Upholding the history of New Orleans with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band

The story of the Jaffe family in New Orleans goes way back.

Allan and Sandra Jaffe came to the city from Philadelphia in 1961. They came in contact with a group of artists that had taken over a space in the French Quarter that they were using as a gallery and studio where they held informal, underground jam sessions with African-American jazz pioneers.

“At that time, there weren’t that many opportunities for these musicians to perform in public,” explains their son, Ben Jaffe. “This was more than just a musical experiment. This was a social experiment as well.”

So, they ended up staying in New Orleans and took over as managers of Preservation Hall. Decades later, the venue, house band, record label and non-profit organization remain a historic part of the New Orleans music scene. And it also remains in the family, with Ben Jaffe at the helm.

Ahead of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band’s show at Toronto’s Roy Thomson Hall, Ben Jaffe joined us over the phone to talk more about his family’s legacy in New Orleans, what music really means to the city, and what it was like to work with Tom Waits.

Scroll to the bottom to listen to the full audio of the interview.

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When your parents came to New Orleans from Philadelpia in 1961 at the height of Jim Crow, it must have been like culture shock to see the segregation and the difference.

Information travelled a lot slower in those days. The information you received was dictated by very few sources. The relationship that my parents had with race in Philadelphia on the East Coast was very different than the relationship people in the South had with race. We can go even further that there was yet another relationship with race here in New Orleans, because we’re not really just part of the South. New Orleans is not a southern point, it’s a northern point — the northernmost point of the Caribbean.

Your father broke a lot of colour barriers. It was illegal for black people and white people to socialize together at the time, yet somehow Preservation Hall left all of that at the door.

It wasn’t a conscious decision as much as it was out of love and respect for this community of musicians, and out of appreciation for what they had given my father and mother in terms of musical enjoyment. That was something my father felt honoured to be a part of. It was simply stars lining up that a young, white tuba player from Philadelphia was now in New Orleans, one of the few cities in the entire world where there’s actually a need for tuba players because of our marching-band tradition. So when my father arrived in town, it was at a time when bands were in transition and many of the older New Orleans brass bands needed an injection of youth, particularly on these instruments that required an incredible amount of strength to perform. The physical act of carrying a tuba for three hours is enormous. The tuba player is sort of like an offensive lineman. It’s a thankless job. Someone’s got to do it, and oftentimes they were the biggest, baddest guys in the band. And that was the role that my father was able to fill, taking over for these older African-American tuba players that were no longer able to march these long distances in funeral processions or Mardi Gras parades. That opened a door that my dad was able to walk through.

When did you actually start playing music?

That’s not even a question that we can answer in New Orleans. I get asked that question a lot, and you would think it’s really simple to answer. When we visited Cuba, it was the first time that we as a collective band felt completely comfortable and welcome in a musical environment. One of the things we realized while we were there is that you begin playing music when you’re in the womb. There’s music around you — the sounds and rhythms of the city. That’s really where this all begins. In New Orleans, you’re dancing before you can walk, or talk. That’s real. If you grew up in the second-line community, the parade community, if you grew up in neighbourhoods like the 6th Ward, 7th Ward, 8th Ward, 9th Ward, 13th Ward, you grew up in music. Performing is that moment that you actually are consciously taking on an instrument and joining a band. However, everybody’s a performer in New Orleans. When there’s a parade, there are no bystanders. There’s no line between the band and the audience, because the crowd, the dancers, the people we call the second liners, they’re moving with the band down the street. It’s a moving dance party.

When you were a teenager and your father passed away, the day of his funeral, the whole city shut down, didn’t it?

It was a day of reflection for the whole city. He was an important person to the city, whether you were involved in music or not. Music is something that is pervasive in this city. It’s as important as food. I talk about food nourishing our bodies, and music nourishing our souls. That’s really something that he had a very big part of in this city at a time when it had started to lose some of its direction and some of its musical tradition. My father and mother were instrumental in different ways. He was out there playing and performing, and was able to keep alive and resurrect certain traditions that were beginning to disappear. Today, 60 years after they first came to New Orleans, we can still see the impact of what they were able to achieve. That’s something that the whole city respects. The procession that took place the day of my dad’s funeral was unexpected. You don’t plan these things. The outpouring of love that day is something that I often reflect on, and that I’m moved by — the number of people who were touched by my father’s work.

What was it like working with Tom Waits? When you guys were with him in the studio, it sounded like it could’ve been one of his records.

Tom has been an influence and an inspiration to me. In some ways, he’s become this patron saint of down-and-out New Orleans downtown life. He’s the poet laureate of the forgotten barfly. The storyteller, the observer, the songwriter. All of those things are part of the mythology of New Orleans. The drifter, the hobo, the blues man. All of those things. He’s inspiring and he’s inspired. He’s someone who definitely has that connection not just to New Orleans, but to that gritty part of New Orleans that you have to peel away to discover. You have to take your fingernail and keep scratching at that surface until the image reveals itself. So, getting the opportunity to make music with him was really special. I was able to resurrect that song and get it to Tom … you know, Tom doesn’t email MP3s. I sent him that record on a 78 that I had in my dad’s collection, and that’s how we got him to come do that song with us here in New Orleans.

What’s next for the Preservation Hall Jazz Band?

We’re going to be touring behind A Tuba to Cuba until the end of the year. We’re always down here in New Orleans making music. We’ll see where life takes us. We’ve been spending quite a bit of time in Haiti these last couple years, connecting with our brothers and sisters there. We’re always exploring New Orleans a little deeper and a little better every day. We’re living our lives, and I’m excited about where New Orleans music is today.