What follows is the full transcript from my interview with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band’s Ben Jaffe, conducted for an article published in the March 2011 issue of the Hilton Head Monthly.
While preparing for our talk, I read a few of your interviews, and one thing that really stands out is how often you talk about the need to respect the traditions of your music.
I was raised with a sense of tradition, and I was also surrounded by it. Being around Preservation Hall and so many of its musicians, I developed a respect for them — almost the same way other people feel about their grandparents. It’s from the heart — it’s that kind of love. I also think it’s incredibly important, because of the nature of what we do, to have a respect for those traditions and know where we came from.
What struck a chord with me was that even though you’re very aware of those traditions, the band has spent the last several years expanding its audience in relatively non-traditional ways — with the Preservation album, for instance, which found you working with an eyebrow-raising list of guest stars, or with last year’s single, “It Ain’t My Fault,” which came together more organically — and was released a lot more quickly — than most music.
I think at the end of the day, I see what we do as being a continuation of what bands have been doing in New Orleans for over 100 years. If you look back to the very early days of New Orleans jazz, I mean, Louis Armstrong, King Oliver, Bunk Johnson, Pops Ellstein, Buddy Boldin, Jelly Roll Morton…there were no bigger names in music. These guys were the hip-hop artists of their day — wearing thousand-dollar suits, $10,000 tie pins, bragging about their womanizing and drinking. That’s something that I think it’s hard for people today to understand, because jazz is presented in such a different way.
I mean, when my parents came to New Orleans, if someone had told them there would be jazz at Lincoln Center, or Carnegie Hall, or that the Newport Jazz Festival would be so big and so important, they — and a lot of other people — would have thought it was just crazy talk. What we do today, in a lot of ways for me, is bringing the music back to its roots by making it more accessible and powerful to new audiences. And the challenge is to find ways of doing that without straying too far off course — to make sure it’s still New Orleans music, and still Preservation Hall.
The music has obviously always been there, but the music-buying public isn’t always necessarily paying attention. My gateway to New Orleans music was the Dirty Dozen Brass Band’s New Orleans Album, which was over 20 years ago; there was a bit of buzz at the time, between projects like that and Harry Connick, Jr.’s success, but it didn’t last. Over the last few years, though, it seems like there’s been something of a renaissance in New Orleans music. How much of this is real, and how much is just heightened awareness of the city in the post-Katrina era?
You know, I do think it’s real. The ‘90s were not a particularly exciting time for music in New Orleans, for me personally. It seemed like for maybe 15 years, we were trying to redetermine our identity. Katrina did something to this city that made us more aware of who we are, and put a spotlight on us that we hadn’t had for a long time. It made people aware of the depth of our city.
I always tell people they have to think beyond the New Orleans stereotypes — what I call the three B’s: Bourbon Street, booze, and beads. For a lot of people, that forms the basis of their perception of the city, and a lot of things reinforce it. MTV’s spring break specials had a huge impact on the way people viewed New Orleans. It’s always been my battle cry to say that we’re so much more than that. I mean, all that stuff is part of our city, but half a block from Bourbon Street is Preservation Hall, and two blocks from Preservation Hall is the Mississippi River, and one block away is Jackson Square. Eight blocks the other direction is Tremé, which is the center of so much of our music.
That’s always been what I’ve believed in, which is the real New Orleans, and I want to give people the opportunity to hear that music. Once they do, my experience is been that they’re fans for life. And how many cities can you say have an unbroken musical legacy that dates back a hundred years? We’ve had African-American brass bands here since before the Civil War. We have kids playing today whose great-great-grandparents played in brass bands in the 1920s. Our trumpet player is fifth generation. Our clarinet player, who’s 58 years old, is fourth generation. I’m second generation. That’s a beautiful thing. I do believe that some things are meant to go on forever.
But musical tastes are cyclical; trends are cyclical. It’s a part of life, and that’s always been reflected in New Orleans. The amazing thing to me about the music coming out of here today is the unbroken thread that runs through all the styles. But in terms of reaching a pop audience, it’s just part of the ups and downs. I look at old Preservation Hall posters from when they were touring with the Grateful Dead, and I don’t think that’s too far removed from what we’re doing now.
Obviously, you do a lot of shows at home, and there’s a very different vibe on the road. How do you take those different audiences into account when putting together your set lists for tours?
Actually, back up — do you even have a set list?
(Laughs) We do, we do. We try to play songs from whatever projects we’ve either just come out of or are working on, but it’s a real challenge with a band this old, because we have such a huge repertoire. There are hundreds of songs to choose from, and the audience would know them all, but it’s also finding the songs that the musicians in this particular group feel passionately about.
It’s still a challenge, though. I go to concerts sometimes and come away disappointed because the artist didn’t play something I wanted to hear, and I think we’ve all had that experience. And moreover, when you hear our band in concert, it’s a different experience than coming to hear us at Preservation Hall. That’s a pure experience at the Hall — more intimate. I wish more people had the chance to hear their favorite artists in that kind of environment. In a lot of ways, it’s like what Levon Helm is doing with his Midnight Ramble series — it’s a more relaxed environment. At the Hall, we don’t use microphones or amplifiers — it’s more of what I remember from when I was a kid, when the musicians would just get together. No light show, no stage, no curtains. You can feel the air from the band blowing you in the face.
A concert has more pomp and circumstance. It’s a huge deal, and there are larger expectations between the audience and the band. But I wouldn’t say I enjoy one more than the other, just because they’re so different. What I’ve consistently noticed, however, is the reaction of the audience. There’s just something infectious about New Orleans music — you’ll find people who’ve never heard it that start to move involuntarily to the music.
Also, the audiences are larger on tour. At the Hall, we’re playing to 70 people at a time, and on the road, we’re doing it for between 500 and 15,000 people at any given moment.
It must make absorbing the feedback from the audience a very different experience.
Yeah, and the challenge at large concerts is, how do you make an arena feel intimate? There are ways to do it, but it’s different from playing at Preservation Hall. What’s interesting to me is watching artists who don’t usually have the opportunity to play for smaller crowds come to the Hall. A band like My Morning Jacket, for example. It was beautiful for me to hear the music, and the guys in the band adapt — you have to be a chameleon to fit in that environment, if it’s something you aren’t used to.
Do you ever think about turning those performances into a Live from Daryl’s House type show?
We have recorded them, and we do record a lot of them. We’re working on a documentary about the history of Preservation Hall right now, and whenever we have someone come in, we generally try to capture the performance. To me, though, there’s something intimate about it — it’s like bringing a camera into your bedroom. I cherish those moments so much, and sometimes I don’t want to revisit them. Either they don’t live up to what I felt that night, or it’s so personal that it was just there that night for the people. And a lot of times, artists feel like that — that the show is just a moment in time. That’s right in line with what Preservation Hall is. We’re right on the edge of having everything completely digital everywhere, and I wouldn’t say the Hall has fought it — we just never thought about it at all, because that isn’t who we are.
For us to be there, playing acoustic music together in that environment, it’s just something so special and unique. It requires people to come and see it. I’m a huge proponent of getting out there and taking that big bite out of life, and coming to places like New Orleans — discovering these places. Or creating them!
Is that philosophy part of why the band has recorded fairly infrequently over the years?
Well, you know, as a band, I guess we’ve recorded more over the past few years than we ever have. It’s interesting, where we are in history. I see the music industry changing into something that we don’t quite know yet, but we have a pretty good idea.
You guys are more or less on your own as recording artists, aren’t you?
Right, we’re our own label, and that’s easier today than it’s ever been. But by the same token, there are more people fighting for that same audience. In a lot of ways, the method of delivering music is going to change, but the things people latch onto are going to remain the same.
So what happens next for the Preservation Hall Jazz Band?
We have a project we’re doing with Del McCoury, and that’s coming out on Mardi Gras. That’s something we’ll be touring behind this year. We’re celebrating our 50th anniversary this year, so we’ll be doing a lot of things around that, and I also did the music for a ballet that’s debuting in New Orleans this week. What’s important for me is ensuring that the next generation of New Orleans musicians has the same opportunities that we had growing up.
Finally, what would you say people can expect to see and hear at the Arts Center show?
What I’m most proud of is helping people overcome their fear of the word “jazz,” and I think Preservation Hall does that better than anyone. When people come to hear us, the experience they have so often catches them by surprise — they don’t know what to expect. And it’s not the kind of show where you’re expected to sit on your hands and be polite. Ours are shows where people have gotten up and danced in the aisles.
At the end of the day, what any artist wants to do is take people on a journey for the short period of time that we get to spend together. To forget about all of their burdens and worries — that’s a recurring theme in New Orleans music, laying your burden down. I think that’s what our music does — I think it captures that spirit and takes people on a little trip for a couple of hours.