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The Preservation Hall Jazz Band

Living legacy


There is a great deal to preserve in New Orleans, the city that gave birth to jazz. But by the early 1960's, not much was being done to honor that heritage. That is until two young honeymooners showed up on their way back to Philadelphia from Mexico City.

Allan Jaffe had attended Valley Forge Military Academy on a music scholarship and played sousaphone in the marching band. After attending the University of Pennsylvania, he was working in management at Gimbels department store in Philly.

But he and his bride Sandra fell in love with The Big Easy and decided to settle there. It wasn't long before they found themselves in the French Quarter at a parade.

"People don't sit and watch parades in New Orleans, they participate," says their son Ben Jaffe. "There's a certain kind of parade, called a second line, where people follow and dance along with the band. My parents followed them back to an art gallery on St. Peter Street and met this incredible group of people who had converted this building from the 1700's into a salon for artists, poets, and activists. It eventually became Preservation Hall."

Ben's father took a job at a department store in New Orleans, and his mom became a typesetter. At night they operated the hall and, in 1963, the veteran musicians who had been playing at jam sessions there became the Preservation Hall Jazz Band.

The band plays two shows this pre-Mardi Gras weekend at Kodak Hall. They'll be joined by the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra for the second half.

"The original band members were first-generation jazz pioneers," says Jaffe, who took over the leadership and the tuba and bass chairs a few years after his father died in the late 1980's. "The bass player, Papa John Joseph, worked alongside [legendary trumpeter] Benny Bolton in a barbershop. George Lewis was a mentor to Louis Armstrong. We're talking about people who were members of Jelly Roll Morton's band."

With jazz festivals now held all over the world, it may be hard to imagine a time when this great American music was out of favor.

"In 1961 the music that was being performed in New Orleans, the music that started here, that grew out of a social need for entertainment, was still being played, but it was not being celebrated," says Jaffe.

Through the 20th century, Jaffe notes, as jazz spread to major cities, greats like Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, and John Coltrane took the music in new artistic directions.

"The musicians who remained in New Orleans were like the musicians of the Buena Vista Social Club in Cuba," says Jaffe. "These gentlemen had been responsible for a style of music, and that style had fallen out of fashion, so they simply fell on hard times. Then there was this resurgence of this community. The musicians of Preservation Hall were the preeminent practitioners of early New Orleans jazz. There was no Jelly Roll Morton touring."

Jaffe recognizes other forces that helped keep the legacy alive: the Newport Folk Festival, Alan Lomax's field recordings, Pete Seeger and the Weavers. The Civil Rights Movement also had a role.

"New Orleans jazz became a symbol of freedom, and a lot of songs we perform are spiritual songs that come directly out of the church," says Jaffe.

Jaffe himself was immersed in the music from childhood on.

"One of the things New Orleans does well is embrace its traditions and honor its elder states-people," says Jaffe. "There was never a moment where I said 'I don't want to play that old-time music; that's what those old people do.' It was more like honor and respect. At the same time I loved listening to Michael Jackson, Prince, hip-hop, world music, and classical."

In recent years, Jaffe has expanded the range of settings the band plays in through collaborations with Tom Waits, Mos Def, The Blind Boys Of Alabama, and My Morning Jacket. My Morning Jacket's leader, Jim James, co-produced the Preservation Hall band's latest album.

"Jim is in many ways a beautiful amalgamation of styles of music and walks of life," says Jaffe. "He's someone I met after Hurricane Katrina who I connected with in a very deep musical way."

"That's It!" is the band's first album featuring all original songs. Jaffe and others wrote with the intention of creating new repertoire for the band. Still, the horn arrangements have a spontaneity reminiscent of the original New Orleans spirit.

"My style of writing is more in the tradition of the way I understand Charles Mingus wrote music, where he would write a chart that had the melody and the chord changes and then he would allow the musicians to use that as a road map and an opportunity to improvise," says Jaffe. "With the musicians in the Preservation Hall Band, you just have to show them which direction the song is going in and they'll take it from there."

If purists have trouble with a new repertoire, Jaffe has an answer.

"What my parents did was capture a moment in time. You can't go back and recreate that. Preservation Hall is a living and breathing cultural experience the way that New Orleans is, and for our traditions to be relevant and remain important and significant, it has to reflect the energy of today."

Over the past 52 years, scores of New Orleans musicians have cycled through the band. The last decade was particularly difficult for them.

When Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, 80 percent of New Orleans was under water. Seven of eight band members lost their houses and all of their possessions.

"Everything that you own and you've worked for your entire life is gone," says Jaffe. "It's amazing, as a city, that we were able collectively to overcome something as devastating as that storm."

Ten years later the band is stronger than ever, traveling the world, performing and doing educational outreach, including master classes and young-audience concerts.

If anyone doubts the universality of the music, Jaffe recalls a concert in a remote industrial city north of Bangkok, Thailand, where thousands of uniformed students were seated in a large auditorium.

"We started playing," says Jaffe, "and they went crazy. It was like, this must be what it feels like to be The Beatles. They immediately got up and started dancing, and when we were done they rushed the stage. It was really a powerful experience for us."