Preservation Hall: My New Orleans Fairytale

By: Lisa A. Walker

“Actually, it’s a potential life-changing experience,” replied Danny Clinch, when asked what someone can expect when visiting the legendary jazz venue, Preservation Hall in New Orleans for the very first time. And honestly, I couldn’t agree more.

Clinch, a photographer, filmmaker, and musician, recently finished filming a documentary about the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, who performed alongside the band My Morning Jacket on an album benefiting Preservation Hall. The film titled, “Live at Preservation Hall – Louisiana Fairytale” made its world premiere last month at Austin’s South By Southwest film festival (watch an exclusive clip of the film here.)

“Have you ever been there?” he asked.  In fact, I have. I visited the hall during Jazz Fest back in 2004, before Katrina hit. I can recall it vividly: It was a surprisingly small venue within the French Quarter, with only a few benches and cushions on the floor for seating and standing room only in the back. There was no bar and a few ceiling fans did little to cut through the thick air. From the moment I stepped into that hall and the band started to play, I felt as though I were stepping back in time; stepping back into the days of Louis Armstrong, Buddy Bolden, Jelly Roll Morton, and Sweet Emma Barrett. Clinch’s film not only does an exceptional job of transporting you to this legendary Louisiana space, but it also gives an intimate look into the lives of the musicians and the history of the hall.

Preservation Hall, founded by Allan and Sandra Jaffe back in 1961, was conceived as a sanctuary for New Orleans jazz musicians to continue to play their unique style of music during the onslaught of modern jazz and rock and roll.  Some time after Allan Jaffe passed, his son Ben took on the leadership role of creative director, also playing the tuba and bass in the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. Formed in 1963, today’s generation of band members not only play at the Hall, but around the world.

“If people don’t walk out of here with a smile on their face, then we haven’t done our job,” said Ben Jaffe. “Our music is to inspire joy.”  His take on what a first-timer to Preservation Hall should expect, “It’s like inviting people into your living room, sitting and playing music together.  Sometimes it’s hard to separate the audience from the performers because they are just as important as the band.  Their energies feed off one another.”

For Ben, music has been a part of his life from the day he was born. “There was a band playing in the hospital. Bands show up at hospitals and they also play for the deceased. Music is a part of our daily lives here and there’s nothing like it anywhere else in the United States.” Jaffe doesn’t just live and breathe music, he uses it as a tool to give back. He formed the Preservation Hall Junior Jazz & Heritage Brass Band, to educate and encourage children to learn to play music in the New Orleans-style brass band tradition. “As a kid, I felt like I was given this treasure, to be around these musicians. These traditions must be passed on down.”

This year’s annual New Orleans’ Jazz Fest kicked off on Friday, April 29, and this Friday, May 6, Preservation Hall will hold it’s 7th annual Midnight Preserves, a popular music series that draws famous musicians to its audience and stage. Clinch’s band, Tangiers Blues Band, will play, along with legendary harmonica player Charlie Musselwhite and Shannon McNally.

Clinch’s tips for those heading down to Jazz Fest and wanting to check out Preservation Hall, “Get in line really early and try to get one of the 2-4 seats that are stage right. It’s an amazing viewpoint for watching the musicians and the faces of the audience.”

Can’t get in to Midnight Preserves? This year marks the 50th Anniversary of the Preservation Hall. Check out the art exhibit at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art/University of New Orleans called Art & Jazz: Preservation Hall at 50 and browse the hall’s schedule for future performances.

Photo: Danny Clinch

Video: “Shake it and Break it” courtesy of Three on the Tree Productions & Preservation Hall Films