“I’m Not an Old Moldy Fig, I’m Down with Everything”: An Interview with Preservation Hall Jazz Band

Preservation Hall Jazz Band
That's It!
Sony Legacy

Everyone knows that Preservation Hall is in New Orleans, and everyone knows that the legendary venue has had its own band for a little more than 50 years now; the Preservation Hall Jazz Band — or at least I thought that was the case. I was under the impression that the rickety old building on St. Peter Street was as strongly linked to the Big Easy as gumbo should be linked with ceramic bowls.

Yey somewhere along the way, the world shrank. All of our information became digitized, people from around the globe got cozy via handheld devices, and now there just doesn’t seem to be any “scenes” to speak of anymore — no west coast, east coast, northwest, Midwest, Dixie or delta. Who needs all of those locales when you’ve got YouTube? According to Preservation Hall Jazz Band tubist and double bassist Ben Jaffe, his hometown, a novel combination of age and seclusion, can serve as a reminder to everyone that locale can actually matter.

Since the early ’60s, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band has given itself the task of keeping the New Orleans jazz brew alive, to make it sound as pure as the day it was first written. As the years rolled by, the band’s personnel would rotate. Members would come and go, making sure that the preservation of the music received priority over a musician’s ego. This preserving was spearheaded by entrepreneur/tubist Allan Jaffe and his wife Sandra, who gave the old gallery on St. Peter the shot in the arm it needed to become a vibrant joint for live music, a place where future generations could hear sweltering renditions of their favorite New Orleans jazz tunes. Ben Jaffe, the son of Allan and Sandra, grew up surrounded by the people and the music that fueled the fires of the small performance space, deeply instilling a working musician mentality that he and his bandmates in the Preservation Hall Jazz Band carry with them today.

Earlier in 2013, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band released That’s It!, the ensemble’s first album of all original songs, and it has become a lightening rod. The idea of these musical curators of the old vanguard writing and releasing new tunes is surprising enough, but the public has taken a profound fondness to it as well. The band’s audiences are getting younger, the music’s appeal is spreading wider, and a new generation is learning that Preservation Hall is actually in New Orleans. Turns out that even the hardest trad-jazz enthusiasts are willing to skip hearing “Tiger Rag” one more time, opting instead for a brand new song with Charlie Gabriel on lead vocals.

Ben Jaffe spoke to PopMatters about That’s It!, the co-production with he did with My Morning Jacket’s Jim James, and the outpouring of goodwill the band has received after unleashing the album. He was in the middle of getting ready for one of his band’s miniature tours, something the Preservation Hall Jazz Band often does. Rather than hit the road for a prolonged period of time, it sounds more like the Saints going out of town for a few away games, then returning home. He begins our conversation by explaining the lifestyle that drives the band as well as other fellow musicians …

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Ben Jaffe: It’s interesting the way we tour, we’re always in and out of town. We’re constantly going back and forth. When we’re not on the road, we’re home in New Orleans performing in Preservation Hall. So we’re always performing, just not always at home. Our life is a tour, I guess. I always tell people; when you grow up doing what we do — playing New Orleans jazz and being part of this community — you never hang your hat up. You may hang your hat up at the end of the day, but you’re always doing something. You’re always performing, and that’s one of the beautiful things about the band. When we’re not on the road, we’re home performing three nights, four nights a week. That’s why the band always sounds so hot. We never have to get our chops back up or familiarize ourselves with it. We all live not too far from each other, so we’re always together. It makes for a beautiful community and a beautiful life.

There are so many bands that are scattered these days, in both jazz and rock, where they just don’t live together.

It’s an interesting point because you can hear the difference in a band and you know that it’s people who have known each other for [a while], when it’s like a deep brotherhood. You can sense it. We wouldn’t be able to do what we do if we weren’t all so steeped in this tradition. Each one of the members of Preservation Hall, whether you’re a member of the Preservation Hall [Jazz] Band or someone who is performing in Preservation Hall, you have this very, very deep, long connection with New Orleans.

Your album That’s It! is all originals, but like you said, still steeped in this tradition of New Orleans. How hard was it to reconcile these two traits?

The biggest challenge for me was getting over this mental wall that I didn’t really know existed. We’ve been performing the New Orleans repertoire for so long that Preservation Hall had come to really define the New Orleans songbook. For most bands, it’s one of the first things you think about — writing songs. Whereas for us, it has taken us 50 years to come to this idea that we’re not only carrying on a tradition, but we’re also responsible for nurturing and nourishing that tradition. We wouldn’t really be honest to ourselves if we weren’t performing our own compositions, performing our own music. Now with all that said, we’re performing our music and writing our music in the New Orleans tradition. When you listen to the new album [That’s It!], it doesn’t sound like 1920 or 1980 or 2013, it just sounds timeless in the same way that Miles Davis or Duke Ellington sound timeless. That music never ages.

My friend heard “Yellow Moon” on NPR and did not know that it was new.

Right! [laughs] The thing that sounds new about it is the way Jim [James] and I approached the recording of the project. I think one of the newest things about the album was the taking advantage of all of the technology that exists today so that we could really capture the band in a very high fidelity way. For someone like myself who is steeped in acoustic music and jazz, it took someone like Jim to hold my hand and sort of lead me through the forest of technology. I’m not an old moldy fig, I’m down with everything.

You look at my music library, you wouldn’t know what to make of me. I’ve got Jay-Z sitting next to Duke Ellington, sandwiched in between John Coltrane and Madonna. The same year we came out with a record of our compositions, we also came out with — six months ago — a compilation of 50 years of Preservation Hall music. Everything! I think that’s the beauty of the time we live in today is that we have access to so much music and so much of the world. It’s kind of interesting to me when people don’t take in all of this around them.

Perhaps they get numb to it?

Well, it can be overwhelming that there’s so much music. The Preservation Hall Band is an anomaly. We’re kind of isolated here in New Orleans on this island, in this little city that has remained so true to its roots in so many ways. Our cuisine hasn’t really changed much. Obviously our architecture hasn’t. The biggest change in our architecture happened as a result of [hurricane] Katrina, literally washing our city away and us having to rebuild big neighborhoods. They had to be built from scratch. Before that, when you would be riding your bike through the French quarter and if you would be looking up at the sky, it could be 1750. When you sit down and eat beignets at 3:00 in the morning at Cafe Au Lait after coming home from a show — I mean, if a French explorer sat down next to me and started talking to me in French, I probably wouldn’t even blink my eye if it was 1820. There’s a different sense of time in New Orleans. Time is elastic here.

How did Jim James fall into this project?

He came down and he participated on a benefit album we recorded in 2009 [Preservation: An Album To Benefit Preservation Hall & The Preservation Hall Music Outreach Program, released in 2010] and that was the beginning of our friendship. That day, it was sort of like meeting a long-lost brother. It was a beautiful, beautiful recording session. We only recorded two tracks at that time. But when you meet somebody who’s of a like spirit, you’re attracted like magnets. Jim and I immediately started thinking about ideas and ways for us to work together in the future. It was Jim who encouraged us to really attack this recording differently, with a different set of eyes, with a different perspective. He’s a sound wizard. He hears things that I don’t hear, he sees things that I don’t see. He’ll probably say the same thing about me. But we grew up in very different environments. He grew up in a studio listening to music on the radio, on records, in garage rock bands, playing music with his friends. I grew up playing music on the street that was acoustic. But when the two worlds came together, it just seemed so natural and so perfect and beautiful.

It’s not where you come from but where you’re going?

I think it’s where you come from and where you’re going, I think it’s both of those. Jim and his partners, all those guys in My Morning Jacket, they’re all from Louisville [KY]. That’s where they all live, they live and breathe Louisville just like we all live and breathe New Orleans. And I think that’s really important. Jim didn’t run off to Los Angeles, he didn’t run off to New York or Nashville. He has a deep, deep attachment to his hometown and his family and his community.

Where the other guys in Preservation Hall Jazz Band open to him coming in and offering a different take?

Well, we’ve had a long relationship. Like I said, we met in 2009. We went out on tour with My Morning Jacket. When our paths would cross in different cities, Jim would sit in with us or we’d go sit in with them, we did a live concert documentary together. So we have all of these interactions together and it was as if a light bulb went off in our head one day. And it really was sort of Jim giving us the license to really pursue songwriting because it’s something that the Preservation Hall Band, all the members of the band, we all do individually. We just never really thought of Preservation Hall as being that outlet for our music, for our compositions.

When you get someone like Jim, and he can say something as simple as “Hey man, do you guys write your own music?” I’m like “Yeah, we write our own music.” He’s like “Do you ever perform it?” I said “Well, sometimes we do, but not really. We’ve never really figured out what that outlet is.” And he said “God, that sounds like an album right there.” And that was it. That was the beginning of us starting to pool all of the songs that we had originally written or written together and started thinking about what it would sound like when it was all brought together into one place.

It’s interesting for someone like [clarinetist/saxophonist/vocalist] Charlie Gabriel who’s 81 years old to explore this part of himself so late in life. That was really the barometer we used when we were recording the songs; whether or not the songs felt good to Charlie. And this is what we ended up with.

How has the reception been with the traditional jazz community?

I can only speak for the people who come to our shows and our fans, and it’s been overwhelmingly receptive and excited. There’s a new excitement, there’s a new sense of freshness, there’s that idea of taking a deep breath when you’re out at the sea. You feel the love and you feel good about life. That’s what I’ve sensed. And that’s something that’s very, very different from the Preservation Hall that I grew up with. The Preservation Hall I grew up with, there was always a sense that this may be the last time you ever hear these musicians perform, that you are witnessing a snapshot of a moment in time. Whereas I feel today with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, we don’t know what our next record’s going to be. We don’t even know what our next project is going to be, and that’s a very, very different place to be than the band that started off 50 years ago that my dad played in.

Their performances defined the New Orleans repertoire. I really think that what we’re doing today is more in line with what people like Jelly Roll Morton and King Oliver and Freddie Keppard did 100 years ago when jazz was being born. They were writing this music, they were writing the repertoire that would become the foundation of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. And I think we all have artists in our life, people like Bob Dylan or Tom Waits or Bruce Springsteen, these artists who keep pushing themselves on every album that they make. You can go see Bob Dylan twenty times and he may never play one of his better known songs. He’s constantly evolving as an artist. Tom Waits, constantly evolving as an artist. Bruce [Springsteen] is different because he plays for 18 hours, he’s going to play his whole catalog. But those are my role models. Those were the people I always looked up to and that I still look up to as a musician; artists who are steeped in the past but also pushing very much on the vanguard of what they do.

But when you’re dealing with a cultural institution like Preservation Hall, you really have to be steeped in this tradition that I’m speaking of. We almost have this Get Out of Jail Free card that we carry around in our pocket. We’ve earned the stripes to now take this tradition forward. And I think it’s a beautiful thing, it’s a wonderful thing to be a part of. When I see our audiences and they light up, and they dance and they come up to me — it’s kind of new to me to have people come up to me and give such gushing accolades. I never really felt that before because I always felt like we were being compared to the performance of the generations before us. We were still being compared to the “Sweet Emma”s [Barrett] and the William Percy Humphreys and the Louis Armstrongs. Those were people’s reference points. But now we’re not only finding that our older fans are excited about it, but we play shows now and half our audience is under 28 years old, they have no idea who we are! Most people don’t know we’re from New Orleans anymore. I get that a lot.

That’s strange.

“You guys sound awesome! Where are you guys from?” Wow. Usually that preceded us, that we were the Preservation Hall Band from New Orleans. That’s a generational thing, that’s time. Just like time’s not going to stand still for us. I have a daughter now and everything I do this day forward is going to be her reference point, not what I’ve done for the first 40 years of my life but what I’m going to do [in the future]. Just like it was for you or for me growing up. Our reference point in life starts at about six years old, probably, with our parents.

How old is she?

She just made one.

You said you don’t really have any idea of what your next album will be, but is it in the cards that something like this will happen again? Another album of new material or predominantly new material?

Yeah. I think that once you open up this door and you walk through it, it is always a part of who you are. And I think there is a way to infuse new repertoire into the New Orleans repertoire, the New Orleans songbook and still reach back in time and bring those songs forward. We have a lot of responsibilities going on at the same time. Not only do we have to carry our traditions forward but we also have to allow it to breathe and evolve at the same time. It’s one of those things you have to nurture every day. You have to massage it and you have to really work on those things every day.

Does it really cost $10 to hear “When the Saints Go Marching In”?

[laughs] It used to cost $10. It’s funny, that sign that’s hanging in Preservation Hall, we always joke with people, we’re like “Well, that sign was put up in 1961.” But it’s still hanging there in Preservation Hall.

Ten bucks in 1961 …

It would be, what, $100 today? But if I could walk into a gig somewhere and get my favorite band to play a song for me, I don’t know what … geez, I don’t know if there’s any price tag on that. It’s one of those things that doesn’t happen as often as it used to, but when it does, I always get a kick out of it when somebody does actually request ” … the Saints … “. It sort of brings a little bit of a smile, there’s a little bit of ribbing that goes on amongst the musicians. There’s definitely a negotiation that takes place. But we’re working musicians, we’re not going to say no to a gig.

A lot of the guys who play at the hall, when they were coming up, they didn’t know when their next gig was going to be. So it is one of those things; that working man mentality is something that is embedded in what we do.

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