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Preservation Hall Jazz Band: A Spry 50

Photo by Clint Maedgen

It’s not surprising to find my interview scheduled during travel time for Ben Jaffe, Preservation Hall Jazz Band’s creative director and tuba player. Although the musical institution is based in New Orleans, the members have consistently left the Crescent City to spread its timeless jazz sounds around the globe.

Over the past year, the beloved act celebrated its 50th anniversary with a concert at Carnegie Hall, a Thailand tour that included a show before the country’s King and Princess, a performance with Stevie Wonder during the Message of Peace Concert at the United Nations, guests such as Jim James, Steve Earle, Bonnie Raitt, Trombone Shorty and Allen Toussaint joining them at New Orleans JazzFest and the 7th annual Creole Christmas shows.

Preservation Hall’s 2013 has already included joining My Morning Jacket for a Hurricane Sandy benefit at Asbury Park, performing with Dr. John and the Black Keys at the Grammy Awards, receiving a NAACP Image Award. Also on the agenda are a host of dates as headliners, with the Mobile Symphony Orchestra and as part of festival lineups (Merlefest, Sasquatch, Saskatchewan Jazz, Red Wing Roots).

Established in 1961, Preservation Hall originated when Jaffe’s parents, Allan and Sandra, moved to New Orleans and were encouraged to organize the jam sessions held by the elder musicians at an art gallery located in the heart of the French Quarter. Since that time, it has become a place to embrace and mentor one generation after another in the traditions of jazz while supporting the creative impulses that move the genre forward.

Marking Preservation Hall Jazz Band’s lengthy history is the four-CD box set, The Preservation Hall 50th Anniversary Collection. The 58 tracks, selected from 19 albums, offer a master class on the evolving nature of the group by including different versions of the same song, collaborations and live standards.

When Jaffe explains in the liner notes the importance of the set, he also ends up discussing the invaluable setting that nurtured five decades of musicians, and will inspire many more. The collection demonstrates that “New Orleans music remains just as meaningful today, vital and full of life. It can be happy and joyous; it can be sad and mournful. It has no language barrier, and it delivers a universal message that we, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, carry with us wherever we travel.”

*JPG: I imagine that when the 50th anniversary was coming up there were discussions about “What are you going to do? What are you going to do?” Is the box set one of many things that came about through those discussions?

Yeah. That was definitely something I personally wanted to see get done. I knew that it is a big and ambitious project and it was something that we had put a lot of planning and effort into. So, I knew it needed the kind of momentum you get from a 50th anniversary to make it happen.

And then, there’s all the little nuances of it and all the people you have to convince that it’s a good idea ‘cause, of course, we think it’s a brilliant idea. It’s like everybody else figuring it out, too. I guess that’s really been what this 50th anniversary has been for me. It’s been an awareness campaign to all the people, our music fans and fans of Preservation Hall. I almost don’t even call them fans as much as I can call them supporters of what we do. It does feel like what we do is a cause.

Do you feel in a way with the box set, 50th anniversary and, basically, everything that you do with Preservation Hall your mom and dad are looking over your shoulders?

I’ll tell you how I feel. By releasing this box set it acknowledges where we’ve been as a band. It really puts us in historical perspective and it also gives people some sort of different cultural understanding of what Preservation Hall is. And that’s something that I’m glad we can do, that we could put it out there to the world and say, “This was our last 50 years and let’s see what’s going to happen in the next 50 years.” The next 50 years are as much a mystery to us as the past 50 years were.

My parents had absolutely…this was the furthest thing from their minds. If you had told my parents that they were going to end up moving to New Orleans and getting involved with their jazz community of New Orleans in the early 1960s, and that my dad was going to end up playing tuba in a jazz band and tour the world and that his son would someday end up being the creative director of Preservation Hall, he would have looked at you like you were nuts. You might as well have told him that you sending him to Saturn or Mars.

Your answer has me jumping in three or four different directions right now. Let’s stick to the album, the sequencing of the album, I enjoyed the way that the four disks played out but I’ve got to admit that I’m more of a purist on these things who likes the songs in chronological and see the artistic changes unfold over time. How did you come up with the sequencing?

Well, one of the reasons I wanted to do it that way — and I’m up on music, a fanatic myself and I’ve spent my life…I grew up on Michael Cuscuna’s label, Mosaic, and all of his box sets that he creates are chronological, exhaustive box sets with all of the outtakes and partial takes. When I sat down with this project, I really wanted it to be not so much historical because I don’t think of Preservation Hall as a museum piece. I think of what we do as a living, breathing tradition. I wanted the music, the experience, to be more like a playlist of Preservation Hall music. Once we decided that it wasn’t going to be the complete recordings of Preservation Hall, that it wasn’t going to be a 16-disc box set that included everything that the band has ever recorded including every outtake, then I wanted it to play out as an in-depth playlist of Preservation Hall music that I enjoy listening to and I also think is important historically to who Preservation Hall is.

And there is a reason why every track is on there. They weren’t just chosen haphazardly. There’s a good reason why each one of those songs was chosen, either because there was historic value or because of the qualities of performance or because of a juxtaposition of two different decades of a different band playing the same song and interpreting it in a different way.

Was there a consideration of running into the studio and recording something, anything that would hit the 50th year because you stop at 2010?

I think the last track we recorded in there is actually 2011. The first track, I think it’s been misprinted. The first track that appears in the box set was actually recorded in 1961. So it’s like 1961 to 2011 and covers the 50 years of Preservation Hall. The box set came out simultaneously with our 50th anniversary live performance at Carnegie Hall. The two projects were released on the same day. I thought that was a great testament to the Preservation Hall Band, that we released 50 years of our music and then we released where we are today as the Preservation Hall Band.

Preservation Hall opened its doors in September of ’61. We’ve been celebrating the 50th anniversary from September to September. That’s the year of our 50th birthday. We would be 50 years old as of September 2011. You’re 50 the whole year until September 2012.

You alluded to this earlier when you talked about doing the sequencing and showing the changes and how there is still that tradition of Preservation Hall going through it. You write in the box set’s liner notes, “I get great pleasure out of a song that has been interpreted, reinterpreted and performed for years while remaining as fresh as the day it was born … That’s what music does, it stretches time, it overlaps traditions, it challenges history …” Is it the idea of pushing the music forward, respecting traditions yet not being set in stone by them and that you don’t want to be thought of as a nostalgia act?

There is a lot at play here. First of all, what Preservation Hall does, the music that we play, the original Preservation Hall band that formed in 1961 were these living, breathing founders/creators of New Orleans music. And Preservation Hall, over the years, has been the offspring of that first wave of musicians. All of the musicians who perform at Preservation Hall have some family connection or blood connection or some can trace something back to the very earliest days of New Orleans music. I’m probably the exception. I am the exception. I should say I probably am. I am the exception that I only go back to New Orleans one generation as a musician. That’s my story. I’m a complete anomaly. I’m the exception not the rule. But everybody else in the band has some family connection to New Orleans music.

When you look at someone like Charlie Gabriel, our 80 year old clarinet player, his family goes back in New Orleans music five generations to its earliest days of jazz in Storyville when his great great grandfather was playing across the street from Buddy Bolden. To me that’s unbelievable, that there’s this unbroken tradition that we have in New Orleans, that we’re not recreating anything. We are it. We are the natural torch bearers of this tradition.

And that’s very important to me to keep our music relevant and not to make it a museum piece; that our music has to be not only respectful of the traditions but we never want to be beholden to the traditions that it strangles us as artists and as the inheritors of the tradition. If Louis Armstrong hadn’t pushed music in a new direction, just think what we wouldn’t have today or if Jelly Roll Morton hadn’t pushed the boundaries of music or Sam Morgan or Papa Celestin or King Oliver. All of the very early Jazz musicians were criticized for what they were creating but just think how brave it was of them. Today, it seems very innocent but back then this was heresy.

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