Ben Jaffe of New Orlean’s Preservation Hall Jazz Band chatted with me over the phone from the French Quarter about growing up in the Quarter as well as his Creole Christmas returns to Davies Symphony Hall this Sunday night only, December 15. He was at home in the Quarter and I was at home on my landline, his manager Jay hooked us up. The new CD is called “That’s It” and has night music, the sultry swaying raw brassy sound one lingers to, tangos to, drinks to, strips elegantly to, second line parades to, gets buried to.
Ben Jaffe however, a new father, wrote “Emmalena’s Lullaby” for his baby daughter who is 1 1/2. It’s hard to maintain any privacy for his child he said because of Facebook but generally Preservation Hall is about one big family in a way. Ben Jaffe is the son of the founder, who actually came from somewhere else but Ben grew up in the Quarter. Everybody knows everybody in the French Quarter as I was told when I lived there in 2000, it’s like the mafia.
Ben says playing live he does respond to the energy in the room, the energy of the day, who is in the audience. Is it snowing, raining? Did Nelson Mandela just die? Perhaps then it’s “A Closer Walk with Thee” rather than the more commercial second line parade. Even if he uses a set list, he will diverge. Improvisation is at the heart of jazz, particularly with the solos. The improvisation of PHJB sounds distinct though, it’s group improv. Ben likens an ensemble of four horn players to four conversationalists, talking to each other at the same time in a way that makes sense to the ear.
Walter Patten was his bass teacher. His father, the hall’s founder, played tuba as well. Ben’s father made PHJB into a traveling caravan. His parents’ apartment was the carriage house behind the hall. Ben took his music to the people as well. As a child Ben would play Christmas carols on the street in the Quarter, his favorite being “Little Drummer Boy” for its solemn and reverent tone. Its drama. He says that minor key sounds haunting. That was his gift to the community.
Ben has noticed a resurgence since Katrina and the band plays 100 shows on tour and 400 at the club. The band played the lead track from the new CD “That’s It” on “Dancing with the Stars” as the opening act. The band also played on “Jimmy Kimmel” and visited a Seattle radio station. The band has been featured by the producers of the local show “The Treme”, an blighted area where some musicians came from that was hit hard by Katrina. Ben being a local has an organic viewpoint where he appreciates any media that fosters cultural understanding rather than the stereotypes. Ben says he admires David Simon. The show just featured Theresa Andersson’s “Na Na Na” from “Hummingbird Go!”.
Ben said he just returned some baby clothes to Theresa Andersson, whose first child is about three now. When Jaffe was younger, he used to play bass for an acquaintance of mine, gypsy jazz guitarist Tony Green. Green, about 56 or so and a perennial bachelor, spends half his year in Venice and also paints, often Italian architectural details such as angels.
In New Orleans Tony Green paints the musicians, the parades, often in mural size, as big and colorful as life. He even painted me back in 2000, before I ran the Crescent City Classic to celebrate turning 40. Green is a lifelong runner and has painted the poster for the marathon. 2000. Just about the best year of my life. To sum it up, I worked at WLAE TV in mid-town and interviewed musicians for the internet at JazzFest that year. Everybody loves food and music, it’s not just a medical establishment. One finds plenty of single folks although maintaining a monogamous relationship poses challenges.
Like now, it was just me and my bicycle. I owed Bicycle Michael so much for a rental of a mountain bike I ended up buying the thing from him. I would ride it around the Quarter and along the River Walk, along the brown Mississippi River to Hughie P. Long Bridge or Lake Pontchartrain and through City Park past oak trees dripping with moss. I could not have foreseen in these blissful, romantically volatile times that the bike, kept in a shotgun house in the Faubourg Marigny, would survive Katrina while I was safe at home in the SF Bay Area.
Likewise Ben looks forward to his favorite spots in San Francisco, particularly the Mission. He likes a vegetarian Japanese place on Valencia and there’s a wheatgrass shop on 19th or 20th. I mentioned how gentrified the Mission has become.
He says San Francisco feels like a sister city with a kindred spirit.
He would go with his Dad to North Beach and City Lights, Café Trieste. He still has a first cousin around 18th and Valencia.
Ben likes to cook but his diet reflects a more West Coast flavor, a northern California diet, including raw food. His father though loved the classic French Quarter restaurants. Galatoire’s, K Paul’s, Antoine’s. Heavy sauces, fried everything, seafood. Ben admits to eating red beans and rice but without the rice. Beans every day. No bananas foster for him though, although that was my favorite treat.
I couldn’t afford the restaurants other than say, Mother’s for a Po’ Boy, on the eight dollars and hour I earned at WLAE TV on the crew. It’s a right to work state, non-union even though WLAE TV was part of PBS. The Camelia Grill with it’s U shaped counter, white exterior and servers in suits, made a killer Reuben with sauerkraut but that was a rare treat.
Speaking of rare treats and cheap thrills, I would see musicians passing in daily life or at the dive bars like Tipitinas or Snug Harbor or just playing around River Walk or set up in the Quarter itself. John Cleary, Frankie Ford, Ernie Kado, Fats Domino, the Iguanas, the Radiators, Charmaine Neville, Theresa Andersson, Cowboy Mouth, Beausoleil, Tom MacDermott, Evan Christopher (who is from Sacramento).
Meanwhile. Ben said most folks would be surprised at the music he listens to, including Michael Jackson. He listed quickly R & B, Soul, 60s and 70s jazz, Coleman, Miles Davis, Monk, Charles Mingus, early jazz, Oliver. World African, electronic, underground electronic including “Shovels & Rope”. Nora Jones, Prince, Foo Fighters, Riana, Justin Timberlake, Neville Brothers, Dr. John.
In closing, Ben did lament how the cost of living has become higher than ever in the French Quarter. The folks that make the Quarter and New Orleans what it is have been priced out. Those that move in are those that come because they want to be near the ones who got priced out.
Yet Preservation Hall Jazz Band preserves the classic sound it has developed since the 60s. Hearing that band instantly puts a person in a New Orleans state of mind. It’s good for the soul and elevating and down to Earth at the same time. The youngest band member is 37, the oldest is Charlie Gabriel who was born in 1932. He’s fourth generation clarinet and seventh generation musician.
If you would like to relive your experience in New Orleans or to hear the closest thing to it, PHJB plays one night only at Davies Symphony Hall. The popular Creole Christmas program will be Saturday this year, Sunday, December 15 only at 8:00 p.m..
The show runs one hour 45 minutes with one intermission. Tickets half price for those seventeen years of age. The limited number of tickets left cost $19.50 to $75.00.
The symphony does not appear at this performance.
Tickets and parking vouchers here.Easily walkable from Civic Center BART, one tiny bike rack outside the lobby. Grove Street, between Van Ness Avenue and Franklin, across from the opera house. San Francisco, (415) 864- 6000.
Related: Chris Botti played with SF Symphony