South Magazine — There aren’t many music rooms in the land more safeguarded, undiluted and pleasingly frozen in time than Preservation Hall in New Orleans, a low-lit and spookily evocative venue that’s about the size of your living room and way more sparsely decorated.
Since 1961, the room has hosted one primary tenant: the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, whose members have both lit up St. Peter Street and served as traveling evangelists of the New Orleans music for 50 years. But though the band has been guarding and perpetuating the sound of its birthplace for more than a half a century, last year they did something they’d never done before: drop an album of original material. That record, “That’s It!’, composed by the band and produced by My Morning Jacket’s Jim James, earned the group fresh ears, got it playing with the Roots on “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon” and properly kicked off the next 50 years of its history.
“That’s It!” was partly the brainchild of bassist/sousaphonist Ben Jaffe, who, as the hall’s creative director as well as the son of founders Allan and Sandy Jaffe, is charged with guarding and expanding the foundations laid by everyone from Jelly Roll Morton to King Oliver to Louis Armstrong. He talked to South about how to get that done.
Does your daughter have any notion what her dad does for a living?
Well she doesn’t know we make money doing it (laughs). But she understands that music is going on. She comes to the Hall to see us, and she wants to be around the music. She loves it; kids are such little blank hard drives.
You guys have been around for 50 years. Who comes to your shows in 2014?
I kind of feel like we’re the Beatles of what we do — we have such a broad spectrum of people. The experience of coming to Preservation Hall in New Orleans is singular; we’re a destination there. But when you come see us in concert, you look around and see people from Japan and Russia and Africa. I tell people we’re like the United Nations. The other night we met a group of eight Japanese ladies who every year travel to a new city, and they all ended up at the hall. We’ve become like the Empire State Building of New Orleans. I don’t know of any other venue that can consistently say that.
Ha! So when you see that, do you go say “hi” after the show?
Oh sure, that’s part of the reward of being a musician, getting to intersect with this really incredible spectrum of people. It’s incredibly rewarding to know what you do is bigger than any language barrier, that what you produce is something that can be appreciated by anybody.
And your job is to not only preserve that language, but also to shepherd it to new audiences as well.
That’s something my dad used to speak to me about: preserving the physical experience of discovering the Hall. For the majority of people it’s the first time hearing New Orleans jazz, and my parents didn’t really understand that when they created the hall. Their plan was to create a venue that was a snapshot of New Orleans in 1961. They had no idea the musicians would go on to influence another generation, and another, and another. And now here we are in 2014, and we’ve got third, fourth, seventh-generation jazz musicians.
You seem to find that collective history a lot in New Orleans music.
You see it a little bit in bluegrass and western music where there’s that sense of family. Del McCoury — we perform with him sometimes — his children are in his band with him. You see it in gospel music. But you don’t see it anywhere as strongly as you do in New Orleans, where there are very few first-generation musicians.
So was “That’s It” an attempt to move the sound out of New Orleans, get it in front of some new years?
Well, when we started writing new material for the band it wasn’t to make any kind of statement about the future of New Orleans music, it was an opportunity to explore this other side of us. Up until now we’ve been a band that’s based on a repertoire that’s existed for a century, but that’s the balancing act: how do you honor your history and continue to forge ahead in a way that celebrates your past? This past weekend I performed at a New Orleans funeral, and that’s a tradition that goes back 100 years, that’s still something that’s a way for us to honor our community. We’re not a museum. We’re a living, breathing part of New Orleans.