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A chat with Ben Jaffe about Preservation Hall Jazz Band’s past, future, and interesting partnerships in their present

Preservation Hall Jazz BandPreservation Hall Jazz Band returns once again to Southern California tonight, this time for their inaugural visit to the John Anson Ford Amphitheatre.  This makes about a half-dozen visits to the area since they released That’s It!, their first-ever album devoted exclusively to new compositions (notwithstanding the special editions that include some live versions of classics such as “Tootie Ma is a Big Fine Thing” and “Oh Liza”).

In advance of their visit, this Tuesday I had the chance to chat with Ben Jaffe, son of the group’s founders and current sousaphone player, bassist, creative director, and driving force behind the band’s forays into less-than-expected collaborations beyond their traditional New Orleans roots.  Mr. Jaffe was kind enough to brave jet lag, Wimbledon traffic, and technical difficulties to Skype and chat with me over the phone from England.  Here’s much of that conversation:

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CKDH:  We’re very lucky here in Los Angeles to have you guys visit so much.  I saw you at the Hollywood Bowl last summer, you were on Jimmy Kimmel, saw you at Cerritos, but missed you at Coachella and the various other places you visited.  That’s a lot of times to make the trip in one year.

Skyping with Ben JaffeBJ: I’ve been coming out to LA since I was one year old because my dad was in the band. It was tradition for us to come to Los Angeles once a year. In fact, it was tradition for us to come out around this time of year – 4th of July. It was part of my childhood. I have a sense of place when I come back to Los Angeles. It’s nice to come back – it feels familiar. . . .

CKDH:  You seem like you’re constantly on the road.  How much time do you get to spend in New Orleans?

BJ:  We’re on the road four to six months a year.  The rest of it we’re back in New Orleans.  All of the musicians in the band, when we’re home, perform at their churches where they grew up or they’re performing with different brass bands:  Rickie Monie and Ronell Johnson are both organists, and they both play in their church; Mark Braud might be sitting in with another group somewhere around town at another venue in New Orleans.  When I’m home, I perform at Preservation Hall two to three days a week when we’re back in New Orleans, and also there are different bands that I sit in with when I’m home.

It’s very important to me that when we are home, that we’re part of the community that we don’t just close the door and hibernate.  Part of what we do is perform in New Orleans – it’s such a unique experience because there are neighborhood bars where there is jazz being played.  A lot of cities, when you go out to hear jazz, it’s at a club or a concert hall, and there’s some kind of formality to it.

I think that’s one of the things that is unique to New Orleans and what makes it so special.

CKDH:  You’ve mentioned the uniqueness of New Orleans before.  You told the story about how you were in college at Oberlin playing “When the Saints Go Marching In” with a bunch of other really good musicians from other parts of the country, but it just sounded bad.  What else is it about New Orleans, in your opinion, that makes it so unique?

BJ:  Whether you’re a jazz musician or a rock musician or whatever style you play, in my mind, New Orleans is the source of American music.  It’s the birthplace of not just jazz but I really believe the birthplace of what most of us consider “American music.”

Something happened in New Orleans that didn’t happen anywhere else.  There was this overlapping of different cultures that didn’t happen anywhere else in the world or particularly in the United States:  yeah, in Brazil you had this mix of Portuguese and indigenous cultures, but in New Orleans, you find this overlapping of French, Spanish, African, Native American, and West Indian culture, and it’s a different experience.  You really feel the connection of rhythm and time in New Orleans in a different way. . . .

You experience music in a very different way.  In New Orleans, we dance to jazz – that’s critical to the way we perform and the way we experience music.  To us, this is music that resonates deep inside of people.  When we perform, we want to have that communal experience.  That’s only something you get from New Orleans.

CKDH:  So given all of that, when you and the band wrote the music for That’s It!, did you set out to just write new songs which, because of your influences, were going to inevitably sound like New Orleans jazz, or did you consciously decide to write music in this style?

BJ:  We were definitely aware of the process.  It was an idea that had never presented itself to us before. . . . When you’re a band that comes from a tradition the way we do where your fathers and grandfathers and great-grandfathers had played this music before you, you inherit the repertoire and continue that tradition.

For me, the turning point was really our 50th anniversary.  I spent that year producing a box set of five decades of Preservation Hall material.  When you spend that much time listening to material and absorbing it and thinking about it and your place in the great scheme of things, you realize that your responsibility is to that tradition, and to ensuring that that tradition is passed on to another generation.

preservationhalljazzband-thatsitI believe that we have a responsibility to contribute back to that tradition the way that Jelly Roll Morton, Freddie Keppard, Louis Armstrong, and King Oliver created this tradition.  If the tradition does not evolve, then it will suffocate and it will die.  Our music has to speak to our generation, and that’s what was important to me:  to create an album that resonated with my community in New Orleans.  I knew that if we made a record of great songs that people could dance to and play at parades, then it was going to be something for which New Orleans could become our cheerleader.

You take a song like “Sugar Plum” and the melody and the tempo were, now that I look back on it, very heavily influenced by people like [hard bop musicians] Lee Morgan and Cannonball Adderley, but then you listen to the bass line and the drum beat on it and the instrumentation, and it’s very much New Orleans.  In a lot of ways, it’s like you said, anything we create is going to be reflective of our city and our community, of our genre and our personal experiences.

CKDH:   What’s it like now that you’ve been living with That’s It! for a year?  Is it easier or is there more pressure?  How do you keep it fresh?

BJ:  That was a real thing that we discussed as a band because with all of the other repertoire, we’ve been playing it since we were children.  Nothing can ever take the place of experience and repetition.  That’s something that you only get through time.

The great thing that we have – that this band has – is a home base where we can perform these songs 3 or 4 times a week in front of an audience and get to the point of not having to think about the songs anymore.

I don’t know when it happened, but there was a moment when we stopped thinking about the songs and just began playing them.  That’s really when you start to have fun on stage, when you just know that everyone’s going to be at this place at that time.  And that’s when the excitement happens:  when you can start stretching out a little bit, when you have the confidence that the rhythm section is going to be same place as the trumpeter is going to be.

I think that that’s one of the reasons why we really wanted to create an album of new material because we as a band never had an experience creating new music material.

CKDH:  How long did it take to get there, from the moment you started writing until you recorded the album?

BJ:   It took two years to write songs and be in the head space of this becoming the next evolution of Preservation Hall.  You have to be prepared for it too.  The music is one thing:  writing the songs, learning the songs, rehearsing the songs, and recording the songs.  But to be in that headspace and be ready to unveil these songs to the public and knowing that you’re upsetting the apple cart, that you’re changing the formula of the red beans and rice.  What I always told people is, “Well, not really.  We’re actually just doing the same thing was done 100 years ago when these pioneers of jazz were creating this music, and creating the foundation of the music.”

CKDH:  So how is it away from New Orleans, especially at places like Coachella or Bonnaroo  when you probably aren’t the main reason for the audience to be there, but you guys are the ones that happen to be on stage?  How is it for you guys?

BJ:   Those are some of my proudest moments! My philosophy is that jazz is for the masses, that it started off being that way; as it matured, it went off in lots of different directions, but at its core, it’s people music and it’s “all-people” music.  It’s really a matter of having the opportunity to perform in front of those audiences.  There’s less and less opportunity for people to actually hear what we do if you live outside of New Orleans, and it makes those moments more important, playing Coachella or Bonnaroo, playing with the Foo Fighters or My Morning Jacket or Mos Def, you know?

CKDH:  The Foo Fighters thing was awesome!  I was so sad that I wasn’t there.  

BJ:  (Laughs) Well, you’re in luck because it was recorded for HBO. We didn’t know that it was gonna happen until that morning.  It happened pretty spontaneously – as things do in New Orleans!

Preservation Hall Jazz Band and Foo Fighters 2014 (photo by Andrew Stuart)

CKDH:  I haven’t had the chance to interview Dave Grohl yet, but I’ve read what he’s said and I’ve seen him talk in concert, and seen the reverence he has for good music, any good music. It was great seeing on Facebook and Twitter how excited he was playing at Preservation Hall and playing with you guys.

BJ:   Yeah, I’ve always admired him and always been a huge fans of his work.  We do get to meet a lot of people who perform outside of our genre, and when you do meet a Jim James or a Dave Grohl who have a different kind of appreciation and understanding of music, it’s rare and it’s beautiful and it’s genuine.

It’s what makes these collaboration work, in that there’s a mutual respect and curiosity in the creative process:  “What made you play rock and roll and punk and this other thing?  How did you end up playing jazz tuba?  How did this  happen?  We’re exactly the same age, but look how different our lives are?”

And yet we do exactly the same thing:  play music for a living.  It’s beautiful.  That’s really the collaboration that takes place, when you get to have a conversation in the courtyard at Preservation Hall over a cup of coffee, when you get to sit backstage or on the bus at Bonnaroo and have those conversations.  When you get to bring that moment on stage and share it with an audience, it’s one of the greatest feelings.  You remind yourself in those moments why you play music.

Ben JaffeCKDH:  The other collaboration that I had heard about and was in awe of was you guys and Alt-J.  What a great combination.  I’m just picturing you on tuba playing “Tessellate” or “Fitzpleasure.”  It just made me smile.  How did that go down?

BJ:  It was great!  We met them and had a couple of conversations.  I was a fan of their music.  When the opportunity presented itself, we met backstage and we figured out what we were going to do together.  For a well-rehearsed band like they are, you’re stepping into the unknown when you begin to work with a band [like us] that’s based on improvisation.   It can be nerve-wracking the first time you dip your toes in that world.  And it’s beautiful – the tightrope walk when you don’t know where it’s going to go, and you have to have a trust and confidence, that everyone around you is there with you.

You know, playing with Preservation Hall, that’s something that I’ve grown to appreciate. . . .  When we’re on stage, we’re not full of nerves or worry that, “Where’s it going to go tonight?”

[But] what’s exciting about that to me is to break open these barriers that exist in people’s mind.  We don’t even know it sometimes.  We don’t even know that there’s this musical thing in our heads that, “We can’t put this with this, it doesn’t work.  Or we can’t put some Alternative thing with this, and we can’t put horns on this.”  It’s not that people say that we can’t do it, we don’t even know that it can’t be done or it can be done until someone does.  It’s a very brave place to go for a lot of the artists with whom we collaborate.

CKDH:   I wonder how much of it is purely generational.  You and I are about the same age, and for all of us who grew up with “mass media” and the expansion beyond that.  I grew up listening to everything too, whether it was Al Hirt or Foo Fighters or Preservation Hall or Alt-J or Esa-Pekka Salonen and what he’s writing.  It’s all good music.  There are certainly differences, and different musicians do different things, but it’s not like, “I am THIS kind of musician, so it would be anathema to do this other kind of thing.”  I rarely hear that, and when I do it’s from anyone below the age of 50. 

BJ:   One of the challenges for any artist is to create work that resonates with them and has depth and integrity in it.  One of the challenges we face for a band like us, where most of the music we play is repertory music, is constantly exploring the music.  Otherwise, you become a caricature of yourself.

And it’s a challenge too for a jazz group to do a cover of a popular song that it isn’t just a cover of a popular song in a jazz style – what is it about yourself that you’re bringing to the table?  It’s part of the reason we do it.

CKDH:  Given all of the partnerships you’ve done, have you ever thought about partnerships with classical musicians?

BJ:  In terms of doing something in the classical tradition, I think it’d be very interesting to work with classical musicians who come out of the early Baroque period who still improvise.

One of my very closest friends at Oberlin and to this day one of the finest musicians I know is a harpsichordist.  When he got to Oberlin, he couldn’t believe how similar what he did on the harpsichord is to jazz.  In a lot of ways, what he does on harpsichord is very similar to the way Bill Evans voiced and did progressions.  He made the transition very easily to jazz from harpsichord.

PHJB_1That’s something I would want to explore with those kinds of musicians:  where does our world and your world overlap and collide, where do we diverge from one another and then come back together? I want to do that the same we did it with [bluegrass legend] Del McCoury or with Mos Def.  You sit down and sometimes you have a physical dialogue, and sometimes you just play music until you discover where those moments are.

We did a project with several Indian classical music players who didn’t speak English.  Our discovery was simply through music.  We had to be in the same room together and simply began exploring, “Oh, what key is that instrument in?  How do you voice those chords? Wait, show me what tempos do you play at, where does the song begin and end, how many beats per measure?”  That’s what I get interested in and excited about. . .  .

CKDH:  On a different front, you talk about you and others being in New Orleans and learning and playing the same repertoire.  With the success of the album and it being out for a year now, have you heard other people’s take on “That’s It!” or “Dear Lord . . . “ or “Rattlin’ Bones” or anything else?

BJ:  Yeah.  Actually, there’s a YouTube video of some street band up in Canada doing “Rattlin’ Bones,” and I got a kick out of that.  I walked into a place in New Orleans one night, and the band was playing “That’s It!,” and that put a big smile on my face.  I love it, because that’s what we do, we interpret other people’s compositions and songs, so it’s amazing to be a part of it.

That’s really what we wanted to do:  to create the next wave of New Orleans standards, the same way that Professor Longhair or James Booker or Dr. John or Fats Domino or the Neville Brothers did.  We feel we’re part of that tradition. . . .

We’ll see.  The album’s been out for a year, and the band’s been around for more than fifty.  So we’ve got a long way to still go.  Once you open the door and begin writing new material, it becomes as big a part of your identity as these songs you’ve performed your whole life.

New Orleans to me is about preserving the past, protecting the present, and creating the future.

CKDH:  So is the next Preservation Hall album going to be new music too?

BJ:  Yeah, actually we just finished our first round of demos.  We have about 18 songs that we wrote.  Some of them are left over from the That’s It! project that didn’t make the first wave, and then we have others.

The great thing about the songs we wrote for That’s It! is that a lot of people didn’t even know that these were songs that we wrote, they just thought that we were performing songs – like “Dear Lord” or “Come With Me” for example — that have been around forever.

CKDH:  Yes, they have a timeless quality. 

BJ:  Yes, timeless.  That’s really what I wanted. I told the guys, “Let’s create an album of timeless classics that are going to get people out of their seats – dancing.”  They said, “Got it – let’s do it!”

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You’re next chance to get out of your seats and dance with Ben Jaffe and the rest of Preservation Hall Jazz Band is tonight at the John Anson Ford Amphitheatre, with The Dustbowl Revival opening up for them.  Here are the full PR details:

WHAT:
Preservation Hall Jazz Band and The Dustbowl Revival —The Ford’s Zev Yaroslavsky Signature Series kicks off with a joyous evening of music that promises to be one toe-tapping event to remember. Since its start in the 1960s, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band has epitomized the best in New Orleans style jazz, traveling the world to share what they call “the planet’s happiest music.” Opening for PHJB, roots and jazz collective The Dustbowl Revival (“Best Live Band in LA” — LA Weekly Best of 2013) fuses old school bluegrass, gospel, jug-band, swamp blues and the hot swing of the 1930s to form a spicy roots cocktail.

WHEN:
Saturday, July 5 at 8 p.m.

WHERE:
Ford Theatres
2580 Cahuenga Blvd. East
Hollywood, CA  90068
(just off the 101, between Hollywood Blvd. and Barham Blvd. in the Cahuenga Pass)

HOW:
(323) 461-3673 or www.FordTheatres.org
TICKET PRICES:
Reserved seating: $80, $65$50
VIP Package: $100 (includes premium seating, choice of wine or beer and on site parking)

Purchase by June 28 and save $5!

PARKING:
On site, stacked parking: $5 per vehicle. FREE satellite parking and FREE shuttle to the Ford available at Universal City/Studio City Metro Station lot at Lankershim Blvd. and Campo de Cahuenga. Shuttle stops in the “kiss and ride” area and cycles every 15-20 minutes. Please allow an extra 30 minutes if taking the shuttle.

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Photo credits:

  • Preservation Hall Jazz Band and Foo Fighters:  photo by Andrew Stuart
  • All others courtesy of Preservation Hall Jazz Band

 

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