Preservation Hall Jazz Band
For a cultural institution, Preservation Hall is pretty small. Located in New Orleans’ French Quarter, its nearly 300-year-old building has had few renovations over its lifespan. There’s still no running water, no air conditioning. Most visitors hear the Preservation Hall Jazz Band while standing shoulder-to-shoulder in the “concert hall,” which is no bigger than a good-sized living room. Its wooden floors and rustic walls carry a living sense of history. It’s withstood fire, flood and hurricane. No food or booze is served here. When people come to Preservation Hall, they come for the music. And do they ever come. It’s common to see a line of people wrapped around the block to see the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. The touring members of the band have gone everywhere from Africa to Britain and Radio City Music Hall. When they step out of Preservation Hall and out of New Orleans, they take a sense of it with them. Reno residents will experience that when the band plays for Artown’s Food for the Soul Series on July 2 in Wingfield Park.
Preservation Hall director Ben Jaffe, 37, grew up, literally, in Preservation Hall. His parents founded it in 1961 as a way to preserve what they saw as a dying music—old New Orleans jazz. Preservation Hall Jazz Band is now, as then, made up of mostly old, mostly male musicians playing the music that helped define the city and passing it along to future generations.
Jaffe’s father died in 1987, and after college, a 22-year-old Jaffe returned to New Orleans to run the hall in 1993. Jaffe toured with PHJB playing bass and tuba but stopped touring after Hurricane Katrina hit to focus on revitalizing both Preservation Hall and the city. Many of PHJB’s members lost their homes, instruments and other possessions when the levee broke.
“It was an extremely stressful and unknown environment for all of us,” says Jaffe. Music is an integral part of the grieving process in New Orleans. At a New Orleans funeral, family and friends of the deceased parade the casket down the street accompanied by a band that plays in both celebration and grief for a life passed.
“You can’t avoid the mourning process,” says Jaffe. “That’s why I think New Orleans was so successful in rebuilding from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina.”
At a time when much of New Orleans was destroyed, the music preserved by the PHJB is a historical record. “[Katrina] has given us a deeper sense of importance,” says Jaffe. “It has given us a sense that what we are doing has meaning.”
For a music so specifically New Orleans, it appeals to an international audience.
“I think the message of Preservation Hall is a universal message,” says Jaffe. “It’s like our clarinet player, Ralph Johnson, says—he’s a man of very few words. When he speaks, you pay attention—all he said was, ‘I’m for peace.’ And that kind of summed it up right there. It wasn’t even provoked. We weren’t discussing war or crime or anything. It was just, “I’m for peace.’ Indeed you are! And so am I. When things are simplified like that, it breaks through everything. It breaks through all of the red tape. It gets to the marrow. That’s what I think New Orleans does—it cuts through all the pretension and arguing and gets to the core of what it means to be a human being, and to me, that’s the enjoyment of life, the rejoicing, the celebration.”