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Sandra Jaffe, who helped preserve jazz at Preservation Hall, dies at 83


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In 1961, Sandra and Allan Jaffe stopped by New Orleans on their way back to Philadelphia after a long honeymoon in Mexico. They heard music all around them in the French Quarter and walked into an art gallery on St. Peter’s Street where a combo was playing traditional jazz.

The Jaffes, then in their twenties, were transformed by what they heard. They returned a few days later to hear the combo again. Gallery owner Larry Borenstein told them he was moving his business next door and offered to rent the modest space (31 by 20 feet) to the couple for $ 400 a month.

“We haven’t even thought twice about it,” Ms. Jaffe told Alumni magazine of Harcum College, from which she graduated, in 2011. “Of course,” we said, and it was. the start of Preservation Hall. We never left New Orleans.

The Preservation Hall – which does not serve alcohol, has no air conditioning, and can accommodate around 50 seats on six benches – has celebrated jazz for 60 years in a city widely considered its birthplace. He defied segregation laws in the early 1960s. He survived Mr. Jaffe’s death in 1987 and Hurricane Katrina. The coronavirus pandemic shut it down, but it triumphantly reopened in June.

And he nurtured musicians, some of whom performed with Louis Armstrong (like guitarist Johnny St. Cyr) and even (like bassist Papa John Joseph) with cornetist Buddy Bolden, who many jazz historians say was the first practitioner. Many of them had been largely forgotten amid the growing dominance of rock ‘n’ roll and other more modern forms of music.

“There is no doubt that Preservation Hall saved New Orleans jazz,” George Wein, the impresario who produced the Newport Jazz Festival and the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, told Vanity Fair in 2011. “When it became an institution in New Orleans, everyone who went down there went into the lobby. They paid a dollar to go and hear people like George Lewis or Sweet Emma Barrett and made them national figures.”

Ms Jaffe died in a New Orleans hospital on Monday. She was 83 years old.

His son Ben, the creative director of Preservation Hall, has confirmed the death.

The Jaffes played different roles at Preservation Hall. Allan Jaffe, who played the helicon, a brass instrument, was the link with the musicians and sent them on the road as the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. Ms Jaffe, who shared management duties with her husband, was usually stationed at the front door of the room, a basket in her lap, collecting money from customers.

“This is how many remember her: as the first to interact with people,” Ben Jaffe said in an interview. “She was also the de facto bouncer and security; she had to intervene when people were inappropriate or adopted racist language. My mother would bite first, then assess the situation.

Preservation Hall was incorporated at a time when there were still Jim Crow laws that prohibited the mixing of races. Ms. Jaffe has already been arrested there, along with Kid Thomas Valentine’s gang, for flouting the ban on integration.

“The judge hit with his hammer and said, ‘In New Orleans, we don’t like to mix our coffee and our cream,’ said Ben Jaffe, recalling what his parents told him. She burst out laughing and said, ‘Funny, the most popular thing in New Orleans is latte. “”

Sandra Smolen was born in Philadelphia on March 10, 1938. Her parents were Jewish immigrants from Ukraine. Her father, Jacob, held a variety of jobs, including running a gas station and bar; her mother, Lena (Kaplan) Smolen, was a housewife.

Sandra studied journalism and public relations at Harcum, Bryn Mawr., Pa., And graduated with a bachelor’s degree in 1958. She worked for an advertising agency for two years and married her husband on Christmas Day 1960. Afterwards on a honeymoon in Mexico, they headed to New Orleans, where one of his fraternity brothers lived; Mr. Jaffe had come to know the city during his military service.

After their first musical encounter at the art gallery, the Jaffes decided they would stay three more days, until the combo that had fascinated them reappeared.

“Our parents were waiting for us every day in Philadelphia,” she told Harcum magazine, “but we had to stay a little longer.”

After concluding the rental agreement for the gallery, the Jaffes joined other fans of their jam sessions to form the New Orleans Society for the Preservation of Traditional Jazz to reserve musicians; a few months later, the couple opens the room. For the first year or so, they kept the jobs they found in New Orleans, Ms. Jaffe at a typesetting company and Mr. Jaffe at a department store.

They didn’t charge for admission at the start. Instead, customers deposited money into a basket that Ms. Jaffe passed around; she would shake it if anyone seemed unwilling to contribute. Eventually they started charging $ 1 (today tickets cost $ 25- $ 50).

Business was propelled from the start with a glowing 2.5-minute Preservation Hall article – which featured Mr. Jaffe but not Ms. Jaffe – on NBC’s “Huntley-Brinkley Report”.

Mr. Jaffe began sending musicians on tour in 1963, and various versions of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band have performed around the world and recorded since. Band members included Sweet pianist Emma Barrett, brothers Willie and Percy Humphrey (who played clarinet and trumpet) and husband and wife Billie and De De Pierce (she played piano and sang, he played the trumpet and the cornet). Ben Jaffe is currently playing sousaphone in the group.

“I took the band on tour for many years,” said Resa Lambert, one of Ms. Jaffe’s sisters, who worked at the Hall for many years, in an interview. “I was a roadie. For seven men. It was great.”

In addition to her son Ben and sister, Mrs. Jaffe is survived by another son, Russell; four grandchildren; and another sister, Brenda Epstein.

The Preservation Hall Jazz Band was awarded the National Medal of Arts by President George W. Bush in 2006. The ensemble was cited for “demonstrating the unwavering spirit of New Orleans and sharing the joy of jazz in the world. New Orleans with us all ”.

Ms Jaffe, who accepted the award with her son Ben, remained involved in the room until recently, although she no longer had a practical role.

“She was calling every day to ask about ticket sales and tours,” said Ben Jaffe. “She always felt engaged and was always engaged, even when she wasn’t physically there.” Until recently, he said, she would grab a broom and sweep the sidewalk in front.

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Cory E. Barnes

The author Cory E. Barnes