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On The Corner Masthead

The Soul of New Orleans:
The Legacy of Preservation hall

July 29, 2019 | by Rusty Aceves

The exterior of Preservation Hall

The Preservation Hall Jazz Band returns next week (8/8-11) for a series of performances celebrating their new album, A Tuba For Cuba, with guest vocalist Eme Alfonso. We take a closer look at the iconic New Orleans cultural institution they call home.

“Preservation Hall. Now that's where you'll find all of the greats” — Louis Armstrong

It doesn’t happen often, but there are a few instances when a place devoted to creativity, a tangible man-made structure, becomes synonymous with the soul of the art form it houses. The uniquely American expression now known as jazz has its origins in the open air of Congo Square, and today, the living heart of New Orleans jazz resides on St. Peter Street in the French Quarter within the hallowed walls of Preservation Hall, where the legacy of African-American music has been perpetuated for over five decades.

Originating in the 1950s as a small gallery owned by art dealer and notorious French Quarter figure Larry Borenstein called Associated Artists, the modest two-story building that would become Preservation Hall was established as a home for local musicians at a time when the popularity of New Orleans traditional jazz had waned substantially since its glory days. Lamenting the fact that the music he loved was losing its place in the city of its creation, and in reaction to his inability to attend the few performances that remained due to the demands of his business, Borenstein began inviting musicians to rehearse in the main space of his gallery. Informal jam sessions with such living New Orleans legends as the Humphrey Brothers, trumpeter Punch Miller, and clarinetist George Lewis attracted increasing attention around the city and soon, around the country.

Among the legion of new fans that flocked to “Mr. Larry’s Gallery” was a Pennsylvania-born tuba player named Allan Jaffe, who first visited with his wife in 1960 and was so inspired by the city’s burgeoning musical renaissance that within a year, the couple had moved to the Crescent City permanently.

The success of the jam sessions at Associated Artists began to be too much of a good thing for Borenstein, who moved his gallery to the building next door, leaving the original space in the hands of Jaffe, who took over nightly operation of what was by then called Preservation Hall, performing there with a revolving coterie of musicians that coalesced into a tightly aligned ensemble.

Named for the New Orleans Society for The Preservation of Traditional Jazz, the non-profit organization originally founded to coordinate and fund the performances, Preservation Hall became the center of the traditional jazz world in short order, hosting performances every night and welcoming a litany of the music’s greatest names to perform alongside the local artists whose legacy included work with pioneering figures Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet, and Buddy Bolden.

Preservation Hall Jazz Band

By 1963, it became clear to Jaffe that the best way to insure the renewed visibility of the music was to take the act on the road and share the legacy of traditional New Orleans jazz beyond the walls of Preservation Hall, giving rise to the formation of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band – a constantly evolving group of master musicians who bring the jubilant, bone-deep spirit of the French Quarter to clubs and concert halls around the world. In many ways a precursor to our own SFJAZZ Collective, the PHJB is a movable feast, spreading the message of jazz’s history, as well as its future, to new audiences and old. They’ve recorded over two-dozen albums and collaborated with major names spanning the musical spectrum, from Tom Waits, Dr. John and Pete Seeger to Arcade Fire, The Black Keys, and the Foo Fighters. Now in its 56th year, the PHJB continues under the direction of Jaffe’s son Ben, who has invigorated the Preservation Hall tradition with a new generation of talent, ensuring the vitality of New Orleans music for decades to come.

In 2017, SFJAZZ honored the rich history of this New Orleans institution at the SFJAZZ Gala, presenting the organization with a Lifetime Achievement Award, accepted by Ben Jaffe and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band.