Marching The Tradition Forward: Celebration of Preservation Hall Jazz Band
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Marching The Tradition Forward: Celebration of Preservation Hall Jazz Band

January 8, 2018 | by Richard Scheinin

Preservation Hall Jazz Band

Ben Jaffe has taken some heat over the past few years. He is the leader of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, a job that carries a considerable degree of weight and responsibility.

How do you “preserve” the jazz of New Orleans?

Do you embalm it, opening every show with “Hindustan” – popularized by Sidney Bechet several centuries ago – and closing with “When the Saints Go Marching In”? Or do you light a match, torch the formula and march the tradition forward? Jaffe aims for the latter, collaborating with the likes of Arcade Fire, Tom Waits and the Blind Boys of Alabama. Improbably, after more than 50 years and innumerable iterations, the band has found a new audience and a new sound: “It has opened up like a flower,” he says. It played at the Bonnaroo and Coachella festivals. More significantly, it went to Cuba in 2015 and practically was reborn: “It was very much like seeing your reflection,” Jaffe says, recalling the sense of shared African roots. The impact is evident on Preservation Hall’s new album, So It Is, where drummer Walter Harris – the scion of an old New Orleans musical family – explodes through a world of motherland rhythm. There is rhumba and Afro-beat, samba and swing. There still are plenty of NOLA roots in place: the blues, the church, the dirge of funeral parades. But the picture has been reframed. The horns are screaming. Afro-Cuban rhythm has come to the fore.

“We’ve emerged as a voice of New Orleans – the new New Orleans, not just as an example of a bygone era,” says Jaffe, 46, who has managed the band, while playing double bass and tuba, since 1993. Inevitably, some old fans have complained and fallen away. But this latest chapter in the group’s evolution is pivotal, he believes. “Because it can become crippling artistically when all anybody wants to hear is a certain repertoire performed a certain way. I didn’t want to ever see us becoming a repertory band: ‘The early music of New Orleans jazz as performed by the Preservation Hall Jazz Band.’ That just wouldn’t feel sincere to me and it wouldn’t feel honest.”

His parents, Allan and Sandra Jaffe, founded Preservation Hall in the French Quarter of New Orleans in 1961, and from that venue the band emerged. Now SFJAZZ will honor Preservation Hall – the institution, practically synonymous with New Orleans – with a Lifetime Achievement Award. On Feb. 1, Jaffe is to accept the honor at the SFJAZZ Gala, where the band will perform with Ellis Marsalis, Terence Blanchard, Chucho Valdés, Airto Moreira, Big Freedia and the SFJAZZ Collective. Jaffe calls it “a dream show.” It’s the set-up for the Preservation Hall Jazz Band’s three-day run at Miner Auditorium (Feb. 2-4), where the dance floor will be open. Expect more of that motherland pulse.

A young Ben Jaffe, and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band

Jaffe grew up around the corner from Preservation Hall and was mentored by his late father – also a tuba player – and numerous of the city’s elder musicians, the “kings and queens” of the city, as he puts it. He played in Mardi Gras parades and funeral processions, and particularly remembers being taken under the wing of saxophonist Harold Dejan, leader of the Olympia Brass Band.

“And one of the beautiful things about this whole community of New Orleans musicians that I grew up with was the way in which they seamlessly walked in and out of different musical worlds,” Jaffe says. “That’s something that I’ve always carried with me. Everybody I knew who was a jazz musician played in Fats Domino’s band, and they also played in church. And some of the guys played with Dr. John or with Ernie K-Doe,” who had a Top 40 hit with Allen Toussaint’s “Mother-in-Law,” or “they’d be playing at Preservation Hall. You’d see these guys everywhere.”

Considering that history, there is nothing unusual about the new musical jambalaya that Preservation Hall is cooking.

Charlie Gabriel

Jaffe points to the band’s oldest member, 85-year-old saxophonist Charlie Gabriel, who is the great grandson of New Orleans bass player Narcesse Gabriel, grandson of New Orleans cornet player Martin Joseph and son of New Orleans drummer and clarinetist Martin Manuel. Gabriel is steeped in the city’s musical tradition – though he spent much of his life in Detroit, where he played bebop with Kenny Burrell and was music director for Aretha Franklin’s band. Gabriel has also played in Salsa and polka bands. He moved back to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, joined the Preservation Hall Jazz Band in 2009, and finds nothing especially shocking about touring with Arcade Fire: “It’s the same seven notes, regardless of how you go about it,” he says. “The times change. The music changes, too, so you paint a new picture with the horn, keep it nice and fresh. We’re preserving this music – all forms of this music – and giving it to the next generation.”

Growing up, Jaffe didn’t think about carrying the jazz torch.

“I was an apprentice to these older, African-American jazz pioneers,” he says. “They were like Kung Fu masters. You live in a dojo, what do you do for the first ten years? You sweep. And for the first 20 years of my life, I made sure that the hall was maintained while this elder generation lived out their careers. I wasn’t prepared to make any artistic choices until I had that experience under my belt and I had those years of being on the road and performing shoulder-to-shoulder and ensuring that there was a place for the last generation of these elder statesmen.”

Everything changed with Katrina.

Preservation Hall was forced to close its doors for a while. “It was life or death,” Jaffe remembers. “It was survival, and when you’re put in a survival situation, something comes out that had lain dormant during times of calm. When you’re put in a place of struggle, you have that fight-or-flight response, and I stayed and fought, and the band did, we all did. And something really beautiful emerged from that struggle.”

Pete Seeger performing with Preservation Hall Jazz Band

From outside the city, musicians began reaching out to the Preservation Hall Band: Pete Seeger, Tom Waits, Foo Fighters, Dave Matthews, My Morning Jacket, Neko Case, Elvis Costello. Their concern was “more than a handshake and a hug,” Jaffe says. They all wanted to collaborate.

The flower began to unfold.

When in New Orleans, the band continues to perform at Preservation Hall where Jaffe might call for a night of traditional sounds: music by George Lewis, Sweet Emma Barrett, Kid Thomas Valentine or Billie and De De Pierce, those kings and queens. They are not forgotten.

On the other hand, Jaffe has prepared something out-of-the-box for Feb. 6, when the band plans to gather outside Preservation Hall for music in the streets. Members of Arcade Fire will be there, as will RAM, a rock 'n' roots band from Port-au-Prince, Haiti, along with the Pinettes, an all-female brass band from New Orleans.

“As a young kid, I remember there being this world of New Orleans jazz people who had a certain idea of what New Orleans jazz was and what it should sound like and I never felt comfortable around those people,” Jaffe says. “I respected them because they were my elders, but I just never understood where they were coming from: ‘You don’t listen to Michael Jackson? You really don’t listen to Earth, Wind and Fire?’ I just didn’t understand. ‘Do you watch television? Do you drive a car? What’s okay and what’s not okay?’”

“So that’s something I had to make peace with – that there were going to be certain people for whom Preservation Hall had come to symbolize something that I wasn’t. But I can say that for the first time in my life, and in my career with the band, we can go on tour with Arcade Fire and people will come up afterward and say, ‘Man, that was amazing! Where are you guys from?’ I love that. I love that we can play shows where this idea of what and who we are doesn’t precede us. We can define who we are.”

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.