Hard times for jazz landmark: Preservation Hall a casualty of Hurricane Katrina
This story ran in the Daily News on 10.7.05:
PRESERVATION HALL has no running water.
The landmark New Orleans jazz venue has dingy yellow walls, exposed pipes, crooked paintings and no air-conditioning. Visitors sit on wood benches or on worn cushions on the dusty floor.
There is not even a bathroom.
But that has nothing to do with the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina.
"For us, it's about conservation, not renovation," said Hall owner, band manager and bass player Ben Jaffe, 34. "Convenience is overrated."
Preservation Hall weathered Katrina with only minor damage, but the room credited with saving the distinctive early jazz sound has been closed since the Category-5 storm flooded the Crescent City.
Fortunately, all eight musicians in the famed Preservation Hall Jazz Band survived the deluge and are now playing a previously scheduled world tour. On Sunday, they perform at Wilmington's Grand Opera House.
Jaffe said he has no idea when the Hall may reopen or when the city of New Orleans will return to normal.
"My concern is preserving a culture that is on the brink of extinction," he said during a phone interview last week from New York, where he has based his operations since the hurricane.
Five Preservation Hall band members lost everything in the flood, Jaffe said. Three musicians' prized instruments were ruined in the storm.
Trumpeter John Brunios, 65, had to be rescued from the second floor of his apartment building. His possessions, including seven trumpets, are under water now.
"If a person can be an international cultural treasure, he is one," Jaffe said. "What does he have to go home to?"
Narvin Kimball, a 96-year-old retired banjo player and the last surviving original band member, had to be coerced to leave his New Orleans home.
It is now uninhabitable.
The building that houses Preservation Hall, located in heart of the French Quarter along the Mississippi River, was originally built as a private residence in 1750. The structure has served as a tavern, inn, photo studio and an art gallery.
Jaffe's parents, Allan and Sandra Jaffe, founded Preservation Hall and the jazz band in 1961 when they realized the music created by the unique combination of New Orleans cultures was in danger of fading into memory as practitioners of the soulful sounds dwindled.
"There were no venues for them to play," Ben Jaffe said.
Preservation Hall gave the horn players, guitarists, singers, pianists and drummers a place to perform where audiences could watch at inexpensive prices. Admission is only $8.
Popular artists like Bob Dylan and members of the Grateful Dead, became fans, Jaffe said. "All of the sudden, there was reflection of things distinctly, uniquely American."
Since the Preservation Hall Jazz Band began touring in 1963, it has become an ambassador of the classic jazz sound, representative of a city with a truly unique atmosphere, the strongest connection between a spirit that was and, as Jaffe said, what it will be again someday.
"If there is a break in the link, I'm not sure how it disrupts the relationship of the different layers of New Orleans," he said. "We've lost so much that can't be replaced."
The plight of the city's performers - including street artists and club musicians, in addition to the Preservation Hall band members - inspired Jaffe to start the New Orleans Musicians Hurricane Relief Fund.
Musicians who now have nowhere to earn a living will receive financial support through the fund. (Call 888-229-7911 to make a donation.)
In recent weeks, the Preservation Hall band has performed benefit concerts at Radio City Music Hall and the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan.
The band, which was recently in Thailand and Portugal, will criss-cross the United States and then visit England and Austria in the coming months.
Band members don't know when they will play in their dimly lit hall in New Orleans again.
"Performing in Preservation Hall again will really be a symbolic gesture for the city," Jaffe said.
"It will mean that New Orleans is back on its feet again."