Preservation Hall: keeping the New Orleans sound alive
New Orleans — Allan Jaffe settled into a wrought-iron chair in the narrow courtyard behind Preservation Hall, which is perhaps the most understated tourist attraction in the famed New Orleans French Quarter. Out front, under a tiny black sign in the shape of a trombone case, queued patrons pay their $2 and move slowly into the hall -- a starkly plain, darkened-wood room of about 20 by 40 feet. A fortunate few, who arrived at the St. Peter's Street location up to an hour before opening, will sit on benches; the rest will vie for standing room. This place, or rather the distinctly ``New Orleans sound'' that emanates from it, has been at the center of Mr. Jaffe's life since 1961, when the burly Pennsylvanian and one-time prep-school tuba player assumed the task of keeping the then foundering jazz hall open. Nearly a quarter-century later, Preservation Hall is not only open seven nights a week, but its tours -- 150 engagements a year in places as diverse as Des Moines and Moscow -- have left an indelible mark on the world's musical map.
By contrast, the first years after Jaffe and his wife, Sandra, took charge of the hall were a struggle to survive. By the late '60s, however, the bands that play at the hall -- currently four of them -- were on firm economic ground. The problem facing the booking agent now, says Jaffe, is ``not finding work but scheduling the people who want us.''
But commercial success is clearly lowest on the list for Preservation Hall's big, soft-spoken owner. Jaffe's personal manner carries not a hint of the promoter. He is, as the name of his establishment declares, a preservationist. The success of the hall simply confirms what he's always known about the appeal of this kind of music -- the jumping, slurring, throbbing rhythms which now reach the courtyard as the Kid Sheik Band hits its stride. Most important to him, says Jaffe, is the deeply personal satisfaction of knowing the players -- most of whom are in their 70s or older -- and helping to keep their art alive. ``It's everything I always wanted to do and then some,'' he says reverentially.
What makes traditional New Orleans jazz something worth devoting one's life to?
Mr. Jaffe rests a foot on a nearby patio table, thinks for a moment, then recalls an observation from a tourist after listening to a Preservation Hall group during the city's recent French Quarter Festival: ``It's remarkable how the band and your audience all fit together.''
That's the essence, says Jaffe. ``New Orleans bands don't just play for themselves, they play for a function -- it's functional music.'' That's the heritage of this music, he says, that's what makes it living and vibrant, and inseparable from the city that spawned it. Variations on it served at funerals, at weddings, for dances, for church. ``People can relate to it just about in any way they want.''
There's nothing ethereal or intellectual about this brand of jazz, he adds. Band members -- including Jaffe himself, whose tuba playing has long helped lay down the beat for the Percy Humphrey ensemble -- just want to ``see if they can make 'em shake.'' That's the measure of success: the listeners' response. And success is tasted every night at the hall, he says with a smile, as the clapping, cheering, and occasional sing-along from that packed little room attest.
Academics might want to analyze and categorize the music, but Jaffe falls back on a quote from the preeminent New Orleans jazzman, Louis Armstrong: ``If you have to ask, you don't know.''
As an increasing number of the players in the hall's four ensembles -- the Percy Humphrey Band, Kid Sheik Band, Kid Thomas Band, and Olympia Brass Band -- approach their eighth decade, are other generations of artists committed to the traditonal sound coming along?
``I only worry about it when people ask me the question,'' says Preservation Hall's owner. It's important to keep the work here going, he affirms, but ``I don't know if there are enough young musicians coming along who have that feeling.'' That feeling -- that nearly indescribable authenticity of music that's been lived, not just learned -- is all important to Jaffe. ``I'm not interested in re-creating it,'' he says with a kind of finality.
But there are some clear notes of hope concerning this question of perpetuating the New Orleans sound. For one thing, this is still a city where music reigns supreme. ``In other towns, kids want to be firemen or policemen, but in New Orleans they want to be musicians,'' says Jaffe. He adds that the young musicians understandably want to ``play the music that sells,'' which in recent years has meant rhythm and blues. Preservation Hall, however, has shown that there is a market for traditional jazz, and some young people are getting into it.
Some older musicians are moving back into it too, notes Jaffe. He recalls the first time he ever heard Manuel Crusto, now clarinetist with the Kid Sheik Band. Jaffe, who's white, had been invited to the city's premier black social organization, the Autocrat Club. As the evening reached a high pitch, Mr. Crusto, a virtuoso on a range of instruments, picked up a trumpet and led the band in ``Bourbon Street Parade.'' It was ``electrifying -- absolutely charged the hall,'' says Jaffe. Crusto was playing mostly rhythm and blues then, but 15 years later he was ready to switch back to traditional jazz, and he has been a mainstay at Preservation Hall ever since.
Apart from their playing, many of the hall's musicians take a direct hand in preserving their city's traditional music by tutoring young players eager for a chance to learn from some of jazz's finest. People write ``all the time'' saying they're coming to town and asking to be set up with lessons, says Jaffe. There are always two or three people here as apprentices, he says. The students come from all corners of the globe -- US, England, Japan, Sweden.
In fact, he reminisces, it was some young Swedish musicians who years ago sought out ``Father'' Al Lewis, Kid Sheik's incomparable banjo man, and persuaded him to start playing again. So the youngsters who come to get something often give a lot too, says Jaffe.
As we talk, the strains of ``Some of These Days,'' roll into the courtyard. Jaffe stops talking and starts listening. ``I wish I could do that,'' he says, shaking his head in admiration. While spirituals and other genres have predictable patterns, he explains, Tin Pan Alley tunes like this have chord combinations that are still a mystery to him after 25 years in the cradle of jazz.
So what's his relationship to these venerable men who know all the secrets of this city's indigenous music? Al Jaffe smiles the smile of someone who's been asked an easy question, then says matter-of-factly, ``I'm their No. 1 fan.''