Q&A: Preservation Hall Jazz Band’s Ben Jaffe Takes NOLA Jazz To The Indie Set
Every now and then, you look at a lineup for Bonnaroo or Panorama or some other mainstream festival, and tucked amidst all the expected indie and pop and rap names is the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. It’s one of the more curious narratives in our little pocket of the music landscape — that this group, the touring band for the legendary venue in New Orleans’ French Quarter, found itself situated alongside acts like Arcade Fire and Foo Fighters. Meaning: suddenly a band performing traditional NOLA jazz was hanging out and playing with the kind of artists covered most frequently on this site. At first, it feels like another world has entered the picture.
Beyond that curiosity though, Preservation Hall have a deep history and very important legacy that those of us not exactly well-versed in the intricacies of jazz history wouldn’t be aware of. These dudes bringing traditional New Orleans jazz to a mainstream or indie listener is just the tip of the iceberg, just the most current iteration of a mission that goes back to the early ’60s, when Allen and Sandra Jaffe founded Preservation Hall. The story of the Hall entails jazz musicians who could’ve been lost to history. It entails fighting segregation. It entails bringing a hyper-specific, hyper-local genre and tradition to the national stage it deserved. When you walk around the venue, you can feel the presence of all that history. It’s in the scarred walls, it’s in the shelves stacked with old records and master tapes. Ahead of the band’s set as part of Stereogum’s lineup for the Toyota Music Den at Voodoo Fest, I went to the Hall to speak with creative director (and tuba player, bassist, and bandleader) Ben Jaffe, the son of Allen and Sarah. (He’s third from the right in the photo up top.) We sat down in a back room — a room that used to be his parents’ apartment, and is now full of artifacts from the Hall’s fifty-plus years — and spoke about the early days of the Hall, playing with My Morning Jacket, and the role of jazz in today’s pop culture.
STEREOGUM: I want to start with a bit of Preservation Hall’s backstory. You took over your father’s position in the band in the ’90s, when you got back from college.
BEN JAFFE: I left New Orleans to go to school and came back right after graduation. It was timing that the bass player who had taken over for my father in ’87, now in ’93, was ready to pass the baton, so to speak. He called me to tell me that this was what was happening, he didn’t want to travel that summer. He was ready to slow down on the road and as a member of the band, so it was a natural moment for me to enter the band. Over that decade, I figured out my role in this thing.
STEREOGUM: Whether in college or growing up, had you thought about that? Or was it more like, “Well, guess I’ll take over the family business?”
JAFFE: I definitely had a sense… I mean, it wasn’t something I wrote down anywhere. I didn’t say, “I will run Preservation Hall someday” or “I will play bass with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band.” There was something instilled in me, some value, to what was going on here. I kinda had a knack for it early on. Even in high school, I was producing shows and events, and continued that through college. I was always entrepreneurial and very musical at the same time. There’s a lot of crossover between the mind of an entrepreneur and the mind of a musician.
STEREOGUM: The hustle of it?
JAFFE: Yeah, the hustle, the bustle, the “you get knocked down, you get back up” spirit of it. There’s a lot of strikes in a baseball game, but this isn’t just one inning. You might get to the ninth inning and realize, “Oh, shit, there’s gonna be four more.” You have to be willing to get back up over and over again. You have to be committed, and you’ll always feel like you’re pushing uphill. It’s that kind of life.
STEREOGUM: One thing I’ve seen you speak about with your era of Preservation Hall is carrying on this tradition of New Orleans jazz but figuring out what that can look like in a contemporary setting, pursuing surprising collaborations, that kind of stuff. What goes through your head when you’re trying to strike that balance?
JAFFE: The New Orleans music tradition is very important to all of us. It’s the reason that Preservation Hall is here today. Preservation Hall recognized the importance of these African-American traditions long before anyone else did. Preservation Hall is what brought these traditions to people’s attention nationally, internationally. We had Louis Armstrong, but he had transcended to the level of entertainer, global superstar, when there were still these hundreds of African-American jazz pioneers who were still practicing this tradition. When I say the tradition, I mean the tradition of marching bands accompanying a funeral, playing at Mardi Gras parades, playing at church functions, at dances, at second line parades, at dancehalls on the weekends. That tradition, there was still the hint of that in the air when my parents arrived in ’61. That’s what they wanted to give a voice to, and that’s what Preservation Hall was. Preservation Hall, interestingly, opened its doors as an integrated venue.
STEREOGUM: And New Orleans was still very segregated at that time.
JAFFE: Oh, yeah. That stuff didn’t change. There were still these very specific laws in Louisiana — that weren’t necessarily enforced in New Orleans unless someone was motivated to enforce them — these anti-social-gathering laws. Blacks and whites weren’t allowed to gather in a social environment. You couldn’t go to a mixed dance, you couldn’t have mixed bands, you couldn’t have mixed clubs. This was a problem up until the ’70s. I talked to George Wein, who created the Jazz & Heritage Festival — he’s from New York, had a black wife, and they recruited him to come to New Orleans and he was like, “Where am I going to put Duke Ellington? Where am I going to house Miles Davis? When you figure out the racial thing, then we’ll have a jazz fest.”
STEREOGUM: Did your parents ever encounter any legal trouble or did people let Preservation Hall be?
JAFFE: Well, they absolutely encountered… I don’t know that “trouble” is the right word. Are you creating trouble or defending trouble or making trouble? It wasn’t trouble that they were creating. If someone had too many drinks and was passing by and was a loudmouth sailor, you know… was that a problem? Yeah. And my parents didn’t tolerate certain behavior. They demanded these African-American musicians were addressed as “Mr.” They would go to jail for that. They went to night court on several occasions. If anyone ever wanted to enforce the laws and come to the Hall, they could come here on any given night and there were mixed bands.
STEREOGUM: And that would happen occasionally? Someone would come by and try to shut it down?
JAFFE: Yeah, and they’d bring you off to jail. My mom always talks about this one night judge they would always go before. I think his name was like, Judge Babylon. Isn’t that crazy? It’s biblical. Oh, Judge Babylon’s about to rule on you… it’s just insane. It’s out of a Tennessee Williams novel. They would go down to court and my mom has this memory of him saying, “We don’t like to mix our coffee and cream.” And my mom being who she was, was about to make some kind of reference to café au lait, which is basically half-coffee and half-milk, which is basically the most popular drink in New Orleans. [Laughs] My mom could, you know, when needed, add gas to fires.
STEREOGUM: So your parents start this thing, it’s woven into the history of jazz, you pick it up in the ’90s, and even years after you pick it up, now you guys are associated with certain indie-rock artists, you’re playing at mainstream festivals. I know there’s a little bit of a precedent for that, with Preservation Hall being on a bill with the Grateful Dead in the ’60s. But in this context it seems a little different, maybe just because of the visibility of these festivals in the industry now, or because of the types of artists you’re collaborating with. It’s like you’ve brought it into this slightly different world. What’s interesting or different to you about collaborating with some of these artists, or playing on a bill at Panorama that has no other jazz music on it?
JAFFE: Well, first, I think it’s the coolest thing ever. I think it’s amazing, and my dad would’ve thought it was amazing, too. He would’ve loved it. They got so excited when they used to get to play on the bills for these Bill Graham shows out in California. They would get so excited when they’d be on a bill with Miles Davis or the Dead or Santana. They were put on the same bill with Miles Davis and Duke Ellington, that bill happened often as well. They thought it was fun. Those audiences were more my parents’ age. Every interesting person I’ve met has the most broad taste and interest in music and life. They’re not, “Music ended in 1947 when the last record was made for the Brunswick label.” I get those people, and I enjoy being around them… they’re not my best friends. You know what I mean? My best friends in life are the ones who are like, “I listen to Fela Kuti and I listen to this stuff from Brazil and…” You’re just trying to discover interesting, relevant, important music that touches you. The challenge with Preservation Hall is the balance I have to strike between bringing the band into all of these different worlds and our tradition evolving and growing, and protecting this very precious thing that takes place in New Orleans as a community-based, social thing that happens when bands come out and show their respect to the deceased by playing at their funerals or coming to a second line. Whatever it is, it’s protecting that while we also do this other thing, that’s something I’m very aware of and I’m very conscious of finding that balance, constantly.
STEREOGUM: When it comes to these moments when you’re like, “OK, we’re going to do the parade with Arcade Fire” or “We’re going to go play at My Morning Jacket’s festival in Mexico,” is it because you take an interest in an artist and think they might be interested in what you do, or are you spontaneously coming across kindred spirits?
JAFFE: The best ones, the right ones, the ones that we participate in, are the ones with our friends. They’re the ones… when you meet somebody like Jim James and you shake his hand, you immediately feel like you’re looking in a mirror. Or Win Butler and Régine Chassagne. You’re looking at the future and the present and the past all wrapped up in these people. You’re looking at this generation’s Dylans and Bowies and Tom Waits. When you get to work with people like Andrew Bird or Mos Def or the Blind Boys Of Alabama. You’re part of this timeless thing that’s shaped each one of us musically. To be this new thing that’s being infused into their world is incredible. That’s so cool to me, to be able to share this thing that I grew up with, that has formed me as a musician and a human being, and to now share this with them, and to open our doors to them and allow them to come through those gates and sit and listen and experience this space. Just sitting here in this office, you’re changed. You’re going to remember this moment for like, ever. You might not remember shit that I said, but you’ll remember “Man, there was this crazy record and all the master tapes were all on the wall…”
STEREOGUM: Yeah, I was fascinated by this case behind you with all the figurines.
JAFFE: Those are my dad’s tuba players.
STEREOGUM: Your dad collected tuba player figurines?
JAFFE: Yes, until he passed away in ’87.
STEREOGUM: Have you added anything to the collection?
JAFFE: It has to be really special. If we’re traveling somewhere… he instilled in the instinct for finding tuba players. So sometimes you can walk by a thrift store or a little knick-knack store and you can immediately sense that this place is going to have tubas in it. It’s weird. My wife is still, “How do you know they’re gonna have a tuba player in there?” I’m like, “My dad!”
STEREOGUM: So out of any of your collaborations, I wanted to talk about My Morning Jacket specifically because they’re one of my favorites and they’re how I became aware of Preservation Hall initially. You’ve also had a connection with Jim for a while now.
JAFFE: It started back when we did an album called Preservation. We reached out to Jim through mutual relationships and invited him to join us as a guest vocalist on this album we were making. It ended up being an incredible project. We had eighteen different artists come and record with us here at Preservation Hall. That was the first time I met Jim, and we had that immediate connection, spent two amazing days together, he got to experience the Hall for the first time. He’d been to New Orleans before, he had never been here — it was a very personal moment for him. The way we record is so different than anybody else because we record live. We don’t overdub. It’s easy not to, but that’s the way we grew up and that’s what comes most natural to us. That’s the magic and beauty of being a jazz musician is the spontaneity of the live moment and not fixing anything. Those little imperfections are the beauty. So, that blew him away. That grew into him getting back to us and being like, “Hey, would you guys ever come out on tour with us?” We were like, “Sure, of course, that sounds amazing.” That was really the first time where we consistently got in front of large audiences every night for the duration of a tour. It was a mind-blowing experience. We were playing in front of ten or twenty thousand people, which is very different than playing in front of 70 people.
STEREOGUM: Did you guys adjust how you go about your show at all in that context?
JAFFE: We did. We had played large shows before that, but it was more of a “Do what you do, and we’ll just capture the sound of what you’re creating and amplify that sound.” The problem with that is you’re trying to replicate something that’s intended for a hundred people in front of ten thousand people. You’re not going to cook the same meal you cook on your stove at home that you’d cook in this commercial kitchen. You can’t cook for ten thousand people. So, it’s how do you translate this thing we do to this many people? That whole tour was really the beginning of us discovering this other side of ourselves. It was us discovering, “Does this translate to a large audience? Is there a way to translate it? How do we amplify the sound? How do we create an intimate environment?” It was during that tour that Jim and I started talking about him producing something or doing an album. In my mind, I always thought it was going to be him doing a full-length duets album with us. He has this very timeless quality to his voice and soul. It’s timeless like Preservation Hall. The two work so well together, I imagined a whole album of covers of like, Ink Spots songs.
STEREOGUM: Do you still want to try to do that with him at some point?
JAFFE: Yeah, because there are some songs that I would only do with him. There are some songs we don’t even do anymore, but if we did them with him it would be OK. I know where his intent comes from. To do the kind of material that I’m imagining, we’d all have to feel safe with each other and there has to be a lot of confidence.
STEREOGUM: What kind of material are you referring to?
JAFFE: There are songs that can become caricatures of themselves because they’ve been around for so long and have been interpreted every which way. To visit a standard, to give it life… that’s a really hard thing to do. Some people fail.
STEREOGUM: There’s a big-picture thing that’s interesting to me about all this, and you just touched on it. In my mind, there’s this tension with jazz music today. It’s long past its pop music era, it’s now established as an academic tradition. In some ways, it’s classical — it’s about the canon and doing it the way it’s supposed to be done. The thing about Preservation Hall is that there’s this explicit thing behind it going back to the ’60s, resurrecting and protecting this tradition to which people weren’t giving credit or attention at the time. But then on the other side of things, anytime you see a jazz band there’s going to be newness, it’s improvised and it’s going to be a singular experience in that moment. Specifically with you guys… I can walk into Panorama to see Kendrick Lamar or Arcade Fire, and then see a set by Preservation Hall where people are dancing the same as they would be later on, to today’s pop music.
JAFFE: Doesn’t that make you feel good?
STEREOGUM: It’s fascinating to see people still reacting to it that way, in that context. So, for you, you assumed the mantle of this thing your father started and then took it into a different era and into different rooms, so to speak. What’s the back and forth in your head, thinking about all the stuff that you weren’t even alive for and thinking about the place of this stuff in today’s landscape?
JAFFE: This is what I came to understand about New Orleans music, and I didn’t understand this when I was growing up here. My dad always talked about this. The social function of New Orleans music. As long as New Orleans music remained functional as a social tool, it would remain alive. The traditions would remain alive. As a kid, you just hear it, you don’t really understand the depth of it. What it means to me is, when you go into a real New Orleans neighborhood, when you go into the 9th Ward or the 6th Ward, on a Sunday afternoon and you go to a second line parade — you will see everybody from every walk of life, every age from just learning to walk to having to be pushed down the street, playing what is the evolution of New Orleans funeral and parade music. It’s still relevant here. People still dance to it. Jelly Roll Morton was a pop artist. To us, it sounds very academic today, but that’s because we’ve made it academic. But I try to remind myself that Louis Armstrong grew up with New Orleans jazz being punk rock, being hip-hop, being the coolest thing out there. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have been attracted to it.
STEREOGUM: So is it about showing people that it can still have that spirit?
JAFFE: It’s letting people know that that spirit of our music still exists in New Orleans. That, for whatever reason, we have these unique traditions in New Orleans that have morphed and evolved into these newer, more robust traditions. But that’s part of our music. It should be. Otherwise, it just shrivels up and dies on the vine. When kids stop dancing to it and it stops being meaningful and it can’t make you cry, you have to wonder what’s going on. What I’ve done at Preservation Hall is really just what we do in New Orleans and brought it into new environments. We’ve just been very blessed that people like Jim James — a very important person in our career — gave audiences and promoters and festivals and us the confidence to put our music in front of them and say “Hey, dance! It’s ok! You don’t have to swing-dance just spin and twirl and do what you do!” We’re not precious about it. We get offended when people aren’t dancing. We’re like, “What are we doing wrong?” “Well, they’re just paying attention, they’re just being respectful.” But in New Orleans you can be respectful through dancing and this thing that happens between the audience and the band. That’s one of the things we celebrate as a group, that’s when we really know we’re in tune with our mission, when audiences are out-of-control dancing. It’s not even that we’re playing jazz or that we’re part of this tradition or that we’re from New Orleans. I love when people come up and say, “Where are you guys from!?” That’s the greatest question. “Oh my God, who are you guys!?” I love that. They’re just discovering us for the first time and they couldn’t care less [about our story]. It’s just great music.