremendous financial losses.
It’s hard to appreciate, Jaffe explained, but people who had school-age
children could not come back to New Orleans for at least a year —
there were no schools and hospitals — and those with special-needs
children could not get the services they needed. And once you’ve been
living in another place for two years, it’s hard to come back — who
wants to be uprooted again?
“There are a million stories,” Jaffe said, one for each of the
evacuees, and each is different and filled with its own pain and
difficult choices. “That’s the hard part to understand.”
That being said, Jaffe feels that the post-Katrina City of New Orleans
has made an even greater commitment to New Orleans Jazz. The Hurricane
Emergency Fund, which Jaffe co-founded, has evolved into “Renew Our
Music,” a grassroots community development organization. Jaffe released
the box set “Made in New Orleans: The Hurricane Sessions,” which is a
treasure trove and, in some ways, a collaboration between his late
father and himself, incorporating early recordings and sessions
interrupted by the Hurricane.
Preservation Hall has launched several education and outreach programs
for schools and children. Jaffe has also been able to work on several
projects with The Jazz and Heritage Foundation and the State of
Louisiana, including launching SYNC UP, cutting-edge online technology
that allows music supervisors to search for New Orleans musicians and
music to use or license for film and television.
More than 45 years after his parents established Preservation Hall,
Jaffe feels New Orleans’ music is rich in history and well stocked with
new generations of artists filled with a love of traditional New
Orleans Jazz (which is refreshed and reinvented each time it’s played).
Jaffe also has established a fairly exhaustive database of New Orleans
musicians: “I can’t tell you the last time I went to a show [in New
Orleans] and saw a musician and didn’t know who they were.”
He cites jazz trumpeter Mark Braud, grandson of trumpeter John
“Pickett” Brunious Sr., and nephew of Preservation Hall’s John Brunious
Jr., as being a fourth-generation jazz artist.
“Find me a fourth-generation anything, anywhere,” Jaffe said.
So, next time you head down to New Orleans, stop in at Preservation
Hall. Chances are you’ll find Ben Jaffe there, a fourth-generation
musician who’s the second generation to run the hall.
Tell him Tommywood sent you. That and $10 will get you a seat to hear
America’s indigenous art form, a living tradition that is the heart and
soul of a city, the music that made New Orleans.