Ben Jaffe: Preserving the Hall
Preservation Hall was founded fifty years ago in a small art gallery in New Orleans' French Quarter by Allan and Sandra Jaffe as a place to preserve traditional jazz. Seven nights a week, tourists and locals enjoyed the best of this jazz style in the small performance space for just a few dollars collected at the door in a basket. Today, the lines still stretch down the block and the dollars are still collected in a basket. And while Allan has since passed and Sandra is happily retired in New York, the hall is still in the family. Their son, bassist and tuba player Ben Jaffe, is the creative director for the hall and also travels 150 days a year with the touring band. Jaffe has lived up to his title with creative collaborations, education for young New Orleans musicians, and his vision for the next fifty years of Preservation Hall.
All About Jazz : The band has recently played with a lot of greats, Del McCoury, Jim James, Pete Seeger, Ani DeFranco and many others. How did this idea come about?
Ben Jaffe: The idea for collaborations has always been an idea that I have been interested in pursuing. The opportunities have not always been there. The hurricane, after Katrina, we were presented with the opportunity to do a benefit album for our music outreach program. I had always wanted to do this project where we would invite guest artist to Preservation Hall. It really started with The Blind Boys of Alabama. We were invited guest on their project down in New Orleans and that went on to win a Grammy. We went on to tour with them. And that was the first time I had the experience of working with another group and touring with another group and other artist. It's really a whole other world of knowledge when you work beyond your expertise and knowledge musically, artistically, even in business. There are a lot of things you have to put together to make things work.
And then I came up with this idea to do a whole project of collaborations. A very simple concept where we have people come to Preservation Hall to interpret our repertoire with their singing and playing with us. It was a very basic and beautiful concept not unlike what other artists have done like Rod Stewart; even Paul McCartney has a record out with standards. It's not something that no one has ever thought of before, but the idea of having it done right here, where the artist physically comes to Preservation Hall, records in Preservation Hall , meets us, becomes a part of us, eats with us, and records in a fashion that maybe they are not use to, working with new musiciansit was more than, "Let's just make a track." it was more, "Hey, come be a part of our family. We want to be a part of your family. Come meet us. Come meet our fans and our musicians. We want to meet your fans and musicians." It's really turned into that where everywhere we travel we know somebody. And we meet people we want to create music with.
AAJ : How has it changed the music?
BJ: Well, you and I were talking about that before, about that word, "change." The music has not changed. It has evolved into what it is today; the same way it has evolved for the past hundred-plus years. The beautiful thing about what we do here at Preservation Hall and in New Orleans in general is we are able to retain the qualities that make our music so special in the first place: the ability to connect with a listener and with an audience member. That's a very unique thing that you don't find outside of New Orleans, where jazzwhether it is considered traditional, or folk music or root music, outside of New Orleans-is still considered popular music.
I don't see anything about what we do as old at all. To me, it is very, very new and fresh. When we go out and play parades on the street; when we played on the street on Mardi Gras day, we played the same songs we've played in Preservation Hall for fifty years. It's new people performing it and new people following us, but on Mardi Gras day they tell me there were 800, maybe 1000 people parading through the French Quarter behind us. You can't see them, but you can feel them behind you parading through the streets.
And that's something that might be subtle, but it is very important to understand the parade culture in New Orleans, because it should be more than a footnote. It is very, very important to who we are as a city. It has a huge impact as to how we experience music in New Orleans. We parade in New Orleans, and when I say parade, we don't stand on the side of the street and watch the parade go by; we are the parade. That's a different experience that you do not find outside of New Orleans.
AAJ: What do you attribute to how the music stays so popular in our culture? Like you said, it's almost like it is brand new in New Orleans.