Saving the Sounds of New Orleans
With a history that stretches back nearly 300 years, memories abound in The Big Easy.
There’s the memory of the Battle of New Orleans, which closed out the War of 1812. There’s the memory of being the birthplace of jazz, with its sound still filling the French Quarter. There’s Hurricane Katrina, which completely changed the city 10 years ago this year. And there’s the countless Mardi Gras celebrations with revelers flocking to the city for centuries.
For New Orleans native Ben Jaffe, it’s his own memories that have proved to be the most valuable thing he possesses. There are the memories of making summertime trips to visit his grandparents in Pottsville, PA, where he would spend time in his grandfather’s arts supply store. There’s the memory of the birth of his daughter two years ago in New Orleans. And then there’s the musical memory of playing with his father, Allan, on Mardi Gras day with the Olympia Brass Band and his godfather, Harold “Duke” Dejan, in 1980.
Jaffe, who serves as the creative director for the world-famous Preservation Hall and the music venue’s house band – the Preservation Hall Jazz Band – has spent his entire life steeped in the history of the sounds of New Orleans jazz. His parents, Allan and Sandra, started Preservation Hall in the early ’60s after moving to the city from Pennsylvania, creating a venue that helped re-popularize traditional New Orleans jazz and later taking those sounds around the world through the house band made up of some of the originators of jazz.
Today, Jaffe continues his parents’ legacy, playing tuba and bass in the band that celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2011. They’ve played everywhere from Carnegie Hall to the Hollywood Bowl and performed with the likes of My Morning Jacket and Tom Waits. Their 2013 album – That’s It! – was the band’s first to feature completely original material, and last year they were featured on an episode of the HBO series Sonic Highways, which was created by Foo Fighters’ founder Dave Grohl.
Jaffe and the rest of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band make their way to Lancaster on Sunday, playing a show at the American Music Theater with fellow legendary Louisiana musician Buckwheat Zydeco. We caught up with Jaffe on the phone from his home where he talked about the history of jazz, being a cultural ambassador and life and death in New Orleans.
Michael Yoder: Are you getting a little bit of rest before hitting the road again?
Ben Jaffe: Yeah, I’ve got a 2 year old, so not much rest – not much rest at all. And I run this amazing music hall, too, so no rest for the wicked [laughs]. I always have to remind myself, “Be very careful what you wish for in life, because you may get it.”
MY: Was it your wish to live this life as a musician and running Preservation Hall?
BJ: In hindsight, I look back on the path that I’ve taken in life, and it looks like it was all blueprinted somewhere in a playbook, but it wasn’t at all. My parents didn’t actively encourage me to play music. They just allowed me to be around them a lot. Most of the people who I grew up with and most of the people who find myself attracted to – even to this day – are artists and creative people that New Orleans tends to attract. It’s that mind of the artist. You know, I’m not trained to run a music hall and I don’t know how you train to be a New Orleans bass player or tuba player. But I guess I kind of did; I just didn’t know I was doing it.
MY: So your educational process as a musician has taken on an organic feel?
BJ: That’s how music and our traditions in New Orleans are passed down from generation to generation – through this informal mentorship that takes place. People absorb a lot of our traditions and music – I don’t want to say telepathically. But when you’re sitting in church and there’s a band performing at a funeral for someone in the community and you’re a child, you’re absorbing all of this. You’re taking in all of this entire experience. When I was growing up, that’s what was going on. And it’s still going on today. People don’t run from death in New Orleans. Not that we’re all waiting for the day that we die, but we’re not fearful of it. We don’t try to separate death from life in New Orleans. You go to a funeral in New Orleans, and it’s little kids, it’s teenagers, it’s all ages. I’m always surprised when people come to New Orleans, and I’ll say, “Hey, I’m going to play at a funeral today if you want to come along.” More often than not, if it’s someone from outside of New Orleans, it may be their first funeral that they’ve ever attended – definitely their first New Orleans-style funeral.
MY: Do you remember your first New Orleans funeral?
BJ: Well, I’ve been attending funerals since before I was born. But I do have early memories of being at funerals for band members – gentlemen who played with my father. My dad was there to perform in honor of them. I was young – maybe 7, 8, 9 years old. Playing at a funeral is something that we do to honor our fallen heroes. It’s really a beautiful tradition.
“There’s lots of challenges. When you’re walking on sacred ground, you have to be mindful of every step you take. It’s acknowledging that this is a tradition that you’ve come to represent, and you’re the custodian.”
MY: Is there a movement among New Orleans musicians who take to task others who try to push the boundaries of the city’s musical traditions?
BJ: I don’t think it’s ever done intentionally. No matter what style of music you play in New Orleans, we all have this shared experience. Like those jazz funerals – you can’t live in New Orleans and not hear a procession at one point in your lifetime, or be a witness to it or attend a funeral. It doesn’t happen every day, but it happens often enough that it’s a big part of what goes on in New Orleans. So it doesn’t matter if you’re playing rock & roll or R&B or old-tine New Orleans-style jazz or funk or any music – these people are part of your world and part of your community. More than anything, what people value in New Orleans is purity. Kind of unconsciously, are you enriching this tradition with your contribution to it? It’s not done in a real heady kind of way. Once you start thinking about it too much, it loses a little bit of the thing that makes it special.
MY: Is it ever difficult for you to not only be a musician, but also serve as a cultural ambassador for New Orleans all around the world?
BJ: There’s lots of challenges. When you’re walking on sacred ground, you have to be mindful of every step you take. It’s acknowledging that this is a tradition that you’ve come to represent, and you’re the custodian. That’s a huge responsibility to take on. A lot of it has to fall back on the intention of the actions, and in New Orleans you can really sense that. Is someone just trying to get over, or is the intent pure and honorable? More than anybody else, the Preservation Hall Band – the intent of the group and what it symbolizes and represents – is incredible; it’s beautiful. We represent seven generations of New Orleans musicians. That alone is enough to make me want to wake up in the morning and do what I do.
MY: I’m still amazed by the story of your parents moving from rural Pennsylvania and starting Preservation Hall in the early ’60s.
BJ: I can’t even imagine the mindset of my mom and dad that would have taken them this far outside of their experience. It wasn’t like they were coming from musical families and had a tradition of being around music and creative types. They came from fairly conservative, poor, middle-class suburbs. Somehow, I think it was a combination of the right moment in time and the right age and the right experience. The country was really going through an amazing period of change. I often think the ’50s get overshadowed by the ‘60s. But if you really think about it, the ‘50s is when the Civil Rights Movement started. Pete Seeger and The Weavers – these were amazing times. The country was changing 180-degrees all the time in the ‘50s. It’s not as fun as the Summer of Love and LSD and the Grateful Dead, but you had Harry Belafonte and Odetta and Mahalia Jackson and the beginning of the Newport Folk Festival – this embracing of an identity and figuring out our identity as a nation. Those were all children of the ‘40s and ‘50s that gave birth to this new national identity. And that’s what drove my parents to New Orleans. It was a sense of social justice. They had no idea when they were coming to New Orleans that they were going to get involved in music. They were just coming down to explore the city and just get an understanding of what it was. To them, it was like going to The Village in New York or North Beach in San Francisco. You go to the French Quarter, and this was a magical place. It’s still a magical place. It’s a place that’s attracted thinkers and artists and musicians. Preservation Hall has always been a center for that, too.
MY: New Orleans is definitely one of the few places I’ve been where you can feel the energy of the city as you first come in.
BJ: You pass through a portal as you come into New Orleans. You definitely feel that you are somewhere else. Because we are geographically in the South, sometimes we’re confused as a Southern city. But I always think of New Orleans as more of the Northern Caribbean than of the South.
MY: With the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina coming up, does the band have anything special planned to pay tribute?
BJ: We don’t have anything official on the books yet. I think this whole year for us is a celebration, in a lot of ways – the strength of our communities and our city. We definitely all feel like survivors here. We don’t necessarily want to celebrate Katrina. We want to acknowledge the people who lost their lives and the people whose lives were turned upside-down and became tragic as a result of this disaster. We are a city that does celebrate at funerals; we do dance when life ends. I think every day is a tribute to Katrina and our resilience – every time we play music.
Preservation Hall Jazz Band headlines American Music Theatre (2425 Lincoln Hwy East, Lancaster) on Sunday, February 15. 7pm. $57. Click here for tickets.