- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 29, 2006

NEW ORLEANS — Preservation Hall, the dust-covered French Quarter building caked in jazz history, finally is reopening its shutters and iron gates eight months after Hurricane Katrina turned the Big Easy into a ghost town.

The hall’s first public shows opened Friday night and marked one more important stage in the city’s slow resurrection. Its reopening, along with the kickoff of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival on the same day, has generated a renewed burst of musical spirit.

Once open seven nights a week, Preservation Hall has been ominously quiet since Katrina. But the hall’s musicians — known worldwide as exemplars of traditional New Orleans jazz — are back.

“Man, it felt so good,” says Benjamin Jaffe, Preservation Hall director, of the recent jam sessions to get the place warmed up for the reopening, which was preceded by a VIP-studded celebration on Thursday night.

“It started to feel too much like a repository” of history, Mr. Jaffe says. “I started looking around and feeling that’s what we were becoming.”

On a recent morning, Mr. Jaffe, the son of the hall’s co-founders, clambered onto the piano bench and got the moldy air moving again with a whimsical rendition of a Tuts Washington tune called “Junko Blues.”

Preservation Hall is a place that revels in the passage of time, and as little as possible is altered. Overhead, years’ worth of dust clings to the rafters in waves; no one dares patch plaster that’s fallen off the walls; street-facing window panes haven’t been cleaned in years.

In this post-Katrina world, though, some things are going to change, even here.

The century-old Steinway piano will be one casualty. It was damaged by Katrina’s slashing rain, which seeped through the shutters, and will be replaced. Mr. Jaffe says he would like to see the piano, played through the years by jazz greats such as Sweet Emma Barrett and Billie Pierce, placed in a museum.

Also, with money tight, the venue will have shows just two nights a week, Fridays and Saturdays. “I don’t foresee us being open seven days a week anytime soon,” Mr. Jaffe says.

The future’s so uncertain because many musicians are still displaced and the number of tourists, who made up much of the audience, is down. “This is an improvisational period,” Mr. Jaffe says. “If we have to sell drinks to stay open, we’ll sell drinks.”

Preservation Hall is one of the few late-night venues in the French Quarter where music takes precedence over liquor.

The place was opened by Mr. Jaffe’s parents, Allan and Sandra, in 1961 with the aim of preserving the old-time sounds of New Orleans. Since then, Preservation Hall bands have toured the world, playing at the Olympic Games in Mexico in 1968, in the Soviet Union in 1979, for royalty in London and at the White House.

Mr. Jaffe says the hall has asked for government help to keep it and its 70 musicians in business, but those pleas have been rebuffed.

“It would be nice if a federal agency would subsidize it,” he says. “We’re not just important to New Orleans, we’re important to the world.”

The hall’s rebirth comes at a critical time and adds to a wider effort to bring musicians back to New Orleans.

Last week, Habitat for Humanity broke ground on homes at a new Musicians’ Village for musicians who lost their homes. Meanwhile, several charitable funds, including one set up by Mr. Jaffe, are subsidizing performers and paying musicians to play at clubs around New Orleans.

“I have guys who commute on a weekly basis from Atlanta” to play in New Orleans, says Kim Foreman of the Union of New Orleans Musicians. “That’s a heck of a long way. The best thing we can do now is get work for them.”

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