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Published: 2010/09/21
by Mike Greenhaus

The Preservation Hall Jazz Band and The Essence of New Orleans

As its name suggests, Preservation Hall Jazz Band is committed to preserving the culture and musical heritage of its native New Orleans. In addition to regular performances at its own Preservation Hall in the French Quarter, the ensemble has served as ambassadors for the Big Easy through appearances at festivals and shows across the country. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Preservation Hall Jazz Band appeared at numerous benefits for the city, including gigs at Radio City Music Hall and Bonnaroo.

Earlier this year the group released the all-star benefit collection Preservation, which features collaborations with the likes of Pete Seeger, Tom Waits, Andrew Bird, Dr. John, Steve Earle, Blind Boys of Alabama, Merle Haggard, Richie Havens, Jason Isbell and Jim James, as well as an archival recording by Louis Armstrong. The group supported the project by touring with My Morning Jacket and playing modern music festival such as the Hangout. Below, Preservation Hall Jazz Band tuba player/spokesman Ben Jaffe—whose father Allan Jaffe led the group for years—discusses the band’s future plans and current collaborations.

This summer Preservation Hall Jazz Band recorded the single “Ain’t My Fault” with Lenny Kravitz, Mos Def, Trombone Shorty and Tim Robbins to benefit those affected by the oil spill. Can you start by telling us a little about the genesis of that song in particular?

I contacted Mos Def and I asked him if he was as angry as I was, and he said yes. And I said, “Hey, how about the idea of a Most Def/Preservation Hall track to an old New Orleans R&B classic called ‘It Ain’t My Fault’?” And he wrote me back “absolutely.” And in the text message he actually wrote the first two lines of the rap—he texted me back the first two lines of the rap. And I wrote him back the response, and he wrote me back “Exactly, let’s talk over lunch.” We met for lunch and by 2 PM that afternoon we were writing the song, and by 11 PM that night we were in Preservation Hall setting up the track and getting to record, and we debuted it at Gulf Aid in New Orleans.

The description “ambassador” is often tossed around when describing Preservation Hall. Do you feel this is a role the band has more readily embraced post-Katrina?

We, Preservation Hall Jazz Band, participated in a lot of benefit projects right after Hurricane Katrina. We’ve been a huge advocate for the rebuilding of New Orleans, not just the physical rebuilding of the city, but the protection of our community, and our culture and our history. I feel like that’s what preservation means―it means to protect. And that’s something Preservation Hall has done for decades, is really protect and honor the musical tradition of New Orleans, an amazing jazz tradition.

Your new album Preserved finds Preservation Hall performing with numerous musicians across genre lines. Besides introducing some new years to New Orleans music, what was your specific goal for that project?

When we were asked to participate in some sort of benefit project―we were asked by our record label, actually our distribution company which is called RED, to come out with a project, and instead of being a Katrina project I really felt that it was time for us to address something that is fragile and intangible and undocumented and that’s a lot of our musical traditions, and parade traditions, and dancing traditions.

That’s what I really wanted to bring awareness to. And I found that when I started reaching out to musicians, a lot of them had the same concern; they understand that there’s a lot of new traditions in the world that are undocumented, a lot of our funeral traditions. There’s no manual anywhere that says, you know, “This is how you play at a jazz funeral, these are the songs you play, this is the tempo you play, this is the order you play them in.” It was amazing that we had such an overwhelming response we couldn’t even accommodate all the people that we wanted to on the project, everybody from Steve Earl, Andrew Bird, Richie Havens, Pete Seeger and Ani DiFranco to Tom Waits, and everyone came to New Orleans and spent a couple days with us making music and in that very special place, Preservation Hall in New Orleans.

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