Music » Interviews

Preservation Hall Jazz Band's Ben Jaffe on life, death and celebrity collaboration




It's entirely fitting that the newly unveiled poster for this year's Jazz & Heritage Festival is a rendering of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. With more than 30 albums to its name, the intergenerational New Orleans band has been earning its status as a cultural treasure for a half-century.

What's no less impressive is how vital an eight-piece group, with more than three dozen alumni, remains to this day. Witness the 2013 album That's It! which was co-produced by My Morning Jacket frontman Jim James and features all-original material for the first time in the band's history.

The album follows in the wake of a 2012 box set celebrating the band's 50th anniversary, which included a version of "St. James Infirmary" remixed by celebrated deejay/producer King Britt. Other recent releases include a CD/DVD collection called The Hurricane Sessions, culled from master tapes that bandleader Ben Jaffe retrieved from Sea-Saint Studios after Katrina.

"Miraculously, the Preservation Hall tapes were probably the only ones spared by the flood," says Jaffe, who found them on a top shelf above submerged masters by New Orleans legends like Fats Domino and the Meters. "Seeing all of these tapes that had basically created the New Orleans songbook, your brain can't even really process it."

Jaffe, whose parents started Preservation Hall as a French Quarter music venue in 1961, took time out to talk about New Orleans' attitude toward life and death, the reason African-American musicians find the term "Dixieland" offensive, and the keys to his band's legacy and longevity.

I'm curious about your bringing in Jim James from My Morning Jacket last year to co-produce your album of original material. You come from such different backgrounds. To what degree did he bring a different perspective to the project?

He brought a totally different perspective, which is y it was so great to work with him. Sometimes the reason you want to bring someone in to work on a project is because they do bring a different perspective to your projects. And you know, Jim's a very special individual. He has a very keen ear and a deep understanding of what we do. He was the one who encouraged us to pursue writing original material.

How thorough was his knowledge of the music?

Well, Jim is from Louisville, lives in Louisville, and plays with musicians from Louisville. And there's a connection, I think, between people who have a passion for music and are native sons of their community.

But you know, musically it's been an eye-opening experience for Jim, too. He didn't come in and pretend that he knew all the answers. Sometimes the best thing a producer can do is just help you sort through your own ideas.

Listening to your band, the music feels timeless. And I think that, whether you're talking about Dixieland jazz or a Wild Tchoupitoulas album, you can still really connect with those traditions. Can you talk about their longevity and the connections between them?

Well, New Orleans is one large community, so it doesn't really matter what style or what genre you perform in. If you grew up here, and your parents and relatives participated in the community, then those traditions are part of your DNA. You can draw a direct bloodline from musicians performing in the Preservation Hall Jazz Band today all the way back to the very earliest days of jazz, all the way back to Storyville.

But we call the style of music we play traditional New Orleans jazz, because we find the word "Dixieland" to be really more of a later style of music that was white musicians copying the very early African-American jazz pioneers.

I'd never realized that.

Yeah, I mean, in New Orleans the word "Dixieland" would be offensive to most African-American musicians. I don't think most people outside of New Orleans really understand that the word "Dixie" is associated with pre-Civil War and Jim Crow-era South.

And "Dixieland" was a name given to the first recorded jazz band from New Orleans, which was not an African-American band, it was an Italian band. That word has had a very controversial existence.

You've been with them for 20 years now. Is it difficult to see people come and go, to retire or pass on?

Emotionally it's hard. But at the same time, that's part of the evolution of our music, and our tradition, and our lives. There's really a beauty to it, when you look back at a picture from 50 years ago, and you see the people who used to play in the band, in the seats that you now fill. You need to have that sense of history, that you do have a responsibility to the people who are looking down at you and making sure that you make the right decisions.

In terms of the music itself, Charlie sings and plays clarinet, an instrument that's a big part of the band's sound. Has that always been the case?

I think the clarinet is one of those timbres that people associate with New Orleans jazz. Your ear just wants to hear the sound of the clarinet being played. But there have been New Orleans jazz bands without clarinets. We're just very fortunate to have Charlie Gabriel still with us, you know, at 82 years old, still performing.

Does he still go out on the road with you?

He loves it. I can't keep him down. I mean, if he wasn't touring with us, he'd be out traveling the country on his own.

When I went back to New York City after 9/11, I was amazed how quickly people seemed to recover from the trauma, and I think that's true of New Orleans, too. Is there something in the character and culture there that makes people so resilient?

I think there's a deep love and passion for our city, and our community and our traditions. I really believe that when you look at the way we celebrate life and death, you realize that we have a way of overcoming adversity that's unlike anywhere else. I don't think there's any other city in the country that could have rebounded from 80 percent of their city being underwater. It's hard to even imagine that our streets were empty or that our houses were lying in ruin. It was hell, man.

Did you ever think of just moving somewhere else for good?

You know, you ask yourself that. And then you find yourself riding your bike down the street looking around, you know, in tears, going, Where the hell else do they want me to live?

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