Jewish Journal

Jazz: Made in New Orleans

by Tom Teicholz

May 29, 2008 | 2:30 pm

Benjamin Jaffe

Benjamin Jaffe

It's 2 a.m., and there's a crowd on St. Peter's Street in New Orleans' French Quarter; people are waiting to see the Stanton Moore Trio play Preservation Hall.

Midnight and early morning shows during Jazzfest are part of a new tradition initiated by Benjamin Jaffe, Preservation Hall's creative director, the man charged with safeguarding New Orleans' musical traditions, managing the Preservation Hall Jazz band and preserving Preservation Hall itself. The weekend I was there, the hall featured midnight performances by Tab Benoit, John Hammond Jr. and the Rebirth Brass Band.

Rebirth is the right word for New Orleans jazz.

Jaffe, who's in his late 30s and sports a serious Jewfro, is New Orleans born and raised. He comes to Preservation Hall both as a tuba and bass player who has toured with the band, and by birthright, as his parents, Allan and Sandra, launched what we've all come to know as Preservation Hall in 1961.

Allan Jaffe was born in Pottsville, Penn. (home of Yuengling beer), and graduated with a business degree from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, where he met his wife. His military service took him on his first trip to Louisiana and, after he finished serving, he and Sandra found themselves back in New Orleans as part of an extended honeymoon -- and they decided to stay.

In New Orleans, the Jaffes became part of a group interested in preserving and promoting traditional New Orleans music. At 726 St. Peter St., also in the French Quarter, Larry Borenstein, an art dealer, devoted part of his gallery, The Associated Art Studios, to performances by these musicians. There was a not-for-profit Society for the Preservation of Traditional Jazz that had operated without much success. The Society dissolved and, as was noted in a memo in the Hogan Jazz Archive at Tulane University, "beginning September 13, 1961, the work will be continued on a for profit (or loss) basis, by Allan Jaffe and his wife Sandy." Thus, the current Preservation Hall was born.

As Ben Jaffe explained when we talked in the courtyard of Preservation Hall a few weeks ago, his parents were interested in the music, in preserving a tradition and a culture that they were shocked to learn was in danger of disappearing, but they also got involved out of a commitment to the Civil Rights movement.

"To put things in perspective," Jaffe said, it was 1961, and "The civil rights laws were not passed until 1964."

In 1961, some white New Orleans musicians, such as Pete Fountain and Al Hirt, were finding popularity nationwide, thanks to television programs such as the "Lawrence Welk Show." However, the African American New Orleans artists, many of whom were elderly, not only weren't getting on TV, their music wasn't getting attention on radio, on records or in New Orleans, for that matter.

Preservation Hall was a godsend for them. New Orleans musicians were eager for the gig -- to play at Preservation Hall, Jaffe called upon such legendary figures as trumpeters Kid Thomas Valentine, Kid Punch Miller, Kid Howard, De De Pierce, Percy Humphrey; clarinetist Willie Humphrey; and pianists such as Billie Pierce and Sweet Emma Barrett.

Given the pervasive segregation of the South at that time, white performers did not play with African American bands or tour with them -- but Allan Jaffe did. He played tuba with the band and, as I learned from a publication of the Louisiana Historical society, he was said to be "the son of a mandolinist and music teacher and the grandson of a French horn player in a Russian Imperial band."

Preservation Hall's formula was simple and is followed to this day: No reservations, no food, just music in a small room. Shows began at 8 p.m. Each set lasted around 35 minutes, and tickets were priced low (they're now $10 a show, Wednesday through Sunday).

Part of Jaffe's plan to popularize New Orleans traditional music was to take the Preservation Hall Jazz Band on the road. In 1963, he took the band to Japan. Eventually it would play between 150 and 200 dates a year. Over the years, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band has played at such esteemed venues as New York's Lincoln Center, Symphony Hall in Boston and Royal Festival Hall in London, and has toured Israel and South America.

The band in its touring incarnation became the public face of traditional New Orleans jazz, but Preservation Hall itself became the soul.

The Jaffes became the custodians of an African American culture that they themselves became immersed in, as much as they became part of the city -- and as much as they became part of the rich history of New Orleans' Jewish community.

Ben Jaffe told me that New Orleans was "a great city to grow up and be Jewish in." This was in part, he explained, "because we have so much respect for history and for culture and tradition, whether it's our own New Orleans traditions and cultures, whether it's African American, whether it's French or Spanish or our own Jewish traditions."

The Jewish community in New Orleans, Jaffe said, is "fairly tight-knit." He explained that he knew many of the families who formed the core of New Orleans' Jewish merchant class.

"The Rubenstein boys and I went to school together," he said, referencing the family whose department store, Rubenstein Brothers, is a New Orleans institution. "Their parents knew my parents from shul."

"When I think of New Orleans," Jaffe said, "I think of a city that embraces tradition and who we are, and celebrates it in a ways completely unknown to the rest of the United States."

What is important to note about New Orleans, Jaffe said, is that "The Jewish community here has had a long and very healthy relationship with the African American community. It was the Jewish community that was the first to open its doors to the African American community, and open its store doors -- clothing stores, furniture stores, appliance stores. There are a lot of African Americans that still only purchase from those furniture stores that originally sold only to African Americans.

"Rosenberg's on Tulane Avenue was the first furniture store that opened in an African American neighborhood, and to this day African Americans are loyal to that furniture store. Overwhelmingly," Jaffee said.

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