Dec. 2 2009 12:00 AM

Preservation Hall Jazz Band brings New Orleans Yule to Wharton Center


A frizzy-haired tuba player who grew up Jewish but loves to play Creole Christmas music — is that melting pot thick enough for you?

Ben Jaffe, 38-year-old artistic director of the 46-year-old Preservation Hall Jazz Band, never celebrated Christmas as a religious holiday while growing up in New Orleans. But his dad, Preservation Hall founder Allan Jaffe, was a stickler for tradition.

“Being Jewish, we almost felt it was our obligation to be up at 7 Christmas morning,” Jaffe said. “Only we weren’t opening presents.”

The wandering Santa Claus Band of Jaffe’s youth was a humble forerunner of Preservation Hall Jazz Band’s “Creole Christmas,” coming to the Wharton Center this Friday and Saturday — part party, part community outreach, all tradition.

The Santa Claus Band of yore had big Allan Jaffe on tuba, son Ben on baritone sax, jazz historian Bill Russell on violin and assorted pals and family members.

They wandered the rooftops, alleys and streets of New Orleans on Christmas Eve and Christmas morning, stopping at hot spots, like Jackson Square, Pirate’s Alley and K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen, where they serenaded chef Paul Prudhomme and his staff with old favorites like “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen.”

Ben’s parents, Allan and Sandra, gave New Orleans jazz a permanent home by starting Preservation Hall in 1961, when old-timey music’s popularity was at its nadir.

Allan Jaffe also knew all the best places to toot a tuba, like the alcove where two alleys came together between the five-story St. Louis Cathedral and three-story Puntalba Building.

“You could play ‘Silent Night’ at a whisper and it would just echo down the alley,” Ben Jaffe recalled.

Whether it’s the once-a-year Santa Claus Band or the workhorse Preservation Hall ensemble, music is the glue, or roux, that binds New Orleans together.

To Allan and Ben Jaffe, it was never enough that recordings of old jazz survive.

“For it to be New Orleans music, at its core, it has to serve some sort of social function,” said Ben Jaffe, who took over as Preservation Hall’s creative director in 1993. “It could be a parade, church, a funeral, Mardi Gras, a concert.”

By that definition, the old-timey music almost didn’t make it.

“People think New Orleans jazz has always been popular,” Jaffe said. “The truth is, it had gone totally out of style by the 1940s and 50s and disappeared from the national radar.”

Preservation Hall, a funky tavern dating from the war of 1812, still boasts a lack of air conditioning or other comforts, but it helped rescue live New Orleans jazz when minor distractions like The Beatles and John Coltrane were peaking. “The ones I heard when I was a teenager, the ones that are still alive — that’s where they’re playing now,” said Louis Armstrong in the mid-’60s.

Jaffe feels a responsibility to safeguard the band’s repertoire, some of which is up to 100 years old.

Stars in the band’s heyday, like Jim Robinson, Cie Frazier and Percy and Willie Humphrey, are gone, but every member of the present band was born and raised in New Orleans. “The musical tradition we’re playing today is what we’ve been doing our whole life,” Jaffe said. “We’ve never had to go out and learn how to do what we do.”

Preservation Hall Jazz Band: A Creole Christmas

8 p.m. Friday, Dec. 4, and Saturday, Dec. 5 Wharton Center Pasant Theatre $38 1 (800) WHARTON