Something Else! Interview: Ben Jaffe of Preservation Hall Jazz Band

For all of its storied five-decade history, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band — at least before issuing That’s It! this summer on Legacy — had never released an album of all-new recordings.

Director Ben Jaffe, who took over from his PHJB-founding parents Allan and Sandra some two decades ago, tells us that he sees that as a natural progression.

“In some ways, I don’t think it’s a new direction for the band at all,” Jaffe says in this exclusive SER Sitdown. “I think it’s actually a very old idea that we’re tapping into. It actually dates back to the originals of jazz. Louis Armstrong recorded nothing but originals, when he did his Hot Five and Hot Seven recordings. If you go back to Jelly Roll Morton, he recorded nothing but original songs. King Oliver, any of the early New Orleans greats — that’s what they were doing. They were forging a new path. They were going into uncharted territory.”

For him, That’s It! — an 11-track album recorded at the group’s mythical concert room on Saint Peter in New Orleans and co-produced by My Morning Jacket’s Jim James — again finds the Preservation Hall Jazz Band living up to its name …

NICK DERISO: I remember so vividly when I heard that (clarinetist) Willie and then (trumpeter) Percy Humphrey had died in the 1990s, not long after you took over stewardship of the band. I wondered, as those original contributors began to pass, if the idea would survive. You’ve not only kept it going, but are now moving into these creative new areas.
BEN JAFFE: You have to to keep it relevant. As an artist, you have to be brutally honest with yourself about who you are — and what you represent, and what you want to create, and what you want to leave behind as your body of work. That’s something that’s been a part of my life, since I was born. When I think back on Willie and Percy Humphrey, I think about all of the things that they contributed to jazz — the songs that they introduced to our repertoire. “Bourbon Street Parade,” Willie Humphreys was on the album where that was first recorded. We still open every one of our shows with that song. So, we’re still connected to the past. We always will be.

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: Preservation Hall Jazz Band's 'Hurricane Sessions' powerfully conveys not just the pain and chaos of Katrina, but also the enduring hopefulness that followed.]

NICK DERISO: There was a time, not long ago, when the average age of your paying customers in the hall was north of 60. Today, there’s a generational mixture that seems to bode very well for the band, but also for the culture.
BEN JAFFE: This music lends itself to appealing to many generations — particularly in New Orleans. If you go out to a funeral in New Orleans, or if you go to Preservation Hall, you’ll see infants to seniors all listening and dancing and experiencing the same music together. That’s particular to New Orleans. You’ll also see it in the band. I think that Preservation Hall has played an important role in preserving that tradition — of younger musicians being mentored by older musicians, and participating in traditions that date back probably to the 1600s, really.

NICK DERISO: Jim James first collaborated with the band during 2010′s Preservation album. What told you his presence would help shape this album in such a positive way?
BEN JAFFE: He allowed me to see Preservation Hall as an outsider, and Jim did it with an incredible amount of sensitivity — only the kind of sensitivity that he’s capable of. He understands how precious Preservation Hall is, and how precious this tradition is. People probably don’t understand how talented he is, behind the board. What I mean by that is: He’s an incredible engineer. He understands microphones; he understands the technology. He understands sound; he understands speakers. He understands how people listen to music, and how people experience music. That was something that was really important to me, this idea of who was going to be listening to our music today — and how they were going to be listening to it. They’re going to be listening to through iPads, and iPods, and Spotify and YouTube. They’re going to be listening to it in cars. And that’s different than how I grew up. It’s a matter of embracing it, and not fighting it. I’m not an old moldy fig. I love listening to 78s, but I also love listening to electronic music.

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: On this warm summer night in Alabama, Jim James' My Morning Jacket provided us with a smorgasbord of vocal and melodic mastery.]

NICK DERISO: There’s a modern sheen to the recording that really captures the excitement of your live performances.
BEN JAFFE: Jim was actually one of the people who encouraged me to explore new sounds. And when I say ‘new sounds,’ I mean taking full advantage of technology, and full advantage of recording techniques. Not to change the way we record, but there’s a whole new way people hear music today. Every generation has its own ingenuity, and it’s ear for music. People hear music differently today. I grew up hearing music differently than my dad did. My dad grew up listening to the Weavers, and Dave Brubeck and Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. I grew up listening to, you know, Madonna and Michael Jackson, and Earth Wind and Fire, and then all of these New Orleans bands. I also grew up listening to the Neville Brothers. One of my favorite albums is ‘Yellow Moon,’ the one Daniel Lanois produced So my ears are different. One of the things Daniel Lanois brought to the table as a producer was, a refinement. He was able to refine the sound, to capture the essence of a band. That’s something that sometimes you need someone like Jim James to bring: An outsider perspective of what you are and what you sound like. Sometimes, when you spend 40 years inside of an organization, listening to it and developing a sound, it really challenges you to see it through a different lens. And that’s what Jim did for me.

NICK DERISO: These traditions really do risk becoming obsolete without some effort to blend the legacy with modern ideas — and that’s what I love about what you’re doing.
BEN JAFFE: What’s exciting for me is that we’re seeing older musicians and younger musicians coming together. All of have written music our whole lives, but we’ve never had an outlet for it. We never had a platform. This is my 20th year with the band, and first it was Willie Humphrey passed away, Percy Humphrey passed away. (Trombonist) Frank Demond retired from the band. (Banjoist) Narvin Kimball passed away. They were all original members of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band who played and performed with my father, and whose tradition I wanted to protect. And they’re all gone. I feel a certain responsibility as a New Orleanian and a member of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band to carry on their legacy. But I also feel a responsibility to myself, and to New Orleans. I’ve seen first hand what happens when a band outgrows or outlives itself, when it becomes a caricature of itself. Then you see a band like the Rolling Stones who reinvent themselves with every record. You go and see and the Stones, you want to hear the old stuff but you get really excited to hear the new stuff, too.

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: Preservation Hall Jazz Band's 'That's It!' preserves this legacy not as a museum piece, but as a living, breathing, madly swinging entity.]

NICK DERISO: There certainly is a sense that you’re creating things now that could similarly outlive the current edition — something that could then provide another foundation for the next generation, whomever they may be.
BEN JAFFE: The cool thing about it is, not only do I get to make a record of music that I like to listen to, I also made a record that I don’t think most people would necessarily recognize as something new. When we play these songs live, the audience doesn’t realize that they’re new compositions; they sound timeless. When we walk on stage, the idea is that these guys have been around forever, and the music has too. Any artist or any musician, anyone who creates for a living, that’s what you want to create — something timeless.

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Nick DeRiso

Over a 30-year career, Nick DeRiso has also explored music for USA Today, All About Jazz, Ultimate Classic Rock and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the nation by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Contact him at nderiso@somethingelsereviews.com.