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Catching Up With

Ben Jaffe: Preserving the Hall

By Published: May 8, 2012
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 participation—through 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 it—the 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.

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