By John wirt
Advocate music writer
September 24, 2012
Preservation Hall, New Orleans’ venerable home of traditional jazz, is nearing the end of a year of 50th anniversary celebrations.
“It’s been a series of unbelievable events,” said Ben Jaffe, the hall’s 41-year-old creative director. “Honestly, it’s been like one long dream sequence for me.”
Anniversary observances included a Jan. 7 concert at Carnegie Hall featuring an eclectic gang of guest stars. Rock band My Morning Jacket, gospel perennials the Blind Boys of Alabama, rapper Mos Def and more joined the world-famous Preservation Hall Jazz Band in New York.
Preservation Hall also staged a marathon all-star performance May 6 at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. Bonnie Raitt, Ani DiFranco and piano-playing Jazz Fest founder George Wein were among the musicians delighted to be sharing the stage with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band.
Jaffe, the tuba- and bass-playing son of Preservation Hall’s longtime stewards, Sandra and the late Allan Jaffe, knows how much the jazz institution means to him. This year helped him realize more than ever how much it means to others.
“I know the blood, sweat and tears that went into keeping Preservation Hall afloat for all of these years,” Jaffe said. “But to then be honored by such an incredibly diverse group of artists — Allen Toussaint and Steve Earle and My Morning Jacket and Trombone Shorty and Mos Def — is really beautiful. And to stand on stage with four generations of New Orleans musicians, that was incredible.”
A native of a city that lives its traditions, Jaffe just naturally values his hometown’s indigenous music and culture. He grew up in Preservation Hall, an unassuming music venue housed in an unchanging, non-air-conditioned 300-year-old building. It’s tiny and intimate. In another break from the norm, Preservation Hall is an alcohol-free zone in the otherwise alcohol-saturated French Quarter.
Preservation Hall was an art gallery when Jaffe’s parents, a young Jewish couple who had moved to New Orleans from Philadelphia in 1961, first encountered it. The gallery’s owner, Larry Borenstein, staged informal jam sessions there featuring traditional jazz musicians. He suggested the Jaffes assume the gallery’s lease and present nightly jazz performances.
Allan Jaffe became Preservation Hall’s director and a resident tuba player. The venue gave the city’s relatively neglected traditional jazz musicians a place to play. The musicians, many of them in their 60s, 70s and 80s, also made recordings that preserved their art.
More recognition of Preservation Hall’s 50th anniversary arrives Tuesday. Rounder Records is releasing “St. Peter and 57th St.,” recorded in January at Carnegie Hall, and Columbia/Legacy Records is releasing a four-CD box set, “Preservation Hall 50th Anniversary Collection.”
The box set features music from five decades of Preservation Hall recordings, including previously unreleased recordings that Jaffe retrieved from the flooded Sea-Saint Studios after Hurricane Katrina.
Jaffe stayed in New Orleans during the hurricane but then, like so many of the city’s residents following the post-Katrina flood, entered temporary exile.
“I came back to New Orleans and started rebuilding my life, putting the pieces of Preservation Hall back together, rebuilding the community,” he said.
Checking on the Preservation Hall master tapes stored at Sea-Saint was on Jaffe’s long list of things to do. By January, he felt psychologically ready to enter the studio, located in the severely flooded Gentilly neighborhood.
Equipped with post-hurricane gear that had become a new New Orleans tradition — gloves, boots and flashlight — Jaffe found that the studio still held some water. He estimated that peak flooding in the space reached nearly six feet.
“You know that shelf that says ‘Do Not Place Anything On This Shelf’?” he asked. “Someone had placed the Preservation Hall tapes on that shelf. That’s the only reason the tapes survived.”
In fact, every Preservation Hall tape in the studio’s storage room had avoided watery ruin. Jaffe took it as a sign.
“Seeing the devastation in that studio that had served as a musical church to our community, it was a life-changing experience for me,” he said. “That set me on a path that has led to this box set project.
“I was blessed to have grown up in Sea-Saint. My dad took me there as a child. Having been there when most of these recordings were made, I felt like the tapes were somehow me. On this 50th anniversary collection, we included a bunch of unreleased tracks. It’s a beautiful collection, a love poem to Preservation Hall.”
Jaffe co-produced the box set with Michael Cuscuna. Veteran jazz producer Cuscuna wanted a chronological, decade-by-decade approach to the set. Jaffe had something else in mind. He sees seamless connections between 1960s recordings featuring singer-pianist Sweet Emma Barrett, clarinetist George Lewis and banjo player Narvin Kimball, ’80s sessions with trumpeter Percy Humphrey and his clarinet-playing brother, Willie, and ’90s recordings with clarinetist Dr. Michael White, pianist Ellis Marsalis and drummer Joe Lastie.
“I wanted a song from 1961 to be between a song from 2001 and 1971,” Jaffe explained. “Michael said that was something he had to sleep on. Ultimately, he said, ‘You know, it seems such a natural fit for this project.’ And it’s an affirmation that New Orleans music is timeless.”