Preservation Hall — the moniker has it exactly right. Perhaps no other spot in America is so appropriately named as the legendary New Orleans nightspot. Over the four decades of its existence, one would be hard-pressed to think of any other American institution that has changed less than the historic jazz club on St. Peter Street a half block off Bourbon.
It’s the same seedy, one-room music joint it has been since opening in 1961. Forty-two years have seen it virtually untouched by cleaning supplies, paint, or any other beautifiers, the absence of which, paradoxically, has imbued the place with a down-at-the-heels charm that gets more pronounced as the years roll by. More importantly, Preservation Hall offers the same music (hell, even many of the same musicians) it has for decades.
In a city celebrated for its musical tradition, Preservation Hall has been the most steadfast keeper of what is known as New Orleans-style jazz. New Orleans jazz differs slightly from the Dixieland variety, which has a fast two-beat tempo.
The music Preservation Hall has endeavored to carry on is a style of jazz that is slightly slower, with a driving melody. The musicians — most elderly black gentlemen wearing white shirtsleeves and ties — improvise around this solid melody on familiar spirituals like “Just a Closer Walk With Thee” and “Down by the Riverside,” not to mention well-known footstompers like “Tiger Rag.”
The appeal of the music is its simplicity. Same with the experience of attending a show at Preservation Hall. To say there are no frills is to risk understatement. Reservations aren’t accepted; the policy is first-come-first-serve, meaning a queue of an hour or more is the norm. Patrons are packed in like sardines into a room the size of a small basement. There are precious few seats, with most folks standing (a few sit on the dirty floor). Lazy ceiling fans do little to combat the stifling heat. Most ominously, alcohol is neither served nor even permitted in.
The Big Easy is a city given over to things like comfort and bacchanal and excess, but Preservation Hall offers none of these. It even shuts down at midnight, when the bon temps are just starting to rouler. Despite these privations, the Hall arguably is the spiritual heart of the Crescent City.
During the 1950s, if it can be imagined, the New Orleans music scene was growing mordant. Many of its celebrated musicians were working little. Allan and Sandra Jaffe decided to do something to stem the tide. In ‘61, the couple bought a 210-year-old building on St. Peter that had been a tavern during the War of 1812 and more recently an art gallery. They converted it into a venue showcasing a style of music particular to New Orleans. (Sandra still runs Preservation Hall.) The pass-the-hat sessions in dingy bandboxes during the 1920s and '30s that established New Orleans’s reputation as the birthplace of jazz are preserved and relived seven nights a week.
The Hall is not difficult to miss. The only indication you are standing on the threshold of an American jazz Mecca is a tiny wooden sign dangling over the entrance. The entrance is no more than a banged-up wrought-iron gate fronting a chipped building which would seem more at home in Beirut than New Orleans.
Inside is a fire marshal’s nightmare, a falling-apart wooden shack of a room. The same holed hanging board has been covering the walls for years, holding in place the same grimy paintings of old jazz players. The six or seven musicians on duty sit on rickety wooden chairs, inches from the front-row customers. The trumpet player usually leads the ensemble, as John Brunius did the recent evening I attended, though many observers point to those years during the 1960s, when the legendary clarinetist George Lewis fronted the Hall’s house band, as a particular high-water mark.
A tip-cup sits atop a small stand, and a sign on the wall spells out the pricing scheme for requesting certain numbers. Traditional New Orleans jazz tunes can be heard for as little as a two-dollar donation. Other songs cost five, assuming the band can play them. Suppose you want to hear “When the Saints Go Marching In”? That’ll be ten dollars. (If you were a professional musician in New Orleans, no doubt you’d be tired of playing the “Saints” all the time. A little disincentive to tourists’ demands for that song does wonders for a musician’s sanity.)
The close quarters at Preservation Hall redefine the term “intimate venue.” The furthest patron is no more than thirty feet from the band. Imagine having six or seven of the best jazz musicians in the world playing in your living room with the lights down low and all your neighbors crowded in, and you get the idea.
For this reason, a show at the Hall is nothing short of mesmerizing. Because of the huge demand, sets rarely last longer than forty minutes before the crowd must turn over. Those waiting to enter notice something akin to reverie on the faces of the departing. Once inside, it only takes a minute once the band strikes up to realize what put that look on those faces.
And so it goes, night in and night out at Preservation Hall, which has been offering the same experience since the Kennedy Administration. Exiting after the performance I witnessed, a gentleman beside me rapturously exclaimed, “That’s exactly how I remember it from the last time I was here!” When was that, I asked. “Thirty-five years ago.” Undoubtedly, that’s how it will be when the year 2037 rolls around.
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