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Preservation Hall: Stayin’ Alive

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In his book, The Year Before the Flood: A Story of New Orleans, Ned Sublette says, “If you’ve never been on a second line, there’s something about jazz you don’t know.” The second line became very apparent to me this summer when I was in New Orleans with Habitat for Humanity, rebuilding homes damaged by Hurricane Katrina. While I was there, “Uncle” Lionel Batiste passed away. He was the debonair bass drummer in the Treme Brass Band, a second line legend, and a central figure in the New Orleans music scene.

His Second Line service began at Tuba Fats Square, marched by Congo Square, and wound through the famous streets of the NOLA district. People of all races, colours, creeds, and religions joined in on the remembrance until there was no room in the street and barely any room on the sidewalks. The Treme Brass Band played and everyone else used the one instrument they had on them—their voice.

Preservation Hall is one spot that Batiste loved to visit. It is committed to the generational passing of musical traditions. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Preservation Hall restarted its Educational Outreach Program, which brings in young musicians who want to expand their jazz vocabulary. I spent a lot of time at Preservation Hall, and got to know Ashley Shabankareh, the Educational Outreach Coordinator and Night Manager at Preservation Hall. She’s also a busy musician and a great ambassador for the city.

I caught up with Ashley and asked her a few questions about the historic Preservation Hall:

Can you provide a short history on Preservation Hall?

Located in the heart of the French Quarter, Preservation Hall was established in 1961 by Allan and Sandra Jaffe, with the dual intention of preserving this uniquely American art form and providing some of its earliest practitioners the opportunity to earn a living performing the music they had pioneered and kept alive for so many years. To this day, Preservation Hall’s nightly performances are recognized as some of the world’s last “pure musical experiences,” presenting authentic, traditional New Orleans Jazz played by some of the city’s finest musicians.

The building that currently houses Preservation Hall was originally built in 1817, with portions of the structure dating as far back as the 1750s. Over the course of the building’s existence, it has served a variety of purposes including a private residence, a tavern, and a photo studio. In the 1950s, the room that currently houses Preservation Hall’s nightly performances served as the Associated Artists Gallery, owned and operated by Larry Borenstein. Borenstein first hosted some of the city’s most historical musicians in informal performances, generating business for the gallery and tips for the musicians. These early informal performances served as the concept for Preservation Hall.

How did you step into your role at Preservation Hall?

I started at Preservation Hall five years ago as an intern. I had first wondered how a building and business could survive this long in the French Quarter without selling drinks or food. Recalling my own awe about the venue and the music, I realized that’s all it needs to keep it alive.

One of the dreams of the owner, Ben Jaffe, and his wife Jeanette, was to bring back the educational programming that had been defunct since before Hurricane Katrina. We all agreed it was the best way to make sure the legacy of New Orleans Jazz lived on. In 2010, The Preservation Hall Jazz Band recorded Preservation to help create initial funding. Last May, we started the program.

What concepts does the Outreach Program focus on?

Our outreach program has many facets, the most prominent being our free weekly classes and free private lessons. Our students are broken into groups based upon skill level. We focus primarily on repertoire, music theory, improvisation, and music history as it relates to traditional New Orleans jazz. Unlike most programs, our students work primarily by ear, in the same manner traditional New Orleans jazz has been taught and passed down through generations before them.

Preservation Hall musicians do come in and work with the kids in the Outreach Program, and each of them brings their preference on what songs are important and how the songs should be played. I always find it fascinating, as they each have their own experiences and a different style of teaching. What remains constant is the warm and sharing atmosphere.

What have you learned from the Preservation Hall experience?

I’ve been told many things and seen many things through this musical tradition, but something I’ll always take from it is that music is a living, breathing art form, and you’ll always be able to learn something new from it every day

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