Ben Jaffe (center) is the Creative Director of the Preservation Hall Jazz band in New Orleans. We had the opportunity of discovering their beautiful talent and energy a few years ago at the Hollywood Bowl. The following interview is taken from a recent phone conversation between Ben and Nicholas Coblence, founder of Cords for Music.
N: Tell us about you.
B: I was born and raised here in New Orleans. My father was a member of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. I grew up about a block and a half from Preservation Hall, and I’ve spent my life around music and around musicians. And, that’s what I do. I do music; I do New Orleans music.
N: What was your first instrument and how old were you when you started playing?
B: My father was an active tuba player and in New Orleans, there is great demand for tuba players. Every marching band, every funeral band and every Mardi Gras. So, my father was always out playing funeral processions, carnival events, different ceremonies that would be honoring different holidays. Whenever there was a need for a marching brass band that doesn’t have it, my dad would participate. And, if there was a need for a small band, me and my brother and my mom would get in a Greyhound. We would essentially be on tour with the Preservation Hall band every year. And, that’s pretty much how it happened.
N: What is Preservation Hall and what is its mission?
B: Preservation Hall is a lot of things. Originally, it was a building in the French Quarter of New Orleans, not far from the central plaza, Jackson Square, and only three blocks from the Mississippi River. It is a beautiful building where seven days a week we present New Orleans music in a living room that is only big enough for 70 people, amplifiers, microphones. Even people in the back row can feel the air that comes off the horns. That’s how intimate of an environment it is.
That’s been going on now for over 50 years. The idea for the first hall started in the 1950s, when a gentleman by the name of Larry Borenstein opened a gallery on St. Peter’s street. He began holding these rehearsal sessions at the gallery with these aging African-American jazz pioneers, and what he discovered was the music became more popular than the gallery. People were coming to hear music but were staying in the gallery. So, this environment became the center of this movement that was, spreading all over the country that was born in New Orleans. And, suddenly, he went from running a gallery to running music rehearsals and jam sessions.
Then he met my parents who were visiting New Orleans and both fans of New Orleans music. The long-short of it is somehow, someway, my parents who were originally from Pennsylvania and living in Philadelphia found their way to New Orleans in 1961. They happened upon a band procession and followed the procession as people do here.
One of the unique features of parades in New Orleans is the people participating in the parade: they are the parade. People don’t just see them pass by, they actually become part of the band, following them and dancing with them. So, my parents joined the procession, followed through the French Quarter, and made their way back to the gallery at 726 St. Peters street.
That’s where they met Larry Borenstein, and that was the beginning of our act—that element was really the beginning of what would become Preservation Hall. Larry recognized something in my parents; my parents were young enough, and they had enough experience in various areas of business and life. My father was a graduate of Wharton also received a scholarship for the military academy. That is the type of person he was. Someone of that age, that period and someone who would see the value in this tradition that had gone unrecognized. And, that’s what my parents walked into and became a part of.
N: So, a lot of things then stem from the hall, right? Because, you have Preservation Hall, then you have the jazz band which you run. And, you guys tour. Then, you have the foundation as well.
B: Yes. My parents start to take over the gallery and it becomes Preservation Hall. And, it becomes more formalized and more regular, more consistent. And, out of this group, the Preservation Hall Jazz band, and it didn’t take long for that band to begin touring and recording.
My father was very fond of music education. He was responsible for putting a music teachers in my first grammar school. At that time, it was unheard of for a public grammar school to have a music department. We had a very multicultural public school, and my dad helped get that music program going. The bass teacher in that program ended up becoming my teacher later in life and he became a member of the Preservation Hall Band, so, my father was indirectly and directly involved in music education. He himself was not a traditional music educator, but he exposed people to music the way he learned. That was through mentorship by older musicians who took my father under their wing and taught him and entrusted him with this incredible music tradition and he took that very seriously.
There’s a lot that I learned from my father. The best thing I learned from him was the best kind of education is when you don’t realize you’re learning. The best education happens when you’re having a great time and a great experience. And, that’s something that goes on in New Orleans. We never put a value on music education, but we value it. Its something we prioritize and something embedded in who we are, and is essential to our city and our identity. You know, a New Orleans without music isn’t really New Orleans.
Interestingly, one of the strongest centers of musical cultural and traditions in America are the African-American communities. In the African-American churches, you still find a very rich music tradition, and that is something that is completely overlooked. I think that’s my next goal: really trying to understand how and why that is. This is where music is really coming out of today. Those centers are in every city. If you take that out of every city then you might see some repercussions.
I’m walking down the street in New Orleans talking to you and I’m listening to live music right now! You can’t go far in New Orleans without hearing live music.
N: Tell us a bit about the Preservation Hall Music Outreach Program.
B: We wanted to expand our mission and formalize something that we’re already involved in to the point where we ourselves understand what it was we were doing. We believe that this musical tradition will live by itself and take care of itself but what we need to do is protect the community that participates in those traditions. The tradition itself, the music, will survive as long as we’re aware of it and as long as we value it.
Part of this is a direct result of hurricane Katrina when for the first time in our lives we were robbed and stolen of our birthright. For the last 10 years, we’ve been doing musician relief work ensuring the future of our city, a sense of our musical community. Through this work we also recognized that some of our responsibility was protecting the community that looks over us. You know, a community is like an ecosystem. Everything needs something else. The school teacher needs the students, and the students need grocery stores, and so on. People need entertainment, and people need music.
N: When you think about the amazing work that you guys do and we think about it in more of a global landscape or in a larger scale, what do you think is the true impact or can be the true impact of music—that along with education?
B: My experience is that music is a very powerful tool for uniting people. That’s what it really comes down to for me. In particular, being so deeply involved in New Orleans and Preservation Hall I’ve been a part of and witness of that power myself. I’ve seen our music impact people all over the world whether it’s the Preservation Hall Band traveling somewhere in the world or people from around the world visiting Preservation Hall in New Orleans. That’s ultimately why we do what we do. We do it in New Orleans because we know that our music is valued by the communities that we represent here.
Our music is used in New Orleans to unify, and I’ve seen people experience our music with absolutely no reference point or any idea of what they’re walking into. It changes them. There are moments in one’s life where I think it shifts. There’re these things that shift people’s lives, and I’ve seen Preservation Hall be the center of that shift. So, that’s an incredible power.
N: I think that’s very much seen when we look at New Orleans jazz as a genre of music, and I say “New Orleans jazz” versus jazz very specifically. We see that it’s such a celebration. Whether it’s, as you were explaining earlier, following a band down the street to a hall or even just going to a concert not even being in New Orleans. You think about, from a spectators point of view, the impact it has from when I first came to see you guys: the feeling I had, the feeling it gave me to watch you guys perform! What is it about New Orleans as a place and what is it about New Orleans jazz that is able to lift people off their seats and inspire them in such ways that it really has? You were saying earlier that New Orleans would be nothing without its music.
What I said was New Orleans wouldn’t be New Orleans, it wouldn’t be the same New Orleans. That’s all there is to it, and you’re right. I don’t particularly understand why New Orleans music has this unifying element to it or has this ability to go to one’s core. New Orleans music, there’s that quality about it: that ability to penetrate to that inner place that gives us all joy. I’ve seen it happen in church, you know?
In New Orleans, there’s something about music that let’s us give praise, but we’re celebrating the life force. It’s not necessarily in a religious setting, but it can’t be denied that religious practices played a huge role in New Orleans jazz and our tradition.
The reason we have such a rich musical tradition in New Orleans is greatly the right of the church. I mean, that was where many African-American musicians had an opportunity to perform and to learn their craft and to be a part of the tradition. It was in church, it was ok to play music—as long as you did it in church. So, a lot of those elements that you find in New Orleans churches where people being spiritually moved by music found its way into New Orleans jazz tradition.
You start going back: Bach was writing classical music for church, they all wrote music for the church. New Orleans was one of those places where popular music is almost inseparable from the church experience.
N: And, it comes back full circle to the idea of a hall. We were talking about Preservation Hall, and to me, it’s like a church, it’s like a community center. It’s a place where people come together to celebrate and to feel like a community!
B: It sounds like you are doing amazing work!
Thank you so much for taking this time.
Check out more of Ben Jaffe and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band at: