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.
BJ: I think there are a few factors that contribute to that. I think one of those factors is we still have a very strong tradition of music in the church. Even though you can hear modern gospel in the church, in New Orleans you still hear "Down by the River Side." You still hear "Just a Closer Walk With Thee." You still hear "Lord, Lord, Lord." You still hear "When the Saints Go Marching In." You still hear old hymns, "I'll Fly Away." So, from a very young age, children are exposed to this music, so whether they pursue it later on, it is still a part of who they are.
The other thing we have in New Orleans is a strong school marching band tradition, unlike any other city that I have ever experienced. What happens is you have this huge community of young students that are exposed to acoustic music and this marching phenomenon at a very young age. And they have instruments at their disposal. And I think that is something that is not acknowledged because people are not aware that that is a major reason that you have fifty people who play tuba in New Orleans. It's not by chance. You know when I was nine years old, someone handed me a tuba. And that is what I did, I learned to march with a tuba at a very young age, and that's not an easy thing to do. That's a very specialized thing to do to march and play an instrument at the same time. It's something you have to start at a very young age to really get later in life.
AAJ: And you are doing some of this early education at the hall. Can you tell us some things about that and your view of the future of music in New Orleans?
BJ: My whole idea of education is to let the specialist teach the kids how to play music and let them teach the kids scales and teach them how to read music and blow their horn. People who are better at it than I am, let them teach them embouchure. And give my musicians the opportunity to be mentors to younger musicians. Because that to me is the thing that is lacking in most cities is the opportunity for younger musicians to be connected with older musicians and learn directly from them through observation and through participationthrough being there.
There is not a real secret to what we do. It's not a real complicated formula. It's really simple actually. At its core, it's real simple. You know Red Beans and Rice is just beans and water and salt and pepper and bay leafs; it's not real complicated. And unless you have the knowledge of what goes into preparing itthe time, and the soaking of the beans, and the washing of the beans. Do you mash your beans? Do you cook them overnight? High heat, low heat, whatever; it's all those intimate little details that go into making it what it ultimately is.
And it's that kind of exposure that you have to have at a young age so that later in life you can go back and make something part of you. And I think that is what so incredible about New Orleans musicians is that there is something inside of them, that runs through them, that was there before them and is going to be there after them. And that is part of what we are. We are just passing through long enough to pass it onto someone else.
AAJ: One last question for you. What's next for Preservation Hall? What about the next fifty years?
BJ: Well, I tell people that this year is really a celebration of the next fifty years, not just an acknowledgment of our past, but a celebration of our future. And I think that is important because fifty years ago, no one would have imagined that Preservation Hall would still be here or that there would still be bands playing at jazz funerals. Or that there would still be bands playing here in this style and that the music would still be relevant. My parents could have never predicted that. But when you reach that fifty year mark, all of a sudden you realize that we did it! It's done. It's possible. So now what's possible? How far can you take it? Where else can it go? And that's what I'm most interested in. You know, at the end of the day there are only so many people that we can fit through this door in a given day. There is a physical limit to how many people can experience Preservation Hall on a nightly basis.
So the next fifty years? My feeling is that we connect with people here at Preservation Hall in a very beautiful way. That our music changes people. That the music we play and the things that we do here impact people in a positive way. People leave Preservation Hall better. They leave with a deeper appreciation of themselves, of their history, of their community, and when you see something special like that take place. When you see something like you did last night with Shannon Powell's band playing with multi-generational musicians. You see Shannon Powell, who grew up with my dad, and David Torkanowski playing piano, who used to come here and my dad would let him in to take lessons.
You see Irvin Mayfield playing trumpet and what he has done for New Orleans music, and you see all of these incredible musicians playing together, you think, "I want to be a part of that! That's what I want to do. I don't want this other thing. I don't want to be a part of all these other things that are eroding America and the world." We are chipping away at all of these things that are so precious. I want to bring it back to a point where it is available to everybody everywhere. Ideally, I would love to see Preservation Hall's everywhere. I would like to see people in every city have the opportunity to experience music that's important to them in a unique environment like this, where you capture the music of that community and celebrate in a way connects with the people of that community.
The Del McCoury Band, American Legacies (McCoury Music, 2010)
Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Preservation (Preservation Hall Recordings, 2010)
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