For 50 years, Preservation Hall Jazz Band has called the French Quarter’s Preservation Hall home, but for just as long, the band has toured worldwide. Alan and Sandra Jaffe opened the venue in 1961, and the former served as musical director of the band until passing away in 1987. His son Ben later took over and has preserved the jazz fixture well into the 21st century.
Under Ben’s guidance, the group has collaborated with My Morning Jacket, Tom Waits, Dr. John, the late Pete Seeger, Del McCoury, the Blind Boys of Alabama and countless others. Jaffe brings his band to Avondale Brewery on Friday, March 28, and he spoke to Weld about the band’s colorful history and collaborations.
Weld: What was it like growing up inside Preservation Hall?
Ben Jaffe: It’s all I’ve ever known. You grow up around music, you grow up around a lot of interesting people. I was blessed to have grown up around my dad’s band; literally, sitting at their feet as a child. It was an amazing thing. I pinch myself all the time that I was given that opportunity to be around that environment. I have a lot of friends that grew up in more traditional households. I didn’t realize that my household wasn’t traditional, because everyone had a dad that played a tuba. It wasn’t really until I was in junior high school when I got around 13, 14 or 15, when I started thinking girls were cute and that kind of thing, that I started to realize, “Wow, most people’s parents go to work in the morning. And my parents go to Preservation Hall!”
I’m glad now, as a parent, that my parents valued the life they lived. That they valued the community that they became a part of. I feel indebted to them and to New Orleans, and I’m glad to be able to continue what my parents created.
Weld: Was there ever a time that you wanted to rebel against that? Maybe play some rock and roll?
BJ: Yeah, I don’t think it was so much “rebel”; I never wanted to be a punk rocker, in that sense. I never wanted to go against my parents. What I’ve always appreciated about my parents is how cool they were, musically. My dad wasn’t an old moldy fig; he appreciated the music of his generation. He appreciated Fats Domino. And he appreciated the Meters. And he appreciated the Neville Brothers. And he appreciated Allen Toussaint and Dr. John and James Booker. That’s all part of New Orleans as well. They come from the same community that the New Orleans jazz musicians come from.
You know, they’re related to us — physically, literally. Those are our cousins and our uncles and our sons. That’s the beautiful thing about New Orleans is how much people embrace a wild spectrum of music. And I was very fortunate that I got to grow up in that world. I grew up with Jazz Fest, where one second you’re listening the Neville Brothers and then the next second you’re listening to Dr. John and then you walk around the corner and you’re listening to Irma Thomas and then you’re listening to Greater St. Stephen’s Gospel Choir. It’s amazing!
That’s what I grew up with. When you grow up in New Orleans in the community I grew up in, playing jazz is the cool thing. So I never really went through that phase of — I guess I wanted to be all of those other things, but it was never “turning my back on jazz.”
Weld: When it was time for you to take over, how do you feel you put your own fingerprint on the band?
BJ: Well, it took me years to really discover my own identity. When I joined the band in 1993, two of the members of the band, actually three, had been in the band with my father. Actually, when I first joined in 1993. Willie Humphrey was still alive, Percy Humphrey was still alive, Narvin Kimball was still alive and performing, James Prevost was still alive and performing, Frank DeMond – I mean, six members of my father’s band were still alive in 1993. So when I joined the band, it wasn’t really about me coming in with a creative vision of what the band should be, it was really just about me finding a way to keep the band operational as these musicians continue to age and find a way for us to survive as a group. Recruiting new musicians into the band, learning how to manage a business. Preservation Hall — we put on over 400 shows a year at Preservation Hall. It’s a heck of a business to run. We have our hands full every day.
Weld: I assume your father had something to do with it, but how did you end up on a sousaphone? Surely when you were young, that wasn’t the first thing you picked up.
BJ: I’m more curious about how my dad ended up on sousaphone. In New Orleans, it’s sort of traditional for the son or the child to pick up the instrument their dad played or the instrument their dad instructed them on. The tuba was always around our house, it was always around us. So it was always something that we had easy access to. Every instrument has a personality to it.
Different people are attracted to different instruments because of their personality; it’s the same thing with a lead guitar player. You know, Keith Richards doesn’t play bass; Keith Richards plays lead guitar. There’s a reason that it’s that way. I think it’s the same reason that Louis Armstrong played trumpet. Probably the same reason that my dad played tuba. Because he was the quiet one that maybe liked to sit in the back and maybe had a little strength to him to hold a tuba for a couple of hours in a band situation. You gotta be a big guy to play tuba, you gotta be strong. It’s a heavy instrument, the tuba. That thing weighs about 30 pounds.
Weld: I assume you had a concert tuba when you were young — it wasn’t a sousaphone, right?
BJ: [Laughs.] Yeah, when I was young, my dad had what they called an E-flat tuba — it’s a little miniature tuba that kids start off with.
Weld: How did you meet Jim James, and how has that relationship developed and now become a regular fixture?
BJ: Jim started coming to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. He came down here to do some volunteer work. We invited him to sing on a benefit record we made back in 2009, and he came down and spent a day at Preservation Hall recording with me. I had never met him before that. He came to Preservation Hall and, literally, as I was opening the gate and he was entering the carriageway, we sort of looked into each other’s eyes and, I can honestly say that there’s few people I’ve met in my life where I felt like I was meeting a long lost brother. But I can say that about Jim. When we shook hands, we immediately knew that we were cut from the same cloth. And we’ve had an unspoken friendship and relationship that goes back many, many lifetimes before this. He became an immediate fan of the band. Preservation Hall is very different from what he does; we have a very different creative process. But we’re from the same cloth and he has a deep, deep appreciation for what we do and a very deep respect for our community and our musical heritage and history.
Weld: What is your relationship like with the other touring New Orleans brass acts, like Rebirth Brass Band and New Orleans Suspects and Orleans Avenue?
BJ: The guys in Rebirth, we all grew up together. Those guys are…an important part of our musical landscape. I grew up playing in a band with Trombone Shorty’s older brother, James Andrews. We had a band called the Treme All-Stars, way back in the ’80s when we were teenagers. So these musicians are more than just people we know, they’re family. They’re part of our community, just like we are. We live in our community and we’re all from here. It’s important to us — it’s important to support each other. You’re gonna see other. You’re gonna see each other at church. You’re gonna see each other at the grocery store. You’re gonna see each other at the restaurant. Your mom is gonna live by this aunt’s house. You know how it is, you’re up in Birmingham. It’s a neighborhood. It’s a city, but it’s really just a big ol’ neighborhood.
Weld: Do you ever have to turn collaborations down? I know everyone wants to work with you at this point.
BJ: [Laughs.] Well, you know, not everything makes sense. The beautiful thing about a collaboration is the collaboration, it’s getting to work with another artist that you respect and who has respect for what you create. So that doesn’t always come together, because maybe the magic isn’t there. There has to be some magic in the relationship. There has to be an openness and a willingness to explore. That takes special people. It takes a special kind of person to go there.
And collaborating, when it’s right, it’s the most beautiful thing in the world. It’s rewarding and fulfilling, and I’m a curious person. I like to be involved in the creative process where you’re actually getting insight into another artist’s creative process. That’s something that’s — it’s like getting to see the inside of someone’s hard drive, you get to go inside their brain. How do they make decisions? How do they choose? What feels good to them? What feels right? It’s beautiful. You learn a lot about yourself that way.
Weld: Do you have a dream collaboration that you’ve not yet made happen?
BJ: I’ll tell you, man. It’s a dream of mine to work with somebody like David Bowie or Bruce Springsteen. Those people, to me, are huge influences and people that I respect. I’d love to work with Aretha Franklin, just because I think she’s one of the great artists of the 20th and 21st century. Those things happen — they happen organically and they happen when they’re supposed to happen. You can always tell when something’s natural and organic. And sometimes you just have to sit back and wait on that moment to happen naturally.
Weld: Bruce will be there for Jazz Fest, any chance it happens there?
BJ: [Laughs.] We’ve got our fingers crossed. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting him on a couple of different occasions. He’s someone who I admire on so many different levels, someone that’s chosen a certain path and stayed on that path. Someone that speaks to so many different people on so many different levels. He’s a creative person with a good soul and an amazing message.
Weld: How many nights a year are you on tour and how many do you play at the Hall?
BJ: We play about 100 shows a year outside of New Orleans and we do 150-200 shows in New Orleans. We’re working all the time. And it’s beautiful. We love to play music.
Weld: What is the best hot sauce for every day use?
Weld: Who are the top five American rock bands of all time?
BJ: I go to the beginning. My favorites are Smiley Lewis and Jerry Lee Lewis and Fats Domino. Jumping forward to more mainstream — can you call the Band American? Wasn’t one of those guys from Canada?
Weld: It’s always a debate, but we normally let that slide because of Levon Helm.
BJ: How about we just put it at Levon Helm? And Jimi Hendrix — he really defined, there’s before Jimi and then there’s everything after Jimi. I don’t consider the Grateful Dead a rock and roll band, you know? But as far as being an important band that played electric guitars, they were in there somewhere, too.
I’d have to put Chuck Berry in there, too, so maybe I have six bands.
It’s funny, when I get to the ’60s and ’70s, I start going to the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin, and those bands were from the U.K. But if you ask those guys what they were listening to, they were listening to Howlin’ Wolf and Chuck Berry and the early New Orleans jazz guys like Fats Domino.
Preservation Hall Jazz Band will perform at Avondale Brewing Company on Friday, March 28. Birmingham’s own Chad Fisher Group will open at 8 p.m., while Preservation Hall Jazz Band will take the stage at 9:30 p.m. General admission tickets are $20.