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A Conversation with Ben Jaffe of Preservation Hall Jazz Band

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If the sound of the music is Preservation Hall Jazz Band, then it’s the heart and soul of New Orleans Jazz. You know it when you hear it. All it takes is one good listen. The response to their music rings true. “That’s it!”

Preservation Hall Jazz Band returns to Davies Hall this Sunday, December 15 at 8:00 pm. The program, Creole Christmas will feature the band’s take on traditional holiday melodies, as well as their heritage songs and selections from the latest CD, That’s It. Since their first appearance at Davies Hall in 2009, Preservation Hall Jazz Band has acquired an enthusiastic and loyal following in the Bay Area. Click here to purchase tickets on-line.

Their home venue, Preservation Hall, is located in New Orleans’ French Quarter. Business is great. Its resident band has been playing there fifty years. “For a band like us,” said Creative Director Ben Jaffe, “Davies Hall is the equivalent of playing in an arena. Preservation Hall seats about seventy. We’ve performed at Davies Hall before. It was built to create an intimate experience for the listener.”

Ben also plays sousaphone and double-bass. His father, Allan Jaffe bought Preservation Hall in the early '60s and was the band’s first tuba player. He also got them to tour and booked "Preservation Hall Jazz Band" strategically. He knew of the Bay Area’s strong ties to New Orleans Jazz.

“We’ve been traveling to San Francisco every year since I was born. We would be greeted at the airport by a group of musicians based out of Palo Alto playing New Orleans Jazz as we got off the plane. Of course, that was back in the day when you could actually go meet people at the plane. But there has always been this deep cultural connection, deep spiritual connection between New Orleans and San Francisco. In a lot of ways we are sister cities. I have a poster of the Preservation Hall Band playing at The Fillmore with The Grateful Dead.

“We have a goal as much as we have a mission and a philosophy. For us, the most important thing is to ensure the future of our musical tradition and to protect our legacy so that it’s here for the next generation of New Orleans musicians. Our clarinet player, Charlie Gabriel is 81 years old, a fourth generation New Orleans. His family has been playing since the 1840s. Charlie has three younger generations playing music in New Orleans. That says it all to me. It’s not a profession, it’s not a career. It’s who we are. That is what's at the core of what we do and why we do it.”

I asked Ben about the new CD, That’s It and how its original compositions came about.

“About a year ago we came out with a four-CD box set, The Preservation Hall 50th Anniversary Collection. It was an overview of fifty years of Preservation Hall music. We wondered what our follow-up project would be. The idea came after many conversations with our good friend Jim James of My Morning Jacket. He really pushed us to write new material for another album. I thought about what our responsibility was to the New Orleans music and cultural community. We’re not a repertory band. The music that we play and the tradition that we are a part of is very much alive and well here in New Orleans. So, how do you continue to be relevant? It’s one thing to write material that sounds like old time jazz songs, but another to write in the next evolutionary step. The real challenge was how to do that for a band that has a legacy. I think we captured the essence of who and what we are.”

One of my favorite tracks on the CD is Rattlin’ Bones. The number evokes images of in-the-mood skeletons during Happy Hour at the local boneyard. It’s all about Tradition. “If you ever get down New Orleans way,” go the lyrics, “you might stay clear on St. Joseph’s Day. The graveyard bones make a rattlin’ sound – the dead get up and start walkin’ around. You might not believe me, but I tell you it’s true. And you would too, if it happens to you!”

Says Ben, “The inspiration for Rattlin’ Bones came about when I was in New Orleans with Jim James on St. Joseph’s Day. [March 19th] It’s kind of weird how it’s interpreted there. This is when people make St. Joseph altars and go to the graveyards to celebrate the deceased. As a kid we would go to the different altars and get these lucky beans [dried fava beans]. The lyrics are haunting and also a bit comedic in its delivery. It’s based on that kind of Louis Jordan and Cab Calloway sort-of “hi-dee hi-dee ho” feeling. The song has this slow groove and it’s in a minor key. So, it’s a bit spooky. Mark Braud has these beautiful trumpet parts and it's sung by our trombone player, Freddie Lonzo. It will be part of our program at Davies.

"We'll try to play as many of our new compositions as we can. There’s no way to know until you actually arrive, smell the air, and get a feel of the energy of the audience what the show is going to be. One of the beautiful things about Preservation Hall is how flexible the guys are and how quickly we can create our set list for the evening. I think of our show as being like The Muppet Show – everybody gets a little bit of the spotlight. Everybody in the band sings and gets some time on the microphone. We love to play the new material, the holiday material, and our older heritage songs. Our shows always have a beautiful balance.”

Click here to stay in touch: Preservation Hall Jazz Band

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