My very favorite spot in all of New Orleans when I was there in 1999 (my only visit to the city so far) was Preservation Hall on St. Peter Street in the French Quarter. I went there each night of my four-night stay, and probably could have gone for a week straight and not been tired of it.
The music is, obviously, amazing - but more than that, the whole feel of the place is addictive. The walls look like they’ve been collecting dirt and sweat since the doors first opened. The hall not only doesn’t serve alcohol, they don’t allow any food or beverages in the building at all - so it’s not the kind of place you’ll find spillover frat party-boys from Bourbon Street (thank goodness). The seating is minimal and uncomfortable (no mean feat), and they kick people out after each set to let in a new crowd, because the line is already stretching down the block.
The doorway to the hall is marked by one of the most nondescript "signs" in New Orleans. from here
And after the hurricanes of late summer last year, the hall was closed indefinitely.
Imagine my delight, then, when a friend forwarded this article to me last week. If I didn’t already want desperately to return to New Orleans, this news would have been what made me want to go: Preservation Hall finally reopened during this year’s Jazz Fest.
Like much of the French Quarter, the hall was spared the brunt of the devastating flooding that destroyed so much of the city; although five of the seven musicians in the hall Band lost their homes. The reopened hall has reportedly changed its style a bit by incorporating other musical styles than traditional New Orleans jazz, though those who run the hall maintain that all the musicians recently featured on the stage: “had ‘very strong ties to New Orleans.’” The article also says the hall will be breaking from its pre-hurricane schedule, as well, because of “concerns that there still might not be enough local support to keep the hall afloat once Jazzfest’s crowds dispersed. After [Jazz Fest weekend] Preservation Hall will feature music on Friday and Saturday nights — it used to close only on Mardi Gras — and will likely continue to court younger audiences, as a matter of survival.”
The interior of the hall, sans musicians and the hordes of fans. from here
But even beyond surviving, it’s possible – and I say “possible,” as I’m sure there will be purists who disagree, after they’ve come down from the high of Preservation Hall reopening at all – that a change in musical direction is part of what the hall is all about. Sure, I’d like to think that things can be put back exactly as they were in a city so important to American history and culture, and yet I don’t think I’m being defeatist or pessimistic – but, rather, realistic – when I say that nothing will ever be the same in New Orleans. As the hall’s director said at Jazz Fest:
“‘Why wouldn’t Preservation Hall do a project with Tom Waits?’ … ‘Or Bruce Springsteen? Or even the Edge, like we did the other day? I don’t think I’m compromising the integrity of the band, as long as I’m staying true to the vision of Preservation Hall, which was originally, and always has been, to provide a place for New Orleans jazz musicians to perform.’”
This is the band as it looked when I saw them in 1999 - including banjoist Narvin Kimball on the far right, who died this past March at the age of 97. from here
Only time will tell whether Preservation Hall is able to maintain itself in these post-hurricane days of fewer tourists to the region, let alone climb back to its former only-closing-on-Mardi-Gras schedule. I know it’s too soon to declare victory, to say that anything has really been solved, but I can’t help but think that the reopening of Preservation Hall is a good sign.
And for a couple interactive tidbits about Preservation Hall:
- For a fabulous video - which looks like it was filmed from the front-row “floor” seats of the hall - of The Edge performing a jazzed-up version of “Vertigo” with the Preservation Hall Band, check out this page. And to anyone using anything but Explorer 6.0, you’ve got to succumb for just this video. Then go back to your Firefox or Avant. The brief sacrifice is worth it. Trust me.
- There’s a great interactive tour on this page, complete with photos and a floor map of the building housing the hall.