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Praying at the Temple of Traditional Jazz

For Ben Jaffe, the future is all about updating the past…………………………………………. Jaffe was born into musical royalty. His parents, Allan and Sandra, founded New Orleans’s world-famous Preservation Hall in 1961, after they fell in love with the Crescent City while returning from their honeymoon in Mexico. They uprooted from Pennsylvania and, to their surprise, discovered a small, but tight-knit, Jewish community.

“Unlike many places in the South, New Orleans has always welcomed the outsiders of the world,” Ben Jaffe said. “When my parents first moved here, many of the downtown merchants were Jewish.”

Even as they participated in the Civil Rights Movement, the Jaffes made it their mission to preserve the fast-disappearing sounds of traditional jazz. They headquartered Preservation Hall in the city’s historic French Quarter and went about assembling a top-notch house band. Allan himself did double-duty on the tuba. (New Yorker writer Calvin Trillin once quipped that Allan, a fellow gourmand, “played tuba in between meals.”)

For 25 years, the formula worked to perfection. With premier local musicians — including George Lewis (clarinet) and “Sweet” Emma Barrett (piano) — performing such standards as “Just a Closer Walk With Thee” and “When the Saints Go Marching In,” tourists flocked to the funky-looking, two-story building that once served as slave quarters. Allan also started a touring band and recorded several albums for the Sony label.

Growing up in a city that pulses to a continuous backbeat of jazz, blues and gospel, young Ben was exposed to myriad musical influences. He recalls that one of his most memorable lessons came while he attended synagogue. “The cantor and the older members would belt out the songs,” he said, “and it was like listening to a John Cage piece. There was this cacophony of sound, with everyone singing their own version in their own key. It was indigenous and loose — just like New Orleans.”

When Allan died from melanoma in 1987, at age 51, the future of Preservation Hall suddenly became uncertain. Sandra, who had stepped away from the hall to raise the couple’s two children, was forced to take charge of day-to-day operations.

Meanwhile, Ben left New Orleans to study at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music. After graduation in 1993, he returned home to assist his mother. (Ben’s brother, Russell, is an attorney.) He found a dispirited crew of elderly musicians and a building in disrepair.

“After my dad passed, it was a very tough time for my mother,” Jaffe said. “The original musicians that my dad had worked with for 20 years were getting on in years and unable to travel. Preservation Hall was in flux.”

He spent the next decade rebuilding the musician roster and redefining the hall’s identity. His mother is now retired. Sustaining traditional jazz remains a priority, but the band has begun to incorporate modern-day influences. That means occasionally playing jazz-infused covers of a Jimi Hendrix or Kinks song. The result, Jaffe said, “is a mixed stew of sounds. It’s very organic, bluesy and honest — you can hear the raggedness that you hear in synagogues.”

The response has been positive. Seven nights a week, tourists line up next door to Pat O’Brien’s bar to enter the re-energized cultural shrine. The cover price is $8; the bare-bones joint has no air conditioning and serves no alcohol. “Preservation Hall is like a temple for traditional jazz,” said Jan Ramsey, publisher-editor of New Orleans-based OffBeat Magazine. “The hall not only keeps the music alive, but gives local musicians a place to perform and practice their art.”

Meanwhile, with Jaffe on bass, the touring band hits the road for about 120 gigs per year; the latest tour, which includes dates in Boston and Albany, will take them to Thailand and China. They even own their own bus.

“They are without question unique ambassadors for the city,” said Scott Aiges, New Orleans’s director of music business development. “With their touring operation taking them to festivals and performing arts centers around the globe, they are the essence of what the world thinks about New Orleans and jazz.”

Jaffe also worked to upgrade the hall’s recordings. Two years ago, former music executives Steve DeBro and Albert Lee helped him create the Preservation Hall Recordings label. This year the company released its first three CDs. They include “Best of the Early Years,” a blast-from-the-past album with Allan Jaffe on tuba, as well as “Shake That Thing,” featuring Ben and the current band.

The decision to “go indie” gives Jaffe more control over the hall’s image and sound. “The music industry is changing so much,” he said. “We saw an opportunity for us to step in and do the kind of recordings that record labels don’t want anymore.”

Aiges said that the new label gives a boost to aspiring local musicians. “New Orleans has produced amazing musicians through the years, but we’ve always lacked the music-business infrastructure,” he said. “Preservation Hall Recordings is a step in the right direction to get musicians plugged into money-making ventures.”

Now 32 and “married with two dogs,” Jaffe is satisfied that the changes only enhance his parents’ original vision. “Preservation Hall is not about being perfect,” he said. “It’s like a great piece of folk art. For some people, it touches them more honestly than a painting by someone who attended art school.”

David Davis is the author of the recently published “Play By Play: Los Angeles Sports Photography, 1889-1989” (Angel City Press).


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