Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Preservation Hall Reopens

New York Times
May 3, 2006
All Quiet Since the Hurricane, Preservation Hall Reopens

NEW ORLEANS, May 2 — In a city haunted by history, a singular function is fulfilled by Preservation Hall. Housed in a French Quarter edifice built in 1750, the space has been a mecca and sanctuary of traditional New Orleans jazz since the early 1960's. So while the more lavish production this past weekend was the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, some local musicians and visitors were just as focused on Preservation Hall's reopening, eight months after Hurricane Katrina.

The occasion, which doubled as a 45th anniversary celebration, was largely true to form: the hall's austere furnishings and poor ventilation were just as everyone remembered, as was the antique but effervescent sound of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. Less familiar to some returning patrons (and perhaps a touch less reassuring) was an infusion of rock 'n' roll, the clearest signal of a rebranding effort that began a few years ago.

This might have registered as a minor scandal in another era, sometime before the cataclysm that turned preservation into a common civic cause. Preservation Hall was spared the flooding that followed Katrina, but not its resident musicians; five of the band's seven members lost their homes.

Their stories added an unspoken poignancy to last week's events at the hall, beginning with a press conference on Thursday for Music Rising, a campaign led by U2's guitarist the Edge with the purpose of replacing the instruments of Gulf Coast musicians. But of course no amount of pathos could tarnish the lighthearted spectacle of U2's "Vertigo" as performed by the Edge with the Preservation Hall band; the Edge himself had doubled over when he first heard the band's arrangement, in a rehearsal that afternoon.

"I think it was hugely significant because of what Preservation Hall stands for in New Orleans's musical history," he said a few days later, referring to the symbolic backdrop for his public message. "The guy that set the place up, Allan Jaffe, was a visionary in that he recognized that jazz needed to be preserved. Not kept in formaldehyde, but given the opportunity for a stable home."

That's a good characterization, even if Mr. Jaffe and his wife, Sandra, established Preservation Hall virtually by happenstance. They were new arrivals to New Orleans when they stumbled across the building on St. Peter Street; it was owned by the art dealer Larry Borenstein, who featured traditional jazz there on Sunday afternoons.

The Jaffes took over and eventually expanded the series, with the guidance of knowledgeable locals like the historian Richard B. Allen. They also moved into a building at the back of the property, sleeping in a loft overlooking the garden patio of Pat O'Brien's, the famous French Quarter bar.

Mr. Jaffe, a tuba player, organized the first of countless Preservation Hall band tours in 1964, advancing an international awareness of New Orleans legends like the clarinetist George Lewis and the husband-and-wife team of DeDe and Billie Pierce, a trumpeter and a pianist.

Those legends can still be discerned in some murky portraits adorning the hall's interior. Last week there was also a wreath in the carriageway for Narvin Kimball, a banjoist and last founding member of the band, who died in March at 97. There was no conspicuous monument to Mr. Jaffe, who died in 1987, except his son Benjamin Jaffe, who plays bass and tuba, serves as musical director, organizes tours and generally maintains the hall.

The younger Mr. Jaffe, who grew up a few blocks away in the Quarter, assumed stewardship of the organization after graduating from Oberlin Conservatory in 1993. He set about gently refurbishing both the hall and the band, buffing their image with small innovations: a flashy Web site, a start-up record label, a line of stylish T-shirts.

"I see it as my father did, as a business," Mr. Jaffe said at Jazzfest, sitting cross-legged on a patch of grass next to a memorial wooden cutout of his father. But he also recalled his father's apprehensions about authorizing the first Preservation Hall T-shirt, roughly 25 years ago.

The younger Mr. Jaffe, who recently retired from touring with the band to focus on administration as well as New Orleans recovery efforts, speaks passionately about his city's cultural traditions. But it is safe to say that without him, the Preservation Hall band would never have arranged a Kinks song, "Complicated Life," featuring the vocalist Clint Maedgen, or shot a music video for the tune, which had its premiere at the reopening on Friday night.

For now these flashes of pop culture — all draped, it should be said, in New Orleans finery — have yet to alienate fans like Shelly Gallichio of Tuscon, Ariz., who was at the hall on Friday for "maybe the 50th time," or her husband, Ken Arnold,, who first encountered the band on his college campus in 1965.

The band's current members are divided about the new musical directions; Mr. Jaffe's mother, Sandra, who keeps a close eye on the group, likens the departures to a classical artist's extracurricular activities, "like Yo-Yo Ma doing bluegrass."

Hints of bluegrass could actually be heard at the hall on Sunday night, courtesy of an assemblage of musicians including the guitarist-singer J. J. Grey, of the band Mofro. The following night the room was packed again for a trio led by Stanton Moore, drummer for the New Orleans rock band Galactic. This weekend, in addition to sets by the traditional jazz trumpeter Greg Stafford, there will be a Saturday midnight show featuring a groove-minded crew called 504ever Allstars.

Mr. Jaffe was quick to point out that all of these musicians had "very strong ties to New Orleans." And he expressed concerns that there still might not be enough local support to keep the hall afloat once Jazzfest's crowds dispersed. After this weekend Preservation Hall will feature music on Friday and Saturday nights — it used to close only on Mardi Gras — and will likely continue to court younger audiences, as a matter of survival.

But not just survival, it seems. "Why wouldn't Preservation Hall do a project with Tom Waits?" Mr. Jaffe mused at the fairgrounds on Saturday. "Or Bruce Springsteen? Or even the Edge, like we did the other day? I don't think I'm compromising the integrity of the band, as long as I'm staying true to the vision of Preservation Hall, which was originally, and always has been, to provide a place for New Orleans jazz musicians to perform."

The next day the Preservation Hall Jazz Band closed the festival's first weekend according to tradition, with "When the Saints Go Marching In." Its blithe polyphony accompanied a procession of bobbing parasols in the aisles. Of course not even Mr. Jaffe knew that Mr. Springsteen would shortly finish his own set across the fairgrounds with the same tune, in a fashion that was strikingly different but every bit as true.

No comments: