By Andrea Vega-Hazas Martí
Nowhere in America is jazz music more authentically celebrated than in New Orleans. Nowhere in the world is the power of the trumpets, the rumbling tune of the tubas, and the melodies of the clarinet more magically reinvented than at Preservation Hall.
Tom Sancton, who learned the clarinet from old members of the Preservation Hall jazz band, describes the hall in his book “Song for our fathers” as “the passionate center of his existence.” “The beauty, the power, the love, I just don’t have words for it,” he goes on. “Preservation Hall is like the Arab Nights, everything else in my life suddenly seem ordinary compared to what goes on in there.”
Started in the 1950’s as an art gallery known as Consolidated Artists or 726 St. Peter Street, its owner, Larry Bernstein, invited musicians over who played for tips thrown into a wicker basket. Today, that art gallery has been transformed into a world-renowned mecca of traditional jazz.
Since Pennsylvanians Allan and Sandra Jaffe opened the place in 1961, more than two million people have entered the Hall’s wrought-iron gate. People from all backgrounds, including foreign travelers to legendary rock bands, like the Foo Fighters have gathered at this landmark in search of a vital inner naturalness that only New Orleans jazzmen can spontaneously transmit through music.
“Preservation Hall is not a bar and it’s not a nightclub,” Ben Jaffe, its creative director, says. “Preservation Hall is a protected place, a church in New Orleans where the community gathers.”
Son of Allan and Sandra Jaffe, the founders of the Hall, Ben Jaffe was raised with Preservation Hall. His parents, and now himself, have been protecting “the tiny space,” as he describes it, for more than fifty years. “It is my responsibility as an artist,” he says. “Preservation Hall means protecting the culture that gave birth to New Orleans music.”
Ben’s success in keeping the hall a protected place starts with the very maintenance of the Hall’s traditional structure.
Modest-sized, dusty and probably like the size of a living room. Its old wooden floor and waged faded pegboards give the hall a glimpse of historic heritage. Two main amber lights lightly illuminate the randomly hanged old portraits of New Orleanian jazz masters, which happen to disguise to some extent the old peeling walls of the hall. Old chairs, a few wooden backless benches, and a wide exposure of old wooden floor. These unprepossessing decorations of the Hall, allow the authenticity of the Hall to thrive, not only in historic value, but also in common humanity as well.
Sancton, a New Orleans native son who has spent most of his early life at the Hall, venerates how the room’s traditional décor frames the music in a way that brings it alive. “When I am in that room alone, I feel the ghosts. I see their portraits on the wall and I kind of still hear the notes echoing in my memory,” he recalls.
The lack of benches in the room, invite the audience to sit down on the floor or stand up at the back, creating as musicians perform, a bridge, a human connection bound in sentiments of emotion and sane distress. An affinity between the audience and musician is created through the horns and trumpets which explode melodic tunes and brutally move along with spontaneity and emotion. The almost empty room, allows the audience to engage fully with the New Orleans jazz tradition as the lack of restrooms and drinks bar, suppress all possible common distractions.
Erin James, a student at Tulane University, recalls her experience in the modest room. “The place is old and tiny. Most of the people sit down on the floor in front of the band. We were standing at the back,” she says. As she smiles, she continues, “It’s funny, I was expecting a bar or something, but there aren’t even restrooms.” She opens her mouth, but nothing comes out. She laughs. “Sorry,” she says as she lightly touches her front head. “I just remember dancing like crazy, swaying my shoulders, legs, everything I could.” It was “dope,” she remembers.
However, as time goes by, it is hard not to be tempted to adapt to society’s short-term interests. People’s interest evolve, the world changes and neglecting the evolutional societal cycle requires a strong awareness of traditional embedment. Ben, as the managing director, acknowledges the struggle to maintain alive the Hall. “It is a place that defies the laws of economics,” adding, “It is amazing how it can afford to exist anymore.”
Implicit to the maintenance of the hall is, however, the original purpose that drove the Pennsylvanian couple to open the venue on the first place: “Gathering a community of lost musicians together and creating a support system for the preservation of New Orleans Jazz.”
Sancton recalls his personal experience and shares how the Hall embarked him on his musical apprenticeship. “Preservation Hall was not just a place where you went to hear music, it was much more than that,” he writes. “It was the infectious joy and warmth and humanity of the musicians that communicated at a time when black and whites could not socialize legally. We would talk and laugh together.”
Even more complex and challenging than the preservation of the modest austerity design of the Hall’s structure is the maintenance of traditional New Orleans Jazz music in today’s evolving society. As more musical genres such as rock, punk and pop have slowly been emerging, keeping the hall merely as a music venue has not been sufficient to keep the living spirit of New Orleans Jazz music alive. “If we weren’t playing music… through new eyes and with a different perspective, our tradition would have died,” Ben says.
Creating new music is sure to be inevitable. Jazz will always be susceptible to change, as its universal essentiality requires a use of spontaneity and improvisation throughout the melody. The key success of the band lies as such in the mastery it has acquired in juxtaposing traditional habits with innovative musical techniques.
Part of the traditional habits lie on the band’s functional routine. At eight o’ clock the gates of the hall open, inviting the audience to purchase a repertoire of traditional jazz records. No photos, videos or any other technological device is allowed, which is partly how the authenticity of both, the hall and the music, is preserved. “I remember being warned not to record the performance,” Erin says. “Either way, the darkness of the hall, the intensity of the music and the overflow of people in the room, made the attempt already worthless.”
The ones truly to thank for are the members of the band nonetheless. They give life to the music, creating as they play a bridge of feelings and emotions. In front of the sitting audience, six musicians wearing black suits and white shirts with rolled up sleeves, sit joyfully with their instruments. Their smiles are so big, it seems they have been pulled as if they were elastic bands. Slowly, loose relaxed beats give way to the commencement of the show. Melodies magically explode and as the tunes mix and evolve, the bodies of the audience rebel as shoulders sway, feet move and hands clap uncontrollably. The Preservation Hall Jazz band unites the audience with its music. Musicians, visitors and music, all gather together to celebrate the liberation of the soul, through the common musical tradition of New Orleans music.
“We want to give the audience a true experience,” Ben says, as he stresses the aim of the band’s goal. “We want everybody to have their own flavor and their own thing.” And f
“We want to give the audience a true experience,” Ben says, as he stresses the aim of the band’s goal. “We want everybody to have their own flavor and their own thing.” And for the past fifty years, Preservation Hall has become unique and worth visiting for many reasons. Tom Sancton, describes it is like a site of a “religious phoenix-like revival of traditional New Orleans jazz.”
Andrea Vega-Hazas Martí is an exchange student at Tulane University studying Law and American Studies.