New Orleans band continues to pass on its city's jazz tradition
It was probably inevitable that Ben Jaffe would be a musician. Jaffe, co-director of New Orleans' Preservation Hall and bassist for the venue's namesake jazz band, began serving his musical apprenticeship right about the time the doctor cut his umbilical cord.
"I was on an airplane a week after I was born, traveling with the Preservation Hall Band," the 32-year-old Jaffe recalls. "I spent a great deal of my childhood here at Preservation Hall, whether it was listening to music or just hanging out in the courtyard. It was our playground."
Jaffe's parents - Allan and Sandra - relocated from Philadelphia to New Orleans in 1960, after stopping in the Crescent City on their way back from a honeymoon in Mexico. The following year, Allan (a business school graduate who also played the tuba) discovered a historic artist space in the French Quarter and decided to transform it into a performing haven for first-generation New Orleans jazz musicians who were being squeezed out of the city's club scene. Because he saw his mission as the preservation of a valuable cultural tradition, he dubbed the new venue Preservation Hall.
"Before my dad started Preservation Hall, other people had tried ventures like that before and couldn't make it work," Jaffe says. "My father had something entirely different. He brought a different savvy to operating this hall.
"I think the fact that he was a musician, that he had a degree in business from Wharton, all of those things helped tremendously. Also, the fact that he wasn't from New Orleans actually benefited him, because he wasn't tied to the city, didn't have certain allegiances or a certain notion of the way it was supposed to be done. He could bring a breath of fresh air."
The younger Jaffe inherited not only his father's love of music, but his organizational acumen as well. After his father succumbed to melanoma in 1987, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band drifted without any sense of direction and the hall fell into disrepair. As Jaffe puts it, they were "a football team without a coach."
In 1993, Jaffe returned to New Orleans from college and provided Preservation Hall with that needed coach. By this point, the pioneering figures who constituted the early incarnations of the band - New Orleans legends like George Lewist, Papa John Joseph, and Sweet Emma Barrett - had long since passed away or retired.
"I never had any reservations about getting involved," Jaffe says. "My biggest worry was, 'Are we going to have a band in five years?' Over the course of my lifetime, I've seen so many generations of musicians pass away. All the musicians that I knew growing up were gone. Now it was another generation of musicians who were slowly taking these older musicians' place."
"If you want the best Mexican food, go to a great Mexican restaurant in Mexico City," he says. "If you want a great plate of red beans and rice or gumbo, come to New Orleans.
"When we travel to cities, a lot of times people want to bring us to the New Orleans restaurant in town. And that's really the last thing that we want, someone to try and recreate New Orleans food. The same goes for the music. You can't know how to cook a bowl of gumbo if you don't know how it's supposed to taste, no matter how good the instructions are. In the end, you're wondering: 'Is it right?'"
As part of his effort to spread the word about the sounds coming out of Preservation Hall, Jaffe recently launched a record label, Preservation Hall Recordings, with music-biz honchos Steve DeBro and Albert Lee. The label's first three releases provide a quick summing-up for neophytes. Preservation Jazz Band: Best of the Early Years recaps the group's history; Shake That Thing showcases the group's 21 current members; while The Hot Four captures a scaled-down, quartet session.
"I started the record label simply because I wanted to make great records," Jaffe says. "I never wanted to be the guy who was running a record label. I consider myself an enabler. I enable things to happen. I enable the musicians to have a place to play at night. I enable audiences around the world to hear great New Orleans music. And now I'm enabling more people to have access to our music than ever before." •