When a honeymoon lark turned into a musical endeavor, the young bride couldn't have imagined the reverberations that would beat on after her passing.
- by Nan Parati
"We need to get those guys back on stage. How are we gonna do that?”
“Well,” said another of them, (which said what has not been verifiably recorded.) “See that couple, there on their way back home to Philadelphia from Mexico – the ones on their honeymoon? Send them to New Orleans. They have good ideas and they like jazz music. I think this will work.”
At the time of that executive meeting, art dealer and jazz enthusiast Larry Borenstein owned a tiny little art gallery on St. Peter Street in the French Quarter, where he invited local bands to come and play for tips, in order to bring customers in to look at the other pleasure he was selling, art. The kind that hangs on the wall.
Allan and Sandra Jaffe, tapped on the shoulders by Fate, and drawn to New Orleans by their mutual love of jazz music, made a side-trip to the city, went down to the Quarter, heard the beats from the street and stopped in to Mr. Borenstein’s gallery to see what was going on.
The art they found that night was the kind that swayed between the walls. It tickled the floorboards and made them dance with delight. It was the musical arts Allan and Sandra found that night that brought the young couple back to the gallery the next day. And the next.
“We didn’t come to New Orleans to start a business, or have Preservation Hall, or save the music,” Sandra Jaffe told writer and Preservation Hall clarinetist Tom Sanction in a 2011 interview for Vanity Fair “We just came to hear it.”
The Jaffes extended their stay in the city and got involved with the melodic end of Mr. Borenstein’s gallery, joining a tiny group called The New Orleans Society for the Preservation of Traditional Jazz that had been launched by two other jazz admirers. A few months later, Mr. Borenstein moved his gallery next door and offered to rent his original little 31’ x 20’ space to the newlyweds for $400 a month, hoping those little nightly gigs might turn into something larger.
By now Allan and Sandy had dropped their suitcases in this cool old city they loved, putting the return to their home state on hold for, what turned out to be, ever. Renting this little place as a concert venue wouldn’t be for the money; in the beginning, financial contributions to see a show there were voluntary, and the venture lost about $250 its first week, never truly becoming a financial success on its own.
But it was giving new ears to old music, and bringing legendary musicians like George Lewis, Punch Miller, Sweet Emma Barrett, Billie and De De Pierce, Jim Robinson, and the Humphrey Brothers back to cultural life. People were coming in, and the artists, many of whom had had to take up odd jobs to support themselves, suddenly had regular gigs again.
God, the Fates and the Ancestors got together and slapped each other on the back. “Yeah you right!” they said, “This was a good idea!”
Being a graduate of the Wharton School of Business, Allan Jaffe recognized this little music joint might not sustain his new wife and himself very long – if at all – with its rows of benches that sat a total of about 50 people who were eventually charged 50 cents, and then, a dollar each to get in.
So he and Sandy invested their money in real estate, buying a few buildings in the Quarter that they hoped might help support them one day. That, and other investments he made in the financial world kept the operation running nicely.
In addition, being who they were: good-hearted people who cared greatly about those around them, Allan and Sandy bought some buildings in surrounding neighborhoods where the older musicians, some of whom, by those days, were quite down on their luck, could live rent-free in exchange for playing at the Hall.
That’s where the Jaffes touched my life. By 1985 the musicians had gotten back on firmer financial ground, and Allan and Sandy still had their houses, open for less expensive rent to other artistic sorts who sought places to live. I got to rent one of their apartments in the Treme, where my upstairs neighbor and Preservation Hall trombonist Frank Demond hosted courtyard parties with Hall legends like Willie and Percy Humphrey, and others. Those, my friends, were some good old days!
While Allan Jaffe was the business-man, his wife Sandy was the front-woman. In the early days of Preservation Hall, she sat at the door and took the admission fee, dropping it in a highly-secure wicker basket on her lap. Attendees who, in those early admission-free days didn’t care to make a contribution were rewarded with a shaking of the basket until they decided that they, in fact, did find this music worth supporting, and reached into their pockets for some money to do that with.
Sandy was the bouncer as well, according to their son Ben Jaffe in an interview with the NY Times. “She’d step in when people were being inappropriate or espousing racist language. My mother would bite first, then assess the situation.”
All of this goodness was sprouting before Black and white folks were legally allowed to hang out together in New Orleans. Mrs. Jaffe was once arrested along with Kid Thomas Valentine’s band, for allowing Black musicians and white concert-goers into the place all at the same time.
At the hearing, “The judge banged his gavel and said, ‘In New Orleans, we don’t like to mix our coffee and cream,’” Ben Jaffe said, recalling what his parents had told him about the arrest. “(Sandy) burst out laughing and said, ‘That’s funny — the most popular thing in New Orleans is café au lait!’”
In 1963 Allan started touring with his bands, still in the era before bands were supposed to be integrated, but Allan himself played tuba with them, taking his band, initially to the American Midwest, and then, to Japan and Europe.
In a recent phone interview, Preservation Hall trumpet player Leroy Jones told me, “Allan gave those musicians an audience with promoters from all over the world. Nobody else was doing that with these musicians, and they were getting noticed.”
For the Jaffes, Mr. Jones said, the Hall and the touring was never a business. “Everything they did they saw as a cultural exchange done out of love for what they were able to make happen. The musicians were treated well and with respect, and they always felt supported.”
Sandy and Allan kept on going, just like that – doing what they knew they wanted to do, brightening New Orleans with the newest kind of old-time music, all the way to when Allan, suddenly diagnosed with melanoma, left us to go join the ancestors in 1987.
Sandy and her sister Resa Lambert took over the running of the operation after Allan died and those were some uncertain times, what with the bands on the road, and two kids in high school and college.
Wendell Brunious has played trumpet and sung with Preservation Hall since 1978. In a conversation we had after Sandy’s passing, he noted that, while Allan was out getting the glory on the road, Sandy was at home, keeping the Hall going and then, a few years later, brought the couple’s two children, Russell and Ben into the world.
Mr. Brunious said that Allan and the band were out there “winning the bacon, and the women at home never got the attention they deserved for all that they did to make that happen.”
Sandy, he said, was one of those, and she did the world a tremendous favor by raising the Jaffe children in the Hall so that they grew up in the music. It was her gift to them, and to us, ensuring that it would all keep on going.
Several times in our conversation, Mr. Brunious described Sandy as “No Nonsense,” laughing every time he said that, underscoring the idea that Sandy was the gatekeeper of the Hall in several different ways.
“She was a very nice lady – who liked to be right!” he laughed again. “She was a survivalist,” he said, “She did what she needed to do to make everything work.”
I also talked to Rick Mulcahy, who worked at Preservation Hall back in the late ‘80s and ‘90s. According to Mr. Mulchay, Sandy offered him a job after Allan’s passing. He “jumped at the chance” to become a member of the iconic institution’s support staff, working every night for the first year and most nights for many years thereafter. His wages helped pay for a degree he was pursuing at University of New Orleans.
“My future wife and I met in the Hall's carriageway one busy evening,” said Mr. Mulcahy. “I clearly remember the introduction and first handshake - and before too long I asked Sandy for time off so I could visit my wife's homeland and meet her family. It was a long trip. I asked for ten days.”
When Mr. Mulcahy returned home and to his job at the Hall, Sandy paid him for the time off.
“I protested, maybe mildly, but she simply dismissed the protests and went about her business. That's what struck and stuck: the sense of her deep, quiet, and maybe too-easily overlooked human generosity. I felt loved and would like to live a life worthy of that.”
Lloyd Miller, who worked at the Hall from 2008 to 2012 in marketing and publicity, serving as the venue manager for a while, remembered that he was “always damn pleased to see Sandy, and, no matter what else may have been going on at the time, she never failed to radiate joy from the carriageway when it was time to listen to music and to dance."
“You could always see that she was happiest in the carriageway door, watching those groups," Mr. Miller said. “Elvis Costello got to see that joy – I’ll never forget watching the two of them dance together during his Midnight Preserves set.
“Joy is the word, indeed.”
The Jaffe's son Ben, raised in the music and the love of it, took over the Hall in 1993 and has kept it all going primarily through the financial success of touring. Like his father did, Ben plays tuba and string bass with the bands.
It’s the world-wide touring fame that still supports the Hall. With its richly patinaed facade and simple rows of benches, it still looks pretty much like it did in 1961. Ben changed things up a little bit in 2019 when he added air conditioning, otherwise he’s allowed the Hall to maintain its old-New Orleans authenticity that lots of other places let slip away.
And now, Sandy’s gone to join Allan and all the old musicians at the juke joint in the sky, leaving on December 27th. She was 83 and was living primarily in Florida, able to relax knowing that Ben and the younger musicians would keep it all going.
Can you imagine the trumpet call to dance when she entered the Hereafter Hall of Jazz Preservation?
And now God, the Ancestors and the Fates can get back to work on a few other issues we’ve got going on down here. We hope they will be just as successful with those as they were with the preservation of American Jazz.
Find more stories on French Quarter Journal's home page.
As the sign writer for the Jazz Fest, Nan Parati may be the most collected artist in the world, but nobody knows who she is. Other than that, she’s lived in the French Quarter and the Treme, was the sign writer at Whole Food Company (before Whole Foods Market,) worked for Jimmy Buffet for a while, has made a life’s work out of festival design all over the country, has won awards for her plays, has a film script revving up for production and just sold a restaurant she opened in Massachusetts after Katrina took out her house and sent her out of her mind. Now she’s back in her right mind and having a real good time.
At French Quarter Journal, we cover the neighborhood as a community – not a commodity.