It was stifling. One of those humid New Orleans evenings when the sun goes down, but the temperature seems to only go up. The music venue had no AC, and to make matters worse didn’t sell drinks. Maybe that was because it doesn’t have lavatories. The thin, backless bench I sat on was pressed so close to the row in front that the former frat boy seated there nearly touched my knee as he massaged his girlfriend’s butt with his hand. Despite the discomfort, I no doubt will return to Preservation Hall next time I’m in the Crescent City.
I almost didn’t attend. I was in New Orleans for my bachelor party weekend in July. I didn’t have Preservation Hall on my agenda, because I knew it was a big tourist draw, and everyone says Frenchmen Street is so much better. On our last night, one of my friends said he wanted to go, because he had seen the Preservation Hall Jazz Band on one of their recent tours and felt inclined to visit their home base. Another friend had been there just a few months before so didn’t feel the need to return, and the others found Pat O’Brien’s next door more appealing than the $20 required to get into Preservation Hall. I didn’t want my pal to have to go alone, so I went with him.
Preservation Hall opened in 1961 as a forum where traditional New Orleans jazz could be showcased. Founders Allan and Sandra Jaffe feared that the distinctive American art form would be lost should there be no place dedicated to its practice, hence the venue’s name.
I imagined Preservation Hall to be a grand ballroom, but it’s the intimate front room of an early 1800s building. From the outside, it looks like any other other nondescript, patina’d French Quarter edifice, and it’s easy to walk past during the day when it’s folded up and never know its significance. The space can hold about 100 patrons, who can sit on benches, stand in the back, or sit in front of the band on the scarred wood floor. The plaster on the walls is fractured, and the decor timeworn. The lighting is dim, and two ceiling fans provide the only heat relief.
Few musical experiences have engaged me more than what I heard at Preservation Hall. I am by no means a jazz aficionado, but when the music started, I felt what Jack Kerouac must have felt at a Charlie Parker concert. Davell Crawford and His Creole Jazz Men played the night I went, and each musician was masterful. They weren’t slogging through a show because they knew the audience was too uninformed–or drunken–to know any better. These were seven guys upholding New Orleans’ rich musical traditions–traditions worth preserving.
Vanity Fair published a feature to mark the hall’s 50th anniversary about its efforts to stay relevant that can be read here.
Go here for a virtual tour of Preservation Hall.