When compared with some of the palaces of music around the world, the venerable music venue, located in the heart of the city's French Quarter, is tiny, accommodating fewer than 100 persons in extremely close proximity. The building, its weathered exterior untouched over its history, has housed such enterprises as a tavern during the War of 1812, a photo studio and an art gallery.
And, since 1961, when the hall was rechristened with its name by founders Allan and Sandra Jaffe, it has been the home of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, an ensemble that has traveled the world on behalf of its cause, with such legendary players as the brothers Willie and Percy Humphrey, Billie and De De Pierce and pianist Sweet Emma Barrett.
"Creole Christmas at Preservation Hall" is the title of the program that will be presented Dec. 24 in the hall, and local fans of New Orleans jazz will have a preview of that show by the group's current touring band at 7 p.m. this Sunday at the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center.
Promised are seasonal gospel numbers, along with holiday classics such mainstays as "Bells Will Be Ringing," "Silent Night" and "Swinging in a Winter Wonderland" are a few traditional pieces to receive the New Orleans treatment. "Our version of 'Christmas Tree' is hysterical," said Michael Paz, the group's tour manger. And, he assures the distinctive repertory of New Orleans will not be neglected, with the band offering the expected "Sister Kate," "Saint Louis Blues," and the inevitable "When the Saints Go Marching In."
Trumpeter John Brunious is the leader of this year's contingent, according to Paz, who was reached by cell phone as he and his companions, traveling by bus, negotiated a long and exhausting queue at the northern border, following a concert the previous evening in Québec.
Although most may remember the Preservation Hall jazz players as older men who inhabited the great pioneer ensembles of Buddy Bolden, Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong and Bunk Johnson, Paz noted that the current players are younger.
He mentioned the banjo player and vocalist Carl LeBlanc; Daryl Adams, alto saxophone; Rickie Monie, piano; and Freddie Lonzo, trombone, all in their 50s. Brunious and bassist Walter Payton are in their 60s, still young for the group, he added. The still-youngish Shannon Powell, the drummer, is in his mid-40s.
"Frank Demond (the trombonist), who goes back to the 1960s, is still in the band, but does not travel as much, and Ralph Johnson (clarinet) does not travel any more," Paz observed.
Sunday's concert is part of the Mahaiwe's annual salute to New Orleans. The band will be introduced by state Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox, who has been involved personally in helping to rebuild the city following the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina. He also will salute the work being performed by the Renew Our Music Foundation.
The foundation has its roots in the New Orleans Musicians' Hurricane Relief Fund, which was begun immediately after the hurricane to provide emergency assistance. It was founded by Ben Jaffe, a Preservation Hall tuba player and a son of the original founders of the hall and band, and his wife, Sarah Borealis, a Ph.D. candidate in history at Tulane University, Paz explained.
He said Renew Our Music has distributed more than $400,000 in Community Leader Grants to individuals and institutions that can preserve and carry forward the cultural traditions of New Orleans.
The majority of New Orleans' musical and cultural tradition-bearers have yet to return to their homes, according to Paz. "Unless you see it, you can't realize the devastation that still exists in so many neighborhoods," he said, noting that many musicians still live in other states and travel to the city to perform three or four nights a week and sleep at a friend or cousin's house while in town. He noted that Brunious still commutes between Orlando and New Orleans for his gigs.
"It is unbelievable," exclaimed Paz. "The areas that you probably visited before, like the French Quarter, are back not much damage there, other than the looting that you saw on television.
"But the neighborhoods in the Ninth ward and the Seventh Ward and Elysian Fields, where John Brunious lived, had nine feet of water, so there is this huge pocket of areas that are still completely in a bad way. The people cannot come back to fix their homes because the insurance companies have not paid off. And, of course, the city is forbidding people to rebuild they're not sure whether those areas will become green spaces.
"It's hard to come back and rebuild," Paz said, "but a lot of people are throwing caution to wind and just doing it if they can."
Among the beneficiaries of the grants are Tanio Hingle, who was able to secure a tour van for the New Birth Brass Band, and Philip Frazier, leader of the Rebirth Brass Band, who used his grant to pay for a new tuba.
Big Chief Monk Boudreaux, of the Wild Magnolias, was able, through a Renew Our Music grant, to wear his new suit uptown this past Mardi Gras. And Antoinette K-Doe was assisted in reopening Ernie K-Doe's Mother-in-Law Lounge, a New Orleans landmark that endured several feet of flood water.
Katrina also battered the offices of the Louisiana music magazine OffBeat and, with one of the grants, new issues are being published. Other grants went to The Storyville Stompers, vocalist Germaine Bazzle, Deacon John, the guitarist, and the Louisiana Philharmonic.
"The lion's share of what we have done has gone to support musicians we've helped rock, blues, and everybody," declared Paz. "The relief fund started a couple of weeks after the storm, and then, after a couple of years, with the emergency over, Jaffe decided that it was time to create a new entity to do the work that needed to be done, and it became more long-term, trying to get people home and helping them to begin working again."
Preservation Hall, which is located about three blocks from the Mississippi River, was closed for a period after Hurricane Katrina. Now run by Benjamin Jaffe, another son of the founders, it was reopened just in time for the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in April and May, 2006.
Although it was not damaged by the floods, Jaffe said that, for a time, not enough visitors were in New Orleans to support the hall. Activity has been picking up, however, as evidenced by the Creole Christmas program that will take place on Christmas Eve within the fabled landmark.
Although Sunday's concert is not a benefit for New Orleans recovery, plenty of materials will be available in the theater lobby to direct those who wish to contribute to the cause.
"We are hoping to rally support among people, as we do each year at our special tribute to New Orleans," said Beryl Jolly, the Mahaiwe's executive director.