Ben Jaffe was practically born into New Orleans’ renowned Preservation Hall Jazz Band. “I have pictures of myself on tour with them when I was an infant,” says Jaffe, who in addition to being the band’s tuba player also serves as the creative director for the Preservation Hall. “Literally three weeks after I was born, we were on a Greyhound bus on tour, so I’ve been involved with Preservation Hall for 43 years.”
Jaffe laughs at the end of this statement, as if to say, “This is all I know,” and it’s hard to disagree that the band was his destiny. His parents — Allan and Sandra — founded Preservation Hall in the French Quarter back in 1961. And for over half a century, they, along with Jaffe and a host of fine musicians, have kept the tradition of original Southern jazz alive and well. When the Hall first opened, it brought in the first wave of jazz musicians — the originals. And so the notion of preservation wasn’t something Jaffe’s parents really considered.
“My parents were in no way, shape, or form preservationists,” Jaffe says. “They didn’t believe that this music was one way and that they had to recreate New Orleans jazz. The first wave of Preservation Hall musicians were the first wave of New Orleans jazz musicians. George Lewis, Sweet Emma Barrett, Papa John Joseph — these musicians were alive at the birth of jazz. But those musicians have passed on and left behind a legacy and these traditions.”
And the band has carried on these traditions in fine form in the 50 years since its first album Sweet Emma and Her Preservation Hall Jazz Band was released in 1964. While jazz, blues, soul, and gospel are among the genres the New Orleans band has embraced, the band’s devotion to keeping jazz music alive and true to its roots has not only led to them developing a fan base, but also to prestigious awards like 2006’s National Medal of Arts. It’s the highest honor in America that can be bestowed upon a group for artistic excellence.
Yet as important as the band’s past is, Jaffe also realized the role of the present a couple of years ago. It sparked the idea for their most recent album, last year’s That’s It!
“I had spent most of 2011 researching all of the Preservation Hall’s archival recordings while working on a 50th anniversary project, and really getting into the band’s recorded history in a way that I never had before,” Jaffe says. “And that’s when a lightbulb went off in my head that it was a responsibility of ours to now take this tradition that we’ve been upholding, and are part of the legacy of, and start to contribute our own material to the New Orleans jazz repertoire.”
That’s It! is the first time in the band’s history that an album has been comprised of entirely new material, and this fact infuses the record with life and vitality at every turn. From the lively opening notes of the instrumental title track to the gospel-meets-ragtime sound of “Dear Lord,” there is something fresh and almost startling about this project that is hard to ignore. And “August Nights” — despite its mournful echoing sax, wailing trumpet, and Clint Maedgen’s plaintive vocals about a life gone sour by the cares of this world — is simply cinematic. It’s music that’s perfect for a late-night scene beneath a lamppost on a darkly lit street in a classic noir. The album ends up feeling like a cross-section between the jazz of the past and the jazz of the present, and that is the band’s plan for now and the foreseeable future.
“Preservation Hall, to the musicians who played there when it was founded, was a snapshot of New Orleans at that moment in time, and I think it’s important for us today to represent a snapshot of New Orleans today with our music,” Jaffe says. “It doesn’t sound like it did 50 years ago, but we’re doing exactly the same thing.”