The band takes its name from New Orleans’ Preservation Hall, a steamy little room in the heart of the French Quarter that served as a tavern during the war of 1812 before evolving into an art gallery that Jaffe’s folks turned into a full-time music spot in 1961. It serves no drinks, has no air-conditioning and offers only a few scattered seats. But for those knowledgeable about the incredible musical melting pot that is the Big Easy, Preservation Hall and the musicians who call it home are revered, almost religiously so.
“For all kids, there’s a moment of rebellion, particularly about things your parents do,” Jaffe says. “I never really rebelled against what my dad did. Growing up in New Orleans, it’s actually cool to be a jazz musician. It’s cool to be a tuba player. I can imagine in some cities, being in marching band or pep band, it’s like, ‘Well, you’re not on the football team, so here, play a trumpet.’ That’s not the case in New Orleans. It’s the thing to do, to be a musician.”
Growing up, Jaffe was an upright bass prodigy, attending an arts high school, the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, before bailing the bayou to study at Oberlin College. And even though the bass was his weapon of choice, he also grew up playing a small tuba called a baritone horn, the instrument his father played.
Like virtually every aspect of the lives of New Orleans’ populace, even Jaffe’s choice of instrument was affected by 2005’s Hurricane Katrina, which flooded 80 percent of the city, caused $81 billion in damage and killed nearly 2,000 while scattering families across the country, many never to return to their hometown.
“The first show we played in public post-Katrina was at Radio City Music Hall [in New York City],” Jaffe recalls. “We marched into the main room with a band called Galactic, and it was amazing. It was the first time we’d all played in front of a crowd of people from New Orleans. It was a reunion for us in a lot of ways. It was the first time we played together, the first time we were all in a room together [since Katrina], and I was playing tuba, and I hadn’t really played much tuba except on rare occasions.
“I was sitting there playing, and it had such energy! I really felt like I was possessed by my father’s spirit when we were playing. Within a couple weeks, I went out and wrangled up a horn, got my chops up to speed, and I’ve been playing tuba ever since.”
Remarkably, the Preservation Hall touring band didn’t have to cancel a single gig due to Katrina; only shows at the actual Preservation Hall were lost. And as the band traveled the world in the years since the hurricane, they found displaced New Orleans natives everywhere they stopped, from Australia to Europe and across the United States. And those people were eager to embrace the slice of home represented by the Preservation Hall players.
For two years after the hurricane, Jaffe had to forgo touring to keep Preservation Hall alive at home, and to direct the charity he co-founded, the New Orleans Musicians Hurricane Relief Fund, which helped the city’s musicians after many had lost their homes and instruments in the storm.
In early 2010, Jaffe and Co. released Preservation: An Album to Benefit Preservation Hall & The Preservation Hall Music Outreach Program, on which the likes of My Morning Jacket’s Jim James, Tom Waits and Ani DiFranco joined the group to record at the venue, raising money for its preservation. That was a testament to how important those artists think Preservation Hall remains.
“Every one of our musicians in the Preservation Hall Jazz Band lost their home,” Jaffe, now back on the road with the band, says. “And every one of them rebuilt their homes and wanted to come back to New Orleans and wanted to continue playing and continue touring. It’s amazing that we pulled it off. I really feel like it’s a miracle that we’re still here standing.”
In celebrating that miracle, the joy the band feels at being able to keep bringing New Orleans jazz to the world is heard in every note.