SFJAZZ.org | Fridays at Five: Ben Jaffe Q&A

On The Corner Masthead

Fridays at Five:
A Q&A with Preservation Hall Jazz Band's Ben Jaffe

June 29, 2020 | by Richard Scheinin

Allen Toussaint and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band

For the third part of his in-depth look at SFJAZZ’s Fridays at Five streaming concert series, staff writer Richard Scheinin speaks to Preservation Hall Jazz Band leader Ben Jaffe. They discuss live music in the time of the coronavirus and how musicians can move forward with their careers amidst such uncertainty. The Preservation Hall Jazz Band is joined by New Orleans songwriting legend Allen Toussaint for this week’s Fridays at Five.

Even with Preservation Hall closed, even with all his gigs canceled, Ben Jaffe is an optimist: “You want to take that little glowing charcoal and make it glow even bigger,” he says.

Jaffe has played double bass and tuba with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band for nearly 30 years. Having lived through Hurricane Katrina, he describes New Orleanians as “survivors” and “warriors.” Amid all the hurt of the coronavirus, he is treating it as a chance to explore new technologies that may keep the musical community intact and even growing.

This week on Fridays at Five — SFJAZZ’s new streaming series of archival concerts — you can see Jaffe perform with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band and Allen Toussaint, the late pianist, singer and composer. Filmed in November 2014 at the SFJAZZ Center in San Francisco, the show unites a dyed-in-the-wool New Orleans legend — Toussaint — with the city’s most widely known jazz band. This is the second time the Preservation Hall band has appeared on Fridays at Five since the series launched in March; in April, one of the group’s performances from summer 2019 was featured. (For $5 monthly, or $60 annually, you can sign up for the weekly series here: www.sfjazz.org/watch. Upcoming shows will feature guitarist John Scofield, singer Cécile McLorin Salvant, and saxophonists Branford Marsalis and Joshua Redman.)

Ben Jaffe

We spoke to Jaffe about the challenges faced by artists and institutions as the coronavirus alters — and for the time being eradicates — the musical landscape as we’ve known it.

Q: Jazz organizations are jumping onto the new streaming platform. What do you make of this new musical world?

A: Developing a new relationship with technology — that’s something that jazz has struggled with, in the same way that classical music has struggled.

How do you take this thing — this sacred art where the human interaction is part of the ritual of it — and adapt to this new way of presenting or experiencing it? It’s almost like, “How do you get a body massage without another person actually performing the act of the massage?”

If it can’t be enjoyed live, does that mean it’s not legitimate? That the experience of the artist and the experience of the audience is no longer legitimate if we’re not in the same room having an experience together? And that’s what me and a lot of my friends have been asking ourselves — is the experience still real if it’s a virtual experience?

Q: That raises another question: What was it like to watch yourself and the band on Fridays at Five in April?

A: It was amazing, actually. It captured our performance with reverence and quality. That’s what was really striking to me — the quality of the audio and the attention to detail and the quality of the video. It didn’t feel like we were compromising. And as I sat here watching it in real time, I was thinking, “Wow, SFJAZZ probably didn’t even know exactly why they were doing this when they started filming concerts.” They just kind of felt they had to do it and for the right reason — of preserving the music. And now they’re sitting on hundreds of incredible performances from the past few years.

And I’m sure Randall Kline (SFJAZZ’s founder and Executive Artistic Director) and others at the organization can remember special moments when something incredible happened on stage — and now it’s in their archive. It happens at Preservation Hall all the time, where we walk off and say, “I wish we’d taped that one. Doggone it! Hey, did anybody capture anything on their phones?”

So what I’ve learned from this process is that we should be archiving our performances. We’ve always talked at Preservation Hall about how we should have cameras set up around the room to capture the performances. And after watching SFJAZZ, it’s like, “You know what? Let’s make this a real thing. Let’s actually get this on the calendar, so when Preservation Hall opens its doors again, this is part of what we do.” As an institution, this should be part of who we are. We have a responsibility to preserve these performances.

Preservation Hall Jazz Band at SFJAZZ Gala 2018 (photo by Drew Altizer)

Q: Are you a computer guy?

A: Not really. I’m one of those people who had a difficult relationship with social media. I resisted Facebook.

Q: So how are you adapting to this increasingly virtual musical world?

A: One of the things I’ve watched is the way that my daughter, who will be eight this summer, reacts with the internet. Computers are very fluid for her. The internet is very real to her. And what she is experiencing on the internet is true wonderment. And I’ve really started putting myself in her place and thinking back to when I was her age, when I would sit around with people who were the most incredible storytellers. And through their stories, I traveled back to other times and experiences — the Spanish Civil War or the marches of the Civil Rights Era. Their stories captured my imagination — and that was a virtual experience for me. I wasn’t at this protest march during the 1960s, but this person’s story put me there.

So I’ve started thinking about the responsibility that we have as artists and institutions to deal with this technology. The power of the tool is very strong.

You know, when South by Southwest got canceled because of COVID, that was the beginning of us all stepping back and realizing, “This is serious.” And then I saw what Willie Nelson did in response to the virus, and that really made an impression. Every year during South by Southwest, he holds his own festival on his ranch near Austin, and this year he did the whole thing online.

It was the first virtual event that I experienced after the virus started; it happened within a week of Preservation Hall closing our doors. And I saw how he did it — that you could just set up your phone, lean it against something, and use that as your tool. At that moment, it wasn’t about the quality of the visuals or the sound. What I cared about was watching my friends, these artists, working through something that we were all collectively experiencing. Willie had people dialing in from all over the country and it was an amazing event. Jim James (of My Morning Jacket) was singing in his bathroom, because it has amazing reverb. And (the folk duo) Shovels & Rope dialed in, and their kids were running around behind them, and she was crying. And I was like, “Oh, wow. Artists are connecting differently, with the internet.”

Q: Then what happened?

A: I started exploring. A friend of mine said, “Ben, I think you would enjoy Instagram if you would enter the right communities of people.” And I began slowly uncovering layer after layer until I got to the marrow and began discovering my community, discovering my people on Instagram. And I realized my feeds don’t have to be witty or overly smart. You don’t have to be an entertainer and do the tap dance thing. It’s more like, “What are your interests? What’s important to you?” And if you’re able to distill to the essence of what’s important to you, that’s art! And that’s when you start connecting to people.

Q: So after watching Willie Nelson’s online festival, you kind of started your own baby festival by broadcasting over Instagram from your porch. It was just you — talking, singing, or DJing your favorite tracks.

A: That’s it. Every night at 6:30, during the dinner hour, I just got on and hit “play” and here came “Keep Your Head Up,” which is like our band’s theme song, and it means something special these days. (The tune is in A Tuba to Cuba, the 2018 documentary about the band, and on the soundtrack album.) And I did that for about four days, and then Ellis Marsalis passed away and it hit me. First it hit me that his family wasn’t able to go to the hospital, and the sadness started coming over me. And then I realized that we weren’t going to be able to memorialize him the way we always do in New Orleans in the African-American community with a funeral jazz procession. So the next day, I got on my feed and played a Mahalia Jackson song, “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” and then I did “Keep Your Head Up.”

Q: You made your own funeral procession.

A: Yeah. And people responded, “Ben, thank you.” And my sets kept growing and expanding. And then Bill Withers passed away, and the next artist passed away, and the next. And it was incredible. Hundreds of people started showing up every day. And it’s not a fancy production, but it’s just that at that time, every day, it became our time to get together, and that’s our prayer.

And it’s not that we’re all willing to give up on the sound quality or the video quality. But we’re willing to accept whatever we have so long as it promotes that human need to connect — right now, it’s through our phone. That’s what we have. We all just want to stay connected. (Deciding that the nightly feeds had “run their course,” Jaffe recently ended them in order “to focus my energy back on the Hall, our foundation, and my family.”)

Q: How has the band responded to the COVID crisis?

A: We’ve done a couple of songs where we each recorded our part at home, separately, and then we put them together as a video. We did a funeral dirge to memorialize all those who have succumbed to COVID, and we did the same for “Keep Your Head Up.” You do a sad song and then you do a happy song. And I was proud. I was shocked at how good they came out. (Watch the videos here and here.)

Q: How is Charlie Gabriel, your saxophonist, doing? He’s in his 80s.

A: He’s our senior member, and he and his wife have been locked down. I go over to his house. I bring him food, and we social distance. I was over to his house a couple of days ago to give him a haircut. I wore a mask and my gloves.

He’s like a father and a grandfather to me.

Preservation Hall Jazz Band. Saxophonist Charlie Gabriel, seated, is in the center.

Q: What were your first thoughts when the pandemic emerged?

A: It was, “Here we go again, man.” We’re survivors in New Orleans. And given our Katrina history, we may be better suited than anybody to take on this challenge.

Q: How is it different than Katrina?

A: It’s global. I’m not a doom-and-gloom person. I tend to be on the optimistic side, but it’s something that we all just talk about philosophically. Katrina was something you actually could physically see. You could see the damage. This is strange. It’s a number on the TV screen. It’s the email saying someone you know has passed away. There’s no closure to it. It’s something that’s happening out in the ether. I struggle with the invisibility of it, this thing that you can’t touch.

Q: How can you keep moving forward at Preservation Hall?

A: I always fall back on the purpose of our existence. When I think about Preservation Hall and its purpose and the reason it came to be — or the reason that any organization, like SFJAZZ, came to be — it was that a group of people said, “This is something our community needs.” So you create this thing to serve this void or this piece of the community, something that fulfills your own life and now you want to take that little glowing charcoal and make it glow even bigger.

Q: You’ll keep doing that?

A: Got to keep it going, man. One foot after the other.

Addendum: Our conversation with Jaffe took place before the killing of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis on May 25. Last week, Jaffe emailed his thoughts about the killing and the ensuing protests for racial justice. He wrote:

We watched with horror. It didn’t feel entirely new. Charlie Gabriel has told me stories of seeing photos of lynchings. The photographs of Emmett Till’s mother standing over the casket. The photographs of the girls murdered in an Alabama church. I recall watching the beating of Rodney King on national television. We can’t pretend this behavior is new or that racism is not a real threat, as big a threat as it’s always been in this country. I recently read that 34 of the signers of the Declaration of Independence were slave owners. Let that settle in. I also would like to make a point about a movie that had a huge impact on me: Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing.” When I watch the movie now, I think to myself, “Is this 2020? Is this 1970? Is this Tulsa in the 1920s?” How do we, why do we, keep repeating the same story?

A staff writer at SFJAZZ, Richard Scheinin is a lifelong journalist. He was the San Jose Mercury News' classical music and jazz critic for more than a decade and has profiled scores of public figures, from Ike Turner to Tony La Russa and the Dalai Lama.