By Noah Bonaparte Pais
Leroy Jones first walked into Preservation Hall in 1971, the year Ben Jaffe was born. “It would’ve been a weekend,” Jones recalls. “A couple of colleagues and I peeped in on the first set. I think Kid Thomas Valentine's band might've been on that night, or possibly George Colar, aka Kid Sheik Cola.” The only difference these days is that the faces among the personnel are different, the trumpeter says, “and I am one of those musicians who a young person of 13 years might see performing at the Hall on any given night. The interior of the room hasn't changed.”
Tonight at the Hall, Jones, Jaffe and dozens more musicians and adorers will pay homage to their shared musical home, singing “Happy Birthday” to the New Orleans jazz haven with a chorus of voices, reeds and horns. The 50-candle blowout, titled PresFest, features two sets by the Treme Brass Band (8:15 p.m. & 9:15 p.m.) followed at 10:15 p.m. by the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, interspersed with the kind of magical courtyard mingling that’s been a hallmark of the French Quarter institution for half a century.
Sandra and the late Allan Jaffe turned Larry Borenstein’s art gallery at 726 St. Peter St. into a full-time performance hall in June 1961 — three years before the Civil Rights Act of 1964. “A white couple creating a space that encouraged the socializing of black and whites, a place where black music was celebrated and respected,” Ben says. “New Orleans jazz had never been presented in the way that my parents presented it at Preservation Hall. To me that’s an unbelievable thing. You can’t even imagine it today.”
Since its 45th anniversary, the Hall family has lost John Brunious Jr., Ralph Johnson, Ernest “Doc” Watson and Walter Payton.
“We weren’t finished,” says tenor saxophonist Clint Maedgen, who joined the band in 2004. “I’ve got a lot of questions for John, Doc, Ralph and Walt. They were like uncles to me. We spend more time together than we do with our own families. We do 150 dates a year on the road, plus we play at home. You’re sitting next to these men, sharing a lunch with them, sharing a ride to the Hall and back again, and the next thing you know, I’m in that same chair and they’re not there anymore. They’re still there. They’re still a part of it. It’s forever.”
In interviews for the Gambit cover story “Preservation Hall: The Next 50 Years,” the musicians often spoke about the room and its social and cultural legacies in reverent, almost hallowed tones. Tonight’s celebration should be part musical gala, part moonlit reverie. “Every time I’m alone in the Hall, it’s like being in a sanctuary almost,” clarinetist/author Tom Sancton says. “I really feel almost some kind of religious feeling about it. It contains so many memories, and there’s been so many beautiful notes played in there, they’re all somehow kind of reverberating through the woodwork or something.”