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Preservation Hall at 50

Noah Bonaparte Pais on how Ben Jaffe intends to lead Preservation Hall into its next 50 years ... and why some people aren't happy with his approach

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"Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Preservation Hall."

  The greeting comes, as it always does, minutes after 8 p.m. On this brisk Wednesday night in May, Erin Alexander delivers it to a capacity crowd, which at 726 St. Peter St. means a 100 or so people, most of them out-of-towners. Those fortunate to have made it inside first sit cross-legged at the front of the 620-square-foot, 31-by-20 foot living room, knees almost touching the four-chair front line, backs pressed against three packed rows of benches, with a forest of people on tiptoes behind that. Another dozen fill the side porte-cochere, either packed in the narrow doorway or seated on the banquette next to one of the Hall's resident white cats, Sweet Sage, who despite the commotion is sound asleep. Outside the gate, half as many more remain in line, waiting for the 9 p.m. second set and their turn.

  Alexander, the girlfriend of Hall publicity and marketing head Ron Rona (aka New Orleans Bingo! Show MC Ronnie Numbers), next informs the visitors of some basic house rules, largely unaltered since 1961: no flash photography, no video recording. (Smoking also has joined the outlawed list; beverages, never offered by the Hall and previously forbidden, now are allowed, and some listeners hold Pat O'Brien's plastic Hurricane cups.) At 8:15 p.m., the portico crowd parts for the seven members of the band, clad in jet black suits and crisp white shirts, carrying their instruments and proceeding one-by-one into the rapidly warming room: singer and trumpeter Mark Braud, the group's youngest member at 37; singer and clarinetist Charlie Gabriel, at 78 its eldest; singer and tenor saxophonist Clint Maedgen; trombonist Freddie Lonzo; and Benjamin Jaffe, his tuba shouldered. Rickie Monie and Joe Lastie Jr. — the pianist and the percussionist, respectively — enjoy the easiest walk.

  Nodding and smiling at the audience and at each other, the musicians take their seats. Three shoe taps, a drum roll and a trumpet charge, and they're off.

A week later and a world away, Ben Jaffe is giving an interview from the back of a New York City taxicab.

  "One of the things as a traveling musician that I find very challenging, when you're on the road, playing one-night shows every night of the year, is the satisfaction you get when you actually sit down and breathe and let ideas come into your head," Jaffe, the Hall's creative director since 1993, says over the din of traffic. "Most of the time you're just worried about how you're going to get from point A to point B. You're like, I got to get in a taxi, I got to do a sound check, I got a show, then I got to do an interview, then I have to go to sleep because I have to be up at 4 in the morning to catch a flight. That's your job, just going from A to B. The only moment you get to go into this creative cocoon is when you perform, and I want to amplify that. I want to make it bigger."

  The "creative cocoon" in this case is Preservation Hall West (see sidebar), an expansion to San Francisco's Mission District and the largest of several Hall endeavors in this, its 50th anniversary year. The project, long a fascination for Jaffe, has flown past the city planning commission and is currently under construction, on schedule for a fall soft opening during the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival (Sept. 30-Oct. 2) and a grand ribbon-snipping to follow in early 2012. But first there is the matter of today's points A and B: Midtown meetings with the publicist for American Legacies, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band's current recording with Appalachian bluegrass smokers the Del McCoury Band; and with Liz Leavitt, agent for photographer/director Danny Clinch, whose latest film Louisiana Fairytale documents the band's fruitful friendship with Louisville sluggers My Morning Jacket — "Sweet Kentucky boys," as Rona calls them — beginning with the 2010 all-star compilation Preservation: An Album to Benefit Preservation Hall & the Preservation Hall Music Outreach Program, and culminating in a joyous midnight matinee at the Hall during Jazz Fest 2010.

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Hovering around the mid-30,000s in units moved, Preservation is the Hall's best-selling "off-the-shelf" product according to Jaffe. (Its top grosser overall, not coincidentally, is its first: New Orleans' Sweet Emma and Her Preservation Hall Jazz Band, with founders "Sweet" Emma Barrett, "Big" Jim Robinson, Alcide "Slow Drag" Pavageau and Percy and Willie Humphrey, recorded in 1964 and reissued in 2005. "If you sell 1,000 copies a year and multiply that over 50 years, you can see the success of the project," Jaffe says. "But," he adds with a laugh, "it's a very slow return on your investment.")

  The Preservation compilation may hold more value for its wellspring of relationships: with My Morning Jacket and McCoury, whose DelFest in Cumberland, Md., is the band's next port of call after New York City; with Tao Rodriguez-Seeger and Pete Seeger, who invited the band to perform at Pete's 90th birthday bash at Madison Square Garden in May 2009; and with Tom Waits, whose 78 rpm vinyl edition of the Mardi Gras Indian hoot "Tootie Ma is a Big Fine Thing" — Preservation's swinging, scatting high note — ripped through its limited pressing. (For a $200 donation, the package included a souvenir suitcase phonograph, replicating the hook and bait Jaffe and Rona used to lure in Waits.)

  All now belong to Preservation Hall's extended family, Jaffe says. "There were so many connections between the (McCoury) Band members and Del and myself and my family, the fact that the kids are in the band and that I'm in the Preservation Hall Band, second generation," he says. "When I met Del, it was eerie how much it felt like meeting my dad again. It was really sort of spooky in that way. The music that he plays comes from the same piece of the soul that New Orleans jazz comes from. With (My Morning Jacket's) Jim (James), the same thing happened. He came into the Hall, and it felt like I was saying hello to someone I had known my whole life. ... It immediately felt right."

  Jaffe believes his mother and father, Sandra and the late Allan Jaffe, must have had a similar feeling 50 years ago when, en route from a honeymoon in Mexico to their home in Pennsylvania, they followed a second line back to Larry Borenstein's art gallery at 726 St. Peter St. "They happened upon a brass band, and the leader of that brass band was Percy Humphrey, who my dad would end up playing with for over 20 years," Jaffe says. "These are all things that seemingly happen by chance, but those moments of randomness ended up leading my dad to his career and the history of Preservation Hall. It could've been one of 20 trumpet players, and maybe it wouldn't have had an impact; maybe my parents would've walked right by the band and not taken notice if it was a different person. There's certain music that speaks to me, that means something to me."

It starts with New Orleans jazz, of course, and the Preservation Hall legacy of perpetuity, being next in line. But Ben Jaffe's unshakable faith, in himself as well as his family's institution, has led both into a much larger arena. Twenty years ago, there were three places you were likely to find the Preservation Hall Jazz Band: on record, at the Hall or on the road. In 2011, teenagers more into Kid Rock or Kid Cudi than Kid Sheik Cola and Kid Thomas Valentine can encounter the latter's music by seeing a play (Tom Sancton's stage production Song For My Fathers, adapted from his memoir), reading a book or going to the movies (Clinch's Louisiana Fairytale). They can stumble on it through photography (Shannon Brinkman and Eve Abrams' reverential pictorial Preservation Hall), modern dance (twin collaborations with the touring Trey McIntyre Project) or fine art (the Ogden Museum of Southern Art's current Art & Jazz: Preservation Hall at 50 or the Louisiana State Museum's forthcoming retrospective at the Old U.S. Mint).

This 1975 photo was used in Kodak promotions, typically with young Ben Jaffe (left) cropped out. The band members are (l. to r.) Jim Robinson, Josiah "Cie" Frazier, James Prevost, Percy Humphrey, Willie Humphrey, James "Sing" Miller and Narvin Kimball. - PHOTO COURTESY OF OGDEN MUSEUM OF SOUTHERN ART
  • Photo courtesy of Ogden Museum of Southern Art
  • This 1975 photo was used in Kodak promotions, typically with young Ben Jaffe (left) cropped out. The band members are (l. to r.) Jim Robinson, Josiah "Cie" Frazier, James Prevost, Percy Humphrey, Willie Humphrey, James "Sing" Miller and Narvin Kimball.

  Or, more likely, they might catch a YouTube cartoon of a remixed, centuries-old folk song: the 2009 re-contextualization of "St. James Infirmary" by Lafayette animation company TancoToons and Philadelphia DJ King Britt. The superbly subversive vision featuring a wailing Maedgen — along with a pallbearing cast of Hall characters present and past — chased by Old Joe McKenzie's baby around a Max Fleischer nightmare of New Orleans, heading to St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 to wake Marie Laveau's ghost before hotwiring the Pontchartrain Beach's Zephyr roller coaster as a getaway vehicle. "That was a real turning point for me and for Preservation Hall in a lot of ways," says Jaffe, citing Moby's fusion of house music and gospel on 1999 Platinum smash Play as a precursor. "It was so different from the way that many people had viewed the Hall."

  The project and its overwhelmingly positive buzz spurred Jaffe to take a closer look at the way people experience music today. "St. James Infirmary" was part of an online bundle of tracks and videos from the St. Peter Street Serenade, offered solely via digital download — the Hall's first embrace of Internet-only releases. "That's important," Jaffe says. "Musicians, from the beginning of time, have either kept in step with their audience, or led their audience, or interacted with their audience. But it's always been some type of important relationship with your audience that you have to maintain."

There are those who feel that Jaffe has steered the ship too far from its original course, that to see My Morning Jacket or Bonnie "Prince" Billy — or Robert Plant or the Edge, for that matter — perform rock 'n' roll songs in that sacred space either damages its position as a bastion for New Orleans jazz or, more puzzlingly, tarnishes its legacy or its purity.

  "I know there are many people who probably disagree with how the Hall has evolved and the direction it's taken under Ben's leadership," says trumpeter Leroy Jones, who leads the Preservation Hall Jazz Masters on Fridays. "And that would be in respect to the different musical genres he's introduced post-Katrina. But when I think about it, Ben is a good businessman, who's doing his best to make sure Preservation Hall maintains its existence for future generations. And the fact that he employs the services of (traditional jazz) musicians like me proves that he is certainly not trying to move away from the tradition that made the venue famous."

  Jaffe has taken fire for opening his arms to the New Orleans Bingo! Show and Maedgen, derisively pegged in some Nola.com comments as the boat-rocking "spiky-haired fellow." That kind of separatism, while nowhere near as malignant, is more in line with the forces the Hall was created to contradict. "I always think that there's some fault to be found," Maedgen says. "It depends on who you're asking and when you're asking them. I shake things up with my band. Most people that really know me, and know my role within Preservation Hall, will admit that I'm the first one to want to play an old tune, harvesting those "Sweet" Emma Barrett songs and trying to bring those out. If you ask me what song I want to play, I want to play 'Whenever You're Lonesome, Telephone Me.' It'd be pretty easy to see me onstage and think of me as the one who's trying to change things, but I'm a pretty staunch traditionalist. That's what I lean towards."

  "It's obviously something that I'm well aware of," Jaffe says. "I don't live in a bubble. I'm hyper-aware of the dangerous road we travel. I also know that it's impossible to satisfy everybody. So at the end of the day, you have to do what my parents did, which is follow your heart and your interests and the things that make you happy and bring you joy in life. What's important to me are the musicians at Preservation Hall and the music they play."

  Tom Sancton, a clarinetist and former Paris bureau chief for Time magazine, draws a subjective line, and then crosses it: "Do I personally like to see rock bands in there? Not particularly. Do I think Benji shouldn't be doing that? No. ... I think he's trying, with a lot of courage and a lot of conviction, to do something that's faithful to the roots of the place, that's faithful to what his parents built, and that has some kind of future.

The performance space at Preservation Hall has barely changed during its five decades on St. Peter St. - PHOTO BY CHERYL GERBER
  • Photo by Cheryl Gerber
  • The performance space at Preservation Hall has barely changed during its five decades on St. Peter St.

  "Benji faces a challenge," Sancton says. "Either he says, 'All right folks, show's over, everybody's gone and it'll never be "Sweet" Emma and George Lewis again. It was nice for 50 years, and that's it.' Or he finds some way to make it relevant and attract new audiences, younger audiences. And that's what he's trying to do. I would hate to see the place close, and I think he's trying to find a way to make it work, to give it forward spin, to give it a future — all the while remaining faithful to the traditional roots."

For 45 minutes, in the first of three sets tonight, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band and its audience forget the day, the week, the month, the year. Gabriel pauses, grins and points at the crowd as he croons the chorus to "Exactly Like You," his fingers doing George Lewis' arachnid walk up and down the clarinet. Braud, sitting in departed uncle John Brunious Jr.'s chair, blows gusty one-note trumpet solos using his hand as a mute, the room and band shouting in unison, "Oh, play that thing!" Maedgen, at the crowd's behest (despite no one coughing up $2 for the kitty), gives them a spirited, reined-in "St. James Infirmary." A bigger hand is reserved for his crying take on Sam Morgan's "Short Dress Gal," tambourines cracking all around like broken glass.

  They'd like to keep playing, Braud explains, but drummer Joe Lastie Jr.'s tired. (It's true, Lastie nods amiably.) After a lengthy ovation, the masses stream out of the narrow doorway and into the porte-cochere. The fans go right, stopping to pet Sweet Sage before exiting through the wrought-iron gate, beneath the two instrument cases and out onto St. Peter Street, where they are awakened to the present day by the warring sounds of Bourbon Street's Cat's Meow and Krazy Korner, blasting Heart and REO Speedwagon as if mad at one another. The band goes left, carrying their instruments and ambling one by one toward the courtyard. Maedgen, the last to leave, is still playing his saxophone.


Go West, Young Man

The story behind Ben Jaffe's manifest destiny: Preservation Hall West

In the darkest corner of some New Orleans jazz purist's mind lies an unspeakable fear: Preservation Halls, everywhere. To that person, Ben Jaffe says: Step away from the levee.

  "I would've never gone out and tried to recreate a Disney version of Preservation Hall, where every floorboard is reproduced," Jaffe says. "It's against what we stand for. What we're creating out there is the Preservation Hall experience, all the things the Hall represents. ... It's something that my father considered years ago and that I always wanted to do."

  "Out there" in Jaffe-speak is San Francisco, home to the future offspring — and, most likely, only child — of Preservation Hall. If you've talked to him about it, you know he's excited. "It'll be more in the spirit of a performing arts center than it will be a music venue or music hall," Jaffe says. "I'm envisioning people like Steve Earle coming in, Ani DiFranco. Have them come out and spend maybe two weeks at a time, where we can get them involved in activities in the community, get them doing extended residencies and encourage them to do projects."

Pianist "Sweet" Emma Barrett played with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band in the early 1960s. - PHOTO BY DAN LEYRER. COURTESY OF PRESERVATION HALL
  • Photo by Dan Leyrer. Courtesy of Preservation Hall
  • Pianist "Sweet" Emma Barrett played with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band in the early 1960s.

  Less House of Blues, in other words, more house of the proverbial rising sun. Or house of the holy (it is a former chapel). "I want people to be able to be in that creative cocoon for weeks at a time," Jaffe says, wielding his preferred metaphor. "Where I can go to somebody and say, 'What is your dream project? What is the project you've always dreamt of doing, and what would it take to achieve that?'"

  It's a powerful thought. Jaffe is nothing if not connected — to artists as disparate as Terence Blanchard and Andrew Bird as well as to entrepreneurs like Jack Knowles, regular Jazz Fester and proprietor of the Oakland restaurant A Cote, who purchased New College's 7,000 square feet of prime Mission District real estate in 2009. "It's a beautiful location, on Valencia Street in the heart of the Mission," Jaffe says. "The building is an old mortuary and mortuary school, and the portion that will house Preservation Hall West is an old chapel. I thought, how appropriate that the first Preservation Hall we're opening outside of New Orleans is going to be in a church."

  When the opportunity he'd been waiting for appeared last year, Jaffe bought a plane ticket the same day. "I walked in and I was like, oh my God, this is it," he recalls. "I could've moved in there the next day with a piano and opened up." The band is already intimate with the space, having tracked American Legacies with the Del McCoury Band during renovations. "As we were doing takes, we had to ask them to stop jackhammering while we recorded," Jaffe says with a laugh. And, he points out, its connections to the city are hard to ignore: "The fact that the band used to open for the Grateful Dead, that I spent every summer of my childhood (there). It was traditional for the Preservation Hall Jazz Band to be in San Francisco for the July 4 weekend.

  "Without even having to look for it, someone is showing you the future of Preservation Hall," Jaffe says of that first visit. "We walked through the property with [Knowles] and basically had one of these come-to-God moments: I'm putting myself out into the world, and this is what I want to do out here. It makes absolutely no sense, I can't tell you how it's going to work, I can't even give you a balance sheet or a business plan. All I can give you is myself and the reputation of Preservation Hall, and all of the things that we do. It resonated."

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