Sandra Jaffe, Preservation Hall Co-Founder, Dies Peacefully at 83

December 29, 2021
Sandra Jaffe, Preservation Hall Co-Founder, Dies Peacefully at 83

Photo courtesy of the Jaffe family

Sandra Jaffe, the co-founder of New Orleans’ Preservation Hall, a celebrated haven for fans of traditional jazz and its veteran practitioners, died peacefully on Monday. She was 83 years old.

Sandra and her husband Allan Jaffe immediately fell in love with New Orleans while passing through in 1961. The two were heading back from their extended honeymoon in Mexico City and wandered through what would become their home, the French Quarter. The Jaffes found an art gallery where traditional jazz musicians were encouraged to play for tips to stir up business and they were hooked on the sound.

“When I heard the music for the first time, it felt like a total transformation,” Sandra Jaffe said in an interview with Patches, the alumni magazine of Harcum College. “We found this whole new world. … The music was just so wonderful.”

The newlyweds kept postponing their return home with the desire to listen to more music. Before long the art gallery’s owner E. Lorenz “Larry” Borenstein, told the Jaffes he would be moving the gallery and that he would rent the space to them for $400 a month ($3,700 today) if they wanted to continue presenting music there. They immediately agreed, drove home for their things and the rest is history.

Sandra Smolen Jaffe was born in Philadelphia, grew up in Wynnefield, Pa., and received a degree in journalism and public relations from Harcum College in Bryn Mawr, Pa. After she graduated, she worked in an advertising agency in Philadelphia and took night classes at the University of Pennsylvania.

She met Allan Jaffe while watching a play in the city’s Fairmount Park. The two married in 1960 and opted to hit the road in a Volkswagen Karmann Ghia sports car before making any commitment to whatever might follow. Allan later stated, “I was looking for a better life than working in a department store in Philadelphia.”

After finding their home and their purpose the two remained in New Orleans, guiding and managing the property. Preservation Hall measures 31 feet by 20 feet and was built by Agathe Fanchon, a free woman of color, 200 years ago. Its purposely battered exterior and name which was born from the brass letters on two instrument cases that hang above its entrance hold a character like no other place in the world.

During the first years the Jaffes ran Preservation Hall, New Orleans city law banned performances by interracial groups, but the Jaffes disregarded those laws entirely. Her son Ben Jaffe, who serves as Preservation Hall’s creative director and plays sousaphone and string bass in the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, said his mother removed the “Colored” restroom signs and tossed them into the Mississippi River.

Though it took some time to turn a profit, word of mouth, exquisite music and the Jaffes vision made Preservation Hall not only fruitful but also culturally consequential. In 1961, many of the Hall’s performers could trace their lineage back to the origins of jazz in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. That is still true today.

Sandra Jaffe stopped working at Preservation Hall after the birth of her two sons Russell and Ben. But after Allan Jaffe died in 1987 of cancer, she returned to work, along with her sister and brother-in-law, Resa and Alvin Lambert. Ben Jaffe started working for Preservation Hall after he graduated from Oberlin College in 1993.

“My parents’ greatest creation was to offer the world this gift, by celebrating the African-American music tradition that had transformed them enough that they uprooted their lives and moved to New Orleans,” Ben Jaffe, the son of Allan and Sandra, told Relix in our October/November issue.

Sandra Jaffe was honored by Harcum College with a lifetime achievement award in 2010 and she and Ben Jaffe received the National Medal of Arts Award for the Preservation Hall Jazz Band President George W. Bush in the Oval Office in 2006.

Sandra Jaffe is survived by her two sons, Russell Jaffe and the before-mentioned Ben Jaffe, who currently oversees Pres Hall; two sisters, Resa Lambert and Brenda Epstein, and four grandchildren Allaina, Rebecca, William and Emma Lena.