Although New Orleans' traditional jazz scene had many top players in the 1950s, there was no principal venue for the city's veteran greats to play. In 1961, local art dealer Larry Borenstein opened a building in the French Quarter called Preservation Hall. The young tuba player Allan Jaffe ran the hall and organized tours for the musicians who often performed there, naming the band the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. In the early days, the key musicians included, at various times, trumpeters Kid Thomas Valentine, Punch Miller, or De De Pierce; trombonists Louis Nelson or Jim Robinson; clarinetists George Lewis, Albert Burbank, or Willie Humphrey; and pianists Joseph Robichaux, Billie Pierce, or Sweet Emma Barrett. By the early '70s, the front line usually comprised trumpeter Percy Humphrey, his brother Willie on clarinet, and trombonist Jim Robinson (who, after his death in 1976, was succeeded by Frank Demond).
The deaths of the Humphreys and occasional fill-in Kid Sheik Colar in the mid-'90s signaled more lineup changes, with John Brunious and his son Wendell Brunious taking turns at the trumpet chair. Also around this time, bassist Ben Jaffe (son of founder Allan Jaffe and a graduate of the Oberlin Conservatory of Music) took over as Preservation Hall's creative director and the band's main bassist/tuba player. Over a half century after the group's genesis, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band continues to honor the musical traditions of New Orleans, even as the ensemble's lineup evolves.
Although primarily known as a live band in its early days, the group recorded a handful of well-regarded albums under the leadership of Barrett and the Pierces, including 1964's Sweet Emma and Her Preservation Hall Jazz Band, 1971's New Orleans, Vol. 1, and 1982's When the Saints Go Marchin' In (New Orleans, Vol. 3). These are raw and joyous affairs that capture the vibrant, earthy atmosphere of Preservation Hall and its band. With the beginning of bassist Jaffe's tenure as Preservation Hall's creative director, the band began increasing its recorded output, releasing such well-received efforts as 1996's gospel-themed In the Sweet Bye and Bye, 1998's Because of You, and 2004's Preservation Hall Hot 4 with Duke Dejan. While these albums showcased the group's longstanding commitment to traditional New Orleans jazz, they also revealed a growing openness to the influence of later innovations, including bebop-inflected improvisations, funky R&B grooves, and various roots music traditions.
Along with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band's increased creative output, their worldwide tours have resulted in a great deal of goodwill. Consequently, the band remained on the road throughout much of 2005 and early 2006, due to the temporary closure of Preservation Hall in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Although the hurricane devastated the city, it left some of the band's archival recordings unscathed, resulting in the release of Made in New Orleans: The Hurricane Sessions in 2007. Three years later, they delivered the charity album Preservation: An Album to Benefit Preservation Hall & the Preservation Hall Music Outreach Program, which featured guest appearances by an eclectic mix of artists including Del McCoury, Steve Earle, Angélique Kidjo, Terence Blanchard, and many others. A year later, they collaborated once again with McCoury on the jazz-meets-bluegrass album American Legacies.
That's It!, the band's first album of all-original material in its entire 50-year career, was released in 2013. A high-profile tour followed, with the group performing on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon as well as appearing at Coachella alongside Arcade Fire in 2014. They also guested on the Foo Fighters' Sonic Highways album that year. In 2017, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band returned with yet another album of original, crossover-friendly material, So It Is. Produced by bassist and bandleader Jaffe along with TV on the Radio's Dave Sitek, it found the band combining its New Orleans jazz sound with Afro-Cuban and R&B influences. ~ Scott Yanow