A few dozen players comprise the core of the New Orleans jazz community. Ben Jaffe, whose family operates the city’s legendary Preservation Hall, has been an eyewitness to their development.
And not just from the sidelines. The bass/tuba player spends months each year fronting the Preservation Hall Jazz Band.
Jaffe may not have the notoriety of such Crescent City companions as Harry Connick Jr. and the Marsalis brothers, but that’s fine with him.
“In New Orleans, it’s such a small community that everybody knows everybody else,” Jaffe told me in an interview a few years back. “Our drummer (Joe Lastie) … wound up playing with Wynton and
Branford (Marsalis). There was a whole group of musicians who grew up in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. And basically those are all the guys who are making music today.
“I feel as accomplished as any of those guys. My main interest is just to play the style of music that we’re performing now. When you perform a concert and people react the way they do at our concerts … it’s incredibly rewarding. That’s really what we aspire to do.”
The Preservation Hall Jazz Band has two Northern California concerts on tap. Thursday finds the group playing Carmel’s Sunset Center. That’s followed February 3 with a gig at Folsom Lake College in Folsom.
What distinguishes Jaffe’s jazz is his association with a specific historical genre. Like the varied strains of rock and blues that have emanated from New Orleans, Preservation Hall jazz is a gumbo of influences.
“It came out of churches and it was music that was played by brass bands, military bands, circus bands,” he said.
Add to that the sounds of Mexico and the Caribbean, present thanks to New Orleans’ standing as the South’s leading port. The result is a jazz whose tempo is slower and rhythms more complex than Dixieland. Improvisation is encouraged but never at the expense of melody.
“I guarantee that you’re going to have a good time,” Jaffe said. “We’re able to bring a little of New Orleans to wherever were performing. If you’ve ever been to New Orleans, the city exists for fun. That is basically its only purpose, whether it’s the food you eat or the music you listen to. People know how to live.”
Preservation Hall itself is a fairly small room in the French Quarter outfitted with a few wooden benches and a makeshift stage. The building’s history dates to 1750 and it served as a tavern during the War of 1812. It was an art gallery in the 1950s when its jazz-buff owner began throwing open its doors to area musicians.
Jaffe’s parents, Allen and Sandra, operated an adjacent gallery and in 1961 purchased Preservation Hall. They converted it to an all-jazz venue and brought back a genre of music that first swing and then be-bop had all but obliterated.
“It was really the first place in New Orleans where this style of music could be heard seven nights a week and the musicians had regular work,” Jaffe said. “That was really the turning point. And then New Orleans became more well-known as a tourist attraction.”
Jaffe grew up so immersed in the music he decided to go elsewhere to complete his education.
“In New Orleans,” he said, “you’re not really exposed to too much of what else is going on in the world.”
Jaffe graduated from Ohio’s Oberlin College in 1993. In the years since, he’s set out on a career as a performer and musical preservationist. When Jaffe hits the stage, he carries with him the legacy of a music that has nurtured a century of New Orleans jazz musicians dating back to Louis Armstrong.
“He didn’t always necessarily have New Orleans musicians in his band,” Jaffe said of Satchmo. “He played swing. He performed with Duke Ellington. He performed with Oscar Peterson.
“But the one thing that’s consistent in all the things he did in his life was the feeling. He was able to carry that feeling and emotion with him throughout his career.”
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