Posted October 14, 2013 by Jeff in Tunes

Something Old, Something New: Preservation Hall Jazz Band

Though it did deliver a serious blow that temporarily put its Preservation Hall home out of commission, not even Hurricane Katrina could knock out the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. The group that plays a distinctive style of jazz that’s associated with the Crescent City has been going strong since the early 1960s. But lately current musical director Ben Jaffe, the son of the late Allan Jaffe, who first opened up the New Orleans club with his wife Sarah, has steered the band toward a more contemporary sound. Co-produced by My Morning Jacket’s Jim James, its new album, That’s It!, is a bit funkier than previous releases and even inspired a group of breakdancers to choreograph some dance moves for the title track. Jaffe recently phoned in from New Orleans to discuss the band’s legacy.

Talk about what it was like when you took over as musical director in 1993.
A lot of things all took place in a short amount of time. My father passed away in 1987 and then I went to Oberlin [College] from 1989 to 1993. In my last year at Oberlin, the bass player who took over my dad’s position didn’t want to travel anymore. It was taking a toll on him. I graduated from Oberlin and left the next day and joined the band in France. I was 22. I was playing with some of the original members of the band. My job at that point was to make sure things were organized and ran smoothly and that the musicians were taken care of on the road and didn’t have anything to worry about. I was managing them but not the way most people think of a manager. I wasn’t behind the scenes making phone calls. I was getting them hamburgers at 2am in the morning. I was going to soundcheck and setting up the lights. I did that for a long time. I was a hands-on manager up until the hurricane hit and that’s when things started transforming for me. That was a seminal moment in all of our lives.

Were you heavily involved with the group prior to that?
Yeah. We were part of the family. When we would go on tour, we were part of the show. We were selling merchandise. My dad was getting us ready. By the time I was 14, I could have taken the Rolling Stones out on the road. I knew the road that well. I was out there selling merchandise with my mom. I knew if the piano was out of tune. I knew where to place microphones. My dad welcomed me into his world. Now, I’m a new father myself and it’s interesting to see how that works. My dad opened up Preservation Hall’s doors. It was literally two blocks from our house.

The band’s been active since 1963. What’s the key to its longevity?
I really believe it was my parents’ drive and core belief in what they had created. They had very strong sense of equality and justice and that’s what brought them to New Orleans. The fact that there was music here was icing on the cake. They came to New Orleans because they were attracted to what was taking place and happening here. The whole country was transforming, starting with Rosa Parks. The fact that they got involved with music was a complete coincidence. They loved music and they were fans of New Orleans jazz. My mom always talks about a Louis Armstrong record being the first record that she got on 78. Musicians they had listened to were still alive but didn’t have an outlet to perform in the style and in a way that celebrated their music and history. There were opportunities to perform in New Orleans then, but it was degrading and humiliating. Preservation Hall created an environment that celebrated African American history and music and culture. It opened its door to both black and white audiences. That was unheard of.

These musicians aren’t political people. But they taught me that you impact the world and you don’t let the world impact you.  

What about Preservation Hall’s music is so appealing?
There’s something universal about it. I believe there are universal truths we all share. We were just in Korea. Our clarinet player is 81. We were playing for 30,000 kids at a festival who were literally going apeshit for us. He said, ‘It’s not different than when I was a kid. They’re having a good time and out in the fresh air, dancing and singing.’ It was so encouraging and refreshing. You know how different the United States can be, even from county to county. Our music is somehow above that. That’s something I learned. These musicians aren’t political people. But they taught me that you impact the world and you don’t let the world impact you. And New Orleans jazz rocks. People dance to this music. We’re playing a funeral on Saturday morning and the kids are going to dance, the parents are going to dance and the priest is going to dance.

The new album is the band’s first collection of original tunes?
It’s our first album of material that we composed. These are our songs. It’s also a new chapter for us in a lot of ways. We recorded it in Preservation Hall. Jim James and I co-produced it. He brought a whole new sense of fidelity to the way we usually record the band. He was able to bring his ears and knowledge of recording into our world. That was amazing. We had never made such a high fidelity recording of the band. He and his engineer packed up the My Morning Jacket studio and they literally packed his entire studio into his tour van. It was probably 100 pieces of equipment and 50 microphones. We unloaded it and recorded for a full week.

I love the title track. What inspired it?
When you play jazz, one of the challenges as an acoustic band is how to create the energy that people get from volume and density. How can a jazz band rock? How does it translate into that world? Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter were pioneers in world music and fusion. Jaco Pastorius created a new sound to meet the technology. What about bringing the technology to meet sound. Look at a band like Mumford & Sons. They have just as much impact as U2 or the Rolling Stones. Sonically, they don’t sacrifice anything. A lot of times when you go to hear an acoustic band play live, my experience is that you sacrifice the sound of the band. The band wants the volume but they overplay to create the volume instead of letting the technology create the volume. If you think about it, the reason that early jazz bands had tubas was because they were louder than basses. Duke Ellington had a tuba and a bass in his band. Until bass players like Walter Page figured out how to get enough volume out of their basses. Today, technology is a beautiful thing if it’s used correctly. I can blow my trumpet and reach 10,000 people. Technology cannot be separate from music anymore. It’s not a matter of being left behind. It’s part of our civilization today. We have that perfect balance of acoustic music and technology. If I hadn’t had so much experience at Preservation Hall playing to 50 or 75 people at a time, I wouldn’t know what acoustic music sounds like. It’s something I’ve trained to do my whole life. That’s what we want to create with that first track. It’s like the sound of elephants coming down the street. We wanted to make the bass fuzzy and indefinable. We wanted the rhythm to be really strong.

I wanted it to capture the energy and intensity of a New Orleans band coming down the street and being followed by hundreds of dancers.

It reminds me a little of the Fleetwood Mac tune “Tusk.”
When you slow it down or just pick out one track at a time, you hear the definition in the individual tracks. It’s actually two tubas playing together at the same time. A lot of bass players use octave pedals to make it sound fuller. We just decided to use two tubas. That’s how you get that full sound.  When you capture the acoustic sound of the instrument, you hear things you don’t normally hear. I wanted it to capture the energy and intensity of a New Orleans band coming down the street and being followed by hundreds of dancers.

Who’s the guy dancing in the video?
All of the dancers, the hip-hop guys and breakdancers and the tap dancer are all based in Los Angeles. They reached out to us and got their hands on the track through a competition we posted online. They realized something that I’ve always known. That what we play is hip-hop. It’s rock ’n’ roll. That’s what Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton and King Oliver were doing. A hundred years ago, they were like Nas, Kanye and Jay-Z. If you had to identify those guys, they were hip-hop rock ’n’ roll superstars. I know that once people are exposed to [our music] and hear it, they flip out. When I saw these young dancers who don’t listen to jazz at all, that’s amazing to me. It’s not about being in a category.



Jeff started writing about rock ’n’ roll some 20 years ago when he stood in the pouring rain to hitch hike his way to see R.E.M. on their Life’s Rich Pageant tour. Since that time, he's written for various daily newspapers, alt-weeklies, magazines and websites. Feel free to comment on his posts or suggest music, film and art to him at [email protected].