5 Questions with Ben Jaffe
What Makes New Orleans a Jazz Mecca?
Jaffe’s father started the New Orleans-based Preservation Hall Jazz Band in the early ‘60s, one of the first white musicians to openly perform with black musicians. The band was formed to preserve and further the traditions of New Orleans jazz, a style that draws more on musical traditions of the Caribbean and West Africa than other jazz styles. To protect that heritage, traditions were passed from one band member to the next, creating a lineage of players. “That’s what’s important to me,” said Jaffe. “And emphasizing that aspect of our tradition is what will ensure its future.”
Jaffe was raised in the French Quarter, and grew up steeped in the New Orleans jazz community. After attending Oberlin College for a degree in music, Jaffe returned to Louisiana to lead the band into the new millennium. In 2006, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band was awarded the National Medal of Arts, the most prestigious honor given for achievement in the arts. Under Jaffe’s leadership, the band released their 31st album in 2013, their first album of all-original material, titled That’s It. The band is legendary in the jazz pantheon, and has shepherded New Orleans jazz into a new era, staying true to their roots while making new musical statements. “Instead of us interpreting music I wanted to find compositions that reflected the personality of all of the band members and something that captured the energy of where the band is today,” said Jaffe.
New Orleans is an island, a lot of people don’t realize that. But we’re completely surrounded by an estuary on the north, the Gulf of Mexico on our south, and swamps and waterways. Cuba, Jamaica, Haiti, the whole Gulf Rim: we have more in common with those cultures than we do with anywhere else in the United States. There’s no other city that has those overlapping cultures. That’s something we’re still discovering as a band — our history.
And then, you go back to the 1850s and you look at New Orleans, and there’s Louis Moreau Gottshalk. At that time he would have been on the top-ten charts of American music composers — his songs were the hottest things; he was a real ladies’ man, with the thousand-dollar diamond pins; he was a classical composer who traveled to Cuba. And in Cuba he composed a piece called the Bamboule, which is a rhythmic pattern that you find in most new orleans music. But the Bamboule came to us from Africa, probably through Cuba. Gottshalk alone brought that rhythm with him back to New Orleans. There’s no doubt in my mind that that’s one of the ways that African rhythms, then reinterpreted through a Spanish lens, then came to New Orleans. It doesn’t take much for one song to change everything.
And jazz in New Orleans is something that is woven into the culture of our city and traditions of our city. Having music at your funeral — an African-American tradition — to accompany the procession, is one of the greatest honors that you can receive. Also, every Sunday about 46 times per year, there’s a parade that a different African-American social aid and pleasure club sponsors. These aren’t things that are announced to the general public, and you’re going to see this community of people who go to every one of these parades. It’s kind of like going to your favorite bar and seeing all your favorite people.
There was a period where our future was very uncertain, and we, individually and communally, began a process of understanding exactly how important these traditions are — because it’s not something physical, it’s not something you can pick up and look at and sell or pass on, it’s a tradition that your ancestors passed on to you. And now you’re the custodian of that tradition. And that was something that all of us, as a collective and individually, had an epiphany about at some point — that we are the custodians of this tradition, and it’s our responsibility to ensure that the city comes back in a way that celebrates those traditions in an important way.”
Jelly Roll Morton:
Preservation Hall Jazz Band:
Dirty Dozen Brass Band: