Not many artists or groups would dare releasing, on the same day, a four-disc retrospective box set and a new live album featuring both new music and inspired collaborations. But that's exactly what the Preservation Hall Jazz Band are doing with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band 50th Anniversary Collection and St. Peter & 57th St. on Sept. 25.
Then again, for the Preservation Hall Jazz Band it's a statement of principle.
"We thought we should release these two projects at the same time because we wanted the collection to be a reflection of who we were and who we are," says Ben Jaffe, creative director of Preservation Hall, the more than 50-year-old New Orleans institution his parents helped found and develop. "And we knew that the Carnegie Hall concert would be a statement: 'This is who we are today, and this is where we are moving in the future.'"
From its inception, Preservation Hall has been as much an idea as it is a place.
The idea was "a kind of attempt to create a noncommercial environment for the long-term preservation and popularization of New Orleans jazz," explains cultural historian Bruce Boyd Raeburn, curator of Tulane University's Hogan Jazz Archive. But there was another crucial aspect to this effort. "Since most of the jazz musicians … were African-American," Raeburn writes in the box set notes, "such work had major implications pertaining to race relations in a Southern city that was notoriously connected with slavery, Jim Crow, and resistance to desegregation."
Located in the French Quarter, the building that houses Preservation Hall was built as a private residence in 1750. Since, it has housed a tavern, an inn, a photo studio, and an art gallery. In the mid '50s, gallery owner Larry Borenstein, frustrated by not being able to go and hear live music because of having to tend his business, organized pass-the-hat sessions on the musicians' night off. This evolved into the Preservation Hall, which officially opened June 19, 1961.
"It was put together by what today would be a nonprofit, the Society for the Preservation of Traditional New Orleans Jazz," explains Raeburn. "And the two principal organizers were Barbara Reid and Ken Mills. They had great intentions but no business experience whatsoever."
Enter just-married couple Allan and Sandra Jaffe, who were in New Orleans as part of their honeymoon.
"They were both fans of jazz but they were in no way experts in New Orleans jazz and neither of them had any background in playing in music bands," says Ben Jaffe, who, like his father once did, plays tuba in the band. "My father had played music in high school but was not a professional musician by any means — and definitely not a jazz musician. But most people who visit New Orleans will understand this next statement: When you visit New Orleans, you either move here or you wish that you were here."
The Jaffes moved to New Orleans. Allan, who graduated from Wharton school of business at the University of Pennsylvania and possessed "considerable business acumen," as Raeburn notes, turned out a godsend. It was difficult at first (the Jaffes held day jobs to keep the hall going), but they discovered the value of touring and recording, resulting not just in sales but publicity. It proved a turning point.
The four-disc set, Preservation Hall Jazz Band 50th Anniversary Collection, was produced by Ben Jaffe and three-time GRAMMY-winning producer Michael Cuscuna. The collection goes back to the Preservation Hall Jazz Band's very first recordings — such as those produced by Nesuhi Ertegun for Atlantic Records in 1962 and select tracks from the iconic Sweet Emma And Her Preservation Hall Jazz Band, featuring pianist Sweet Emma Barrett, which was recorded live in Minneapolis in 1964 — and includes historic performances by revered hall musicians such as the wife-and-husband team of pianist Billie Pierce and cornetist De De Pierce, clarinetists George Lewis and Willie Humphrey, and trumpeter Percy Humphrey, as well as a collaboration with bluegrass master Del McCoury in July 2010.
There is a curious 10-year gap (1966–1975) in the recorded history of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. As it turns out, after the success of the classic recordings by Barrett and the Pierces, Allan Jaffe simply "felt that those two records were such a good representation of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band that there really wasn't any need to do anything else," says Ben Jaffe. "And if an offer hadn't come down to him from what was then Columbia Records, I don't know if he would ever had recorded again."
Thankfully, recording resumed in 1976 with New Orleans Volume I. After Allan Jaffe passed away in 1987, Ben Jaffe took over after graduating from Oberlin College & Conservatory in 1993. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, he set a new path for the band, engaging in collaborations with a broad stylistic range of artists.
St. Peter & 57th St., which captures the band's 50th anniversary concert at Carnegie Hall this January, is but a small sample of this approach, including performances by Allen Toussaint, Steve Earle, Blind Boys Of Alabama, Trombone Shorty, and McCoury, among others.
For Jaffe, these recordings represent a way of celebrating the hall's past, while looking forward.
"It's always been my belief that cultural traditions naturally evolve over time," says Jaffe. "If they don't, they become stagnant and become museum pieces. That's why I thought the two projects really complemented each other so well. It really touched on the idea of the past, the present and the future, all existing at the same time. And that's something that happens here in New Orleans every day."
(Fernando Gonzalez, a Miami-based independent writer and editor, is a regular contributor to the International Review of Music, Jazz Times and Miami Herald.)