When Alan and Sandra Jaffe rolled into New Orleans in 1961, Jim Crow laws were still in effect and an African-American musician was “on the same level as a street sweeper,” their son Ben Jaffe told Green Global Travel.
The rich stock of New Orleans jazz music drew the Jaffes from their home in Pennsylvania. Having heard the music on Library of Congress recordings, they arrived to find this great musical tradition neglected and dying. So the Jaffes took an old art gallery in the French Quarter and converted it into Preservation Hall.
It started with the simple vision of providing a venue for aging New Orleans musicians, but quickly grew into much more. “It became it’s own neighborhood,” said Ben Jaffe. Jaffe remembered it as one of the first racially integrated spots in the city, a place where poets, artists, and actors of all races came together. “I felt like I had dozens of grandparents watching over me, answering my questions, reprimanding me when I was bad, and teaching me an appreciation of music and life.”
The performers coalesced into The Preservation Hall Jazz Band, which began touring widely. After a long and successful career, the band seemed to run its course by the 1990s. Founder and bandleader Alan Jaffe died along with several of the leading members. Ben Jaffe took over for his dad, but interest was waning. Then came Hurricane Katrina.
“Katrina was a bitter pill to swallow,” Jaffe told The Thread. “It physically ripped our city to shreds.” One of the surprising upshots, however, was a sudden light shining on their music. A grieving nation, searching for remnants of New Orleans culture, seized on Preservation Hall, and the band found itself in a busy new season. With renewed visibility came renewed vision. In 2013, the entire music world took notice when, for the first time in its 50-year history, Preservation Hall released an album of original compositions.
Entitled That’s It!, the music is an agile combination of tradition and today. Sassy horn combinations fairly gush with traditional Cajun flavor, while drums rumbling like cannon fire on the title track let listeners know they are in for an exciting new ride.
One of the album’s great treats is listening to the gravelly crooning of 81-year-old singer Charlie Gabriel, whom producer Jim James described as a character who “jumped right off your favorite storybook.” Fortunately there are a couple of songs that give Gabriel the full treatment. Just hearing him say the word “I” in the crisp-moving “I Think I Love You” will scratch an itch you never knew you had.
“Rattlin’ Bones” is a nod to the weirder side of New Orleans with a delightfully gurgling trumpet and a deep funk-rock pocket which Gabriel growls and bites with toughness and rhythm. Taken together, the album admirably carries forth that old New Orleans jazz sound into a new generation, making the band not just a museum piece on a wall but as Jaffe called it, “a living, breathing tradition.”