Preservation Hall’s Musical Mission

From educational programs to New Orleans’ newest Mardi Gras krewe, the Crescent City’s Iconic Jazz Ensemble is reaching a new generation of musicians

photo: Courtesy of Preservation Hall Jazz Band

Creative director Ben Jaffe (far left) and Preservation Hall Jazz Band.

“In Preservation Hall, the way musicians commune with the audience is beautiful,” says Ben Jaffe, the creative director of the famed New Orleans music venue and its eponymous jazz band, as well as its bass and tuba player. Since 1961, Preservation Hall has been giving audiences a rousing immersion in traditional New Orleans jazz, hosting acts seven nights a week in addition to its own world-renowned, seven-player ensemble. But beyond putting on a great show, Preservation Hall is working to pass down that music to a new generation of artists and audiences.

Jaffe took the reins of the band and the venue from his parents, co-founders Allan and Sandra Jaffe, in 1993, at the age of twenty-two. Despite his position of leadership, for the first decade of his involvement he focused on supporting and learning from the elder members of the band. But when Hurricane Katrina devastated the city in 2005, Preservation Hall took on a new role. “After Katrina, I began to see that Preservation Hall stretched beyond New Orleans,” Jaffe says. “We began to see ourselves as torchbearers who have to ensure the future of our traditions.”

photo: Courtesy of Preservation Hall Jazz Band

Preservation Hall Jazz Band live on stage.

Jaffe and the organization officially created the Preservation Hall Foundation in 2011, dedicated to preserving New Orleans music through education, outreach, and historical archiving. “Preservation Hall has always been a part of the informal education that takes place in this city,” Jaffe says. “But we formally created our foundation because we realized nobody can educate the next generation of musicians better than we can.”

To help introduce young people to live music, the group brings tens of thousands of students to the venue each year. “You can’t gain an appreciation for music by just sitting in a chair,” Jaffe says. “You have to hear it live.” The foundation also brings the music to them, providing teaching artist residencies in schools, detention centers, and community centers. The foundation has even created an interdisciplinary curriculum that emphasizes the importance of New Orleans-style music, available to teachers throughout the city and beyond beginning later this year.

The band spreads New Orleans music far and wide through both national and international tours that double as lessons on the history of their craft. “In New Orleans, we trace our history south,” Jaffe says. “Cuba, Haiti, Africa, and South America had a huge influence on New Orleans and its music.” A recent trip to Havana, Cuba, and partnerships with music organizations there helped inspire Preservation Hall Jazz Band’s latest album, So It Is, which infuses traditions of both cultures with the band’s modern interpretations. Jaffe says they plan to trace their musical DNA further through future tours to Brazil, the Congo, and Nigeria.

Closer to home, this year Preservation Hall has teamed up with indie rock band Arcade Fire to create its own Carnival krewe—New Orleans’ first new krewe in five years. Krewe du Kanaval derives its name from the Haitian word for Carnival and will celebrate Haiti’s influence on modern New Orleans. Funds raised will benefit both the Preservation Hall Foundation and KANPE, an organization that helps provide resources in Haiti. Its parade on February 6 will depart from Preservation Hall, and its ball will, of course, showcase the music of the two cultures.

Still, even amid the new projects, there’s one thing Jaffe says he’s looking forward to most in 2018. “The most exciting thing?” he says. “We get to keep playing at Preservation Hall.”