Experiencing the Preservation Hall Jazz Band is intoxicating in any venue. To inhale the band in its home in New Orleans is an extra joyous occasion. But you could easily miss Preservation Hall as you walk by the storied venue on St. Peters Street in the French Quarter. The Hall’s creative director Ben Jaffe said the compact size is an appealing attribute.
“Isn’t that beautiful? It’s as if we invited a group of our friends into our living room to experience us playing for ourselves. That’s a super rare experience for anyone. For us to be able to do that every night is special.”
Jaffe knows the 200 seat venue intimately. In addition to being the creative director of Preservation Hall, he plays tuba and bass in the band that plays the Hall when they're not on tour. But he also knows the nooks and crannies of the building because his father Allan Jaffe was one of its founders. The son loves to tell the story of the early 1960’s when his mother and father visited New Orleans. He said his parents lived in Philadelphia at the time and were on a post college graduation trip.
“Through an interesting set of circumstances, they heard a band was going to be parading in the French Quarter. They followed this band which met and congregated initially in front of St. Louis Cathedral in Jackson Square, which is the central plaza in New Orleans. The parade made its way through the French Quarter and ended up back at an art gallery on St. Peters Street. ”
That art gallery was operated by Larry Borenstein, who ended up becoming Allan Jaffe’s mentor and business partner. It was at the art gallery where his father learned of the informal jam sessions organized by the artists in the gallery.
“When my parents got involved, they took this idea and began formalizing these shows, and it was the first time anything like this had ever happened.”
Jaffe said Preservation Hall and the entire New Orleans music community has given him much joy over the years. He said waking up and having music to look forward to each day is something folks in New Orleans value.
“And there’s a real lesson to be learned there. Many visitors have this incredible experience with the music in the city. That’s something we’ve been charged with and have the responsibility of sharing with people.”
Preservation Hall has three main components: The performance hall, the band, and the foundation, which is primarily dedicated to educational initiatives. But the band doesn’t leave education in New Orleans when they hit the road.
“When we’re traveling, we’re always arranging for students to attend our sound checks, and to see the professional side to being a musician. There’s so much more that goes into being a musician than being a master of your instrument. To do what we do, to show up in a different venue in a different city every night with unfamiliar acoustics … the process of being on-stage and sound checking and rehearsing and allowing your sound person to adjust to the room is important. Watching that take place, that’s really getting to see behind the curtain, what it means to show up.”
Jaffe said for many students, the opportunity to watch that process and to meet and ask questions of professional musicians can change lives.
Years ago, Jaffe said he was one of those students. Being the youngest member of the band that plays the Castle Theater in Bloomington May 22 is nothing new to him. He said he doesn’t remember a time when he wasn’t surrounded by, learning from, and playing with older musicians. Now as the creative director of Preservation Hall, he said he finds honor in being able to carry on the tradition of a venue his father helped found and a band his father once played in.
“I think it’s a beautiful thing to be able to do in this day and age. It’s very rare, but it’s something I really value. Just like my parents. They believed in something and they put themselves out there into the world and made a choice to create this experience for people over 50 years ago. To be a part of today is an incredible feeling. It’s what gets me up and out of bed every night. That and my beautiful family.”