October 2020, Charlotte — This month, Conversations with Curtis welcomes Ben Jaffe, Creative Director at Preservation Hall. JazzArts Charlotte has celebrated our holiday at the JAZZ ROOM with the Preservation Hall All-Stars several times to sold-out crowds. They know how to bring the house down with their New Orleans traditional jazz sound. But there is much more to Preservation Hall.
In the 1950s, Preservation Hall (then the Associated Artists Gallery) was a small art gallery in the French Quarter. To attract customers, the proprietor began inviting local New Orleans jazz musicians to perform “rehearsal jam sessions” in the gallery itself, playing for tips. After a while, the music started drawing more attention than the art.
This venue had been a rare space in the South where racially integrated bands and audiences shared music together during the tumultuous Jim Crow era. Its location in an ignored district, due to its reputation of brothels and prostitution, allowed a melting pot of African, Caribbean, and European traditions blended together to create that New Orleans jazz sound.
The story goes that Allan and Sandra Jaffe visited New Orleans in 1960 on their honeymoon and were so enamored that they never left. By mid-1961, the art gallery moved next door, the Jaffes’ shifted the space to a music venue, and “Preservation Hall” was born.
During this period, traditional New Orleans jazz had taken a backseat in popularity. Music that had existed all over New Orleans, and the cultures it represented, became harder to find. From that moment until today, Preservation Hall venue presents authentic, intimate, traditional acoustic New Orleans Jazz concerts over 350 nights a year. Over the years, it has expanded that mission as a nonprofit organization to outreach via a house band, traveling band, All-Star and Legacy bands, a record label, and impactful educational initiatives. It is regarded by many as an institution.
JazzArts Charlotte has held field youth educational trips to New Orleans for several years, making Preservation Hall an important pitstop because of what it to the history to jazz. “The students are able to sit in this historic space, talk with living legends from musical families that go back many generations, hear the stories they have to tell, and perform with these prominent jazz musicians. It’s an experience of a lifetime,” says Lonnie Davis.
(Our own JazzArts Charlotte family might consider Lonnie Davis (JazzArts President) a descendent one of these jazz families of legend. George “Kid Sheik” Colar, great uncle of Lonnie Davis (born in 1908) was a long-time trumpeter and band leader with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band.)
In contrast with the grandeur of its status, Preservation Hall is actually a small room with no air condition, no fresh paint, no bar. There are a few benches, “but if you come a few minutes behind, then you sit with your legs folded on the floor or lean against a wall,” quips Lonnie. She describes it as jam packed, bare bones, raw. “When you visit there, it’s clear what’s important. It’s all about an authentic, quality traditional jazz experience. This is how the music was created, where it is from.”
“Often times, a culture and a heritage are taken for granted by those who live it every day. But over time, if they aren’t documented or identified, the culture is lost,” explains Lonnie. While jazz continues to evolve and grow, the values it developed from continue to be foundational. The institution known as “Preservation Hall” is one way we ensure it is taught to the younger generations for years to come.