Thirty-four-year-old Ben Jaffe listens to everything from the Ramones to the Rebirth Brass Band, reggae music, and rap. But on more than 300 nights a year, Jaffe and his stand-up bass breathe new life into New Orleans' musical history. He is the heir apparent of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band legacy, and he's determined to stay the course.
His parents, Allen and Sandra Jaffe, fell under the spell of the Crescent City in 1961. Abandoning their lives in New York for an unknown future in New Orleans, the pair opened Preservation Hall -- a veritable temple of jazz -- in an ancient building on St. Peter Street, in the city's fabled French Quarter. For four decades, tourists and locals alike have lined up around the block 360 nights a year to hear forgotten legends like banjo man Narvon Kimball, bassist Papa John Joseph, and trumpeter DeDe Pierce play their hearts out, backed by a house group called the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. A loose-knit, ever-changing group of musicians -- anchored by a core of regulars -- the Preservation Hall Jazz Band exists as a home unit and a touring company, spreading the jazz gospel both in New Orleans and across the land.
Jaffe was born and raised in this environment, a decidedly noncommercial labor of love dedicated to preserving the city's then-languishing jazz traditions. "I grew up just a few blocks from Preservation Hall," he says, "but it wasn't until I went away to college and got outside of New Orleans that I realized what a unique gift I'd been given. Hanging around all these musicians was an incredible life experience.
"I didn't know for a fact that I would come back to Preservation Hall. It just happened that way," Jaffe continues. "But if I wasn't here, I'd be playing music with some other group. My life is playing music and living in New Orleans. I can't imagine doing anything differently," he says, explaining that, several years after his father's death, he took over the family business.
"Stepping into this organization was like taking over a restaurant," Jaffe says. "You don't change the menu the day you show up. I am so proud of the musical heritage and tradition here, but part of me wants to leave my own stamp."
Fifteen months ago, he launched an in-house label, Preservation Hall Recordings. The imprint has released six albums to date, including archival sessions, new recordings, and solo albums by artists like Sweet Emma Barrett and Sister Gertrude Morgan.
"Gertrude was a minister who preached on the streets of the French Quarter," Jaffe explains. "She'd paint Bible verses on cardboard and give them to people who would drop donations in her guitar case. My dad recorded her back in the 1970s for an album called Let's Make a Record. It's the only recording of her singing, and today her artwork is shown in galleries and at places like the American Folk Art Museum in New York."
Soon after Jaffe remastered Morgan's album, he was approached by hip-hop artist King Britt of Digable Planets. "He wanted to make a record inspired by her work," he says. "It's gonna end up being a multimedia show with a live band and King Britt mixing and scratching over Sister Gertrude's singing. That's the neat stuff I do, besides just playing with the band, which is already pretty cool."
Jaffe plays with the touring unit of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band on, he says, "70 percent of our shows outside New Orleans, which add up to 120 dates a year. I've been to every continent and all 50 states," he marvels.
"Touring like that really lets you know that the music you're doing crosses all boundaries -- racial, cultural, and age-wise," Jaffe says. "People who have never heard New Orleans jazz are immediately attracted to the music. You know, everybody down here has their own way of seasoning food. Some people like more cayenne, some use bay leaves, some want raw garlic while others want it cooked. But whenever you go to someone's house to eat red beans and rice, you know it's red beans and rice, even if they don't use the same ingredients you use."
It's the same with music, he says: "We're all speaking the same language, we're just seasoning it differently."
However, the name "preservation" is a bit misleading, implying that today's music is simply re-creating a sound from some other period.
"I think when my parents named it Preservation Hall back in 1961, never in their wildest dreams did they think it would have a life beyond New Orleans," Jaffe says. "Back then, they were preserving these musicians' lives as well as the music, which was amazing. The music actually keeps the musicians young. People in their 90s are still playing at Preservation Hall. They don't have to retire. It's incredible to see these musicians still going strong.
"Even though I'm white and Jewish and have nothing to do with a Baptist church, I'm there too," Jaffe concludes. "Look at pictures of black bands in the '60s, and my dad's the white tuba player standing in the back. I guess I'm an anomaly in some ways, because I get to live this." n
Preservation Hall Jazz Band live at GPAC Saturday, March 12, at 8 p.m. Tickets $40. For more information, go to gpacweb.com.