With a linage dating back to 1961, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band has seen countless legendary players like George Lewis, Sweet Emma Barrett and Kid Thomas Valentine walk through its doors. And while membership changed with each generation that passed the torch, the group’s commitment to preserving some of New Orleans’ sweetest sounds remains thanks to a continued streak of touring and recording, including the new “That’s It!” (Sony Legacy), which was co-produced by My Morning Jacket’s Jim James. Creative Director and tuba/bass player Ben Jaffe (whose parents Allan and Sandra Jaffe were founding figures in the Hall) just caught Chicago Concert Reviews up to speed on more than five decades of bringing the Crescent City to the world at large, including the group’s recent appearance at the Grammy Awards alongside Dr. John and The Black Keys (accompanied by a shared dressing room with an even more extraordinary superstar).
“No two theaters are the same. We constantly have to make adjustments, musically and emotionally, to play to the room. The one thing that is consistent is the way our music touches people. No matter where we are in the world, our music speaks to a common human condition. A shared experience. There’s nothing more beautiful…”
CCR: What are some of your fondest childhood memories being so closely connected to the group through your folks?
Ben Jaffe: I spent my life as a child growing up at Preservation Hall. The older musicians treated me like a grandson. They all spent time showing me little lessons on my instrument, teaching me songs. It was all done informally, but those moments have stayed with me. I would stand right between the bass player, either Chester Zardis or Frank Fields or James Provost, and the drummer. I’d have the pulse of the bass in one ear and the beat of the drums in the other. It was my schooling.
Now that you’re a member yourself, what is your strategy for preserving tradition while also introducing this music to the next generation?
Jaffe: Our traditions are vital to our identity. It’s why I am who I am today. You can’t take that away. It will always be a part of whatever we do. Passing on these traditions isn’t really a thought because it happens so naturally. If you go out in New Orleans, you’ll likely come across a group of young musicians. It’s in our blood.
In what way has “That’s It!” increased the band’s visibility well beyond New Orleans?
Jaffe: On “That’s It!” we explored something Preservation Hall had never done before, which is write and record an entire album of original material. We didn’t really know how it would be accepted on a larger scale. We wanted to make an album we were proud of and that we knew would be meaningful to New Orleans.
How is the touring show similar and different from a performance at Preservation Hall?
Jaffe: First off, we can only squeeze about 70 people into Preservation Hall! And we don’t use microphones or amplification. People sit right on the floor directly in front of the band. You can feel the steam coming off the horns….We try to capture that intimacy every time we perform and it’s always different. No two theaters are the same. We constantly have to make adjustments, musically and emotionally, to play to the room. The one thing that is consistent is the way our music touches people. No matter where we are in the world, our music speaks to a common human condition. A shared experience. There’s nothing more beautiful…
You’re also an institution at the New Orleans’ Jazz & Heritage Festival. What have been some of your favorite moments from that event throughout the years?
Jaffe: My mother reminded me this year that there were 66 paid admissions at the first festival in 1969! Jazz Fest is a New Orleans institution. I heard so many bands there as a child for the first time: Fats Domino, The Neville Brothers, Jessie Hill, Oliver “Who Shot the LaLa” Morgan, Peter Tosh, Ernie K-Doe, Allen Toussaint, Irma Thomas…If it wasn’t for Jazz Fest, I’d have never heard these musicians. I was just a kid!
What are your reflections on the band’s ability to help build morale back up in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and do you have anything specific planned in honor of its tenth anniversary?
Jaffe: The band and the Hall played an enormous roll in the rebuilding of our cities morale. I’m extremely proud of that. We took a catastrophe that brought us to our knees and took it as an opportunity to celebrate the beauty of our city and the richness of our culture. There’s no place like New Orleans and that’s what we want to celebrate. We are going to release a limited edition recording that honors our city for the tenth anniversary. Everyday we celebrate being here!
How would you describe your day at the Grammy Awards performing with The Black Keys and Dr. John both musically and behind the scenes?
Jaffe: Surreal! We shared a dressing room with Beyoncé! It was an honor to be there. We were actually a part of the first live performance with Dan Auerbach and Dr. John at Bonnaroo a few years back. Standing on the Grammy stage looking out into the audience, I got goose bumps. I could feel my heart racing when we went live. I’ve never felt that kind of excitement before.
What other collaborations are you most proud of throughout your career thus far?
Jaffe: When we recorded “We Shall Overcome” with Pete Seeger, which was hands down the most important collaboration we’ve done. Also, Richie Havens recorded his last song with us, “Trouble In Mind.” It is one of the most beautiful and haunting recordings…It’s hard to choose one. All of our collaborations are meaningful. We, I, them, all take something away from the experience. Every person we’ve worked with has left a lasting impression on me.
Preservation Hall Jazz Band performs at Pfeiffer Hall at North Central College in Naperville on Friday, May 8. For additional details, visit http://tickets.noctrl.edu/ and www.preservationhalljazzband.com.