Ben Jaffe, multi-instrumentalist bandleader of New Orleans' esteemed Preservation Hall Jazz Band, is a master of conversation as he is of melody, weaving stories about the world-famous group and his father, Pres Hall co-founder and musician Allan Jaffe, from the past into the present with thoughtfulness and reflection.
Speaking by phone from his New Orleans home, Jaffe, who plays double bass and tuba with the band, spoke of New Orleans' musical culture and the Pres Hall legacy, the transcendental power of music and jazz and Seattle's own storied music scene, among other things. Jaffe's group visits the Neptune Theater Monday, April 17th in support of its latest album, So It Is.
On the importance of preserving traditional New Orleans jazz: "If a tradition doesn’t grow and evolve it will get smaller and smaller and eventually disappear. That’s how I feel about New Orleans music. I saw it happen once in my lifetime, I saw it happen during my father’s lifetime, I saw that as older musicians were passing on there wasn’t necessarily any guarantee that their musical traditions were going to continue. An effort has to be made to carry on that tradition and [the band is] sort of missionaries in that way. We’re all very aware of the tradition that we’re a part of and we have a responsibility to ensure the future of. A lot of the efforts of our foundation and what we do all revolve around that, not just awareness of Preservation Hall and music, [but that at] the end of the day we do what we do because it’s an important tradition and because it’s given us all the blessings we have today.
And that’s important to us, that we don’t take what we have for granted and that we do feel blessed to be part of this living, breathing, growing tradition. That’s it in a nutshell and why we do what we do, and this album is a result of us furthering our mission, which is not just to spread the gospel of Pres Hall and New Orleans around the world, but also to broaden and have experiences and provide experiences for the members of Preservation Hall."
On Seattle's musical heritage: "It has an interesting history. I mean, you have a native culture like New Orleans did where Native Americans have been living on this land for thousands of years, and you have a really interesting African American tradition in Seattle too. You have a lot of African Americans who moved to the area during the industrial revolution who brought their traditions with them, their musical traditions, they brought their food, their lifestyle. I mean you can’t deny Ray Charles, you can’t deny Quincy Jones.
Back then Seattle was also, the beginning and the end, right? The end of the line and the beginning of the line for [touring] bands! You’re either making your way to Seattle, or you’re making your way from Seattle to somewhere else. You’re not like, going through Seattle, if you hit Seattle, it’s one of those spots. That’s part of [Seattle's] history as the end and beginning of the line.
[And] you are grunge city. We just recently spent some time with the people from Sub Pop and they were in New Orleans visiting for a staff retreat and they got to come see Preservation Hall for themselves. That was an incredible experience. It was incredible for me because that label has meant so much to me personally. So many of the artists I’m inspired by and a lot of the bands that came of age during my teens and twenties were on Sub Pop or part of that scene and it was great to be able to have them at Preservation Hall and blow their minds with our music. Jazz is like our punk rock, kind of like rock 'n' roll, [only] it’s just earlier. In New Orleans [jazz] still exists and it’s still rock 'n' roll. I should also say it’s not just our punk rock, it’s also our hip-hop."
On his father's legacy: "Some of the most important lessons I learned from my father were about being kind and generous and humble. Always considering others in your decision process. Making a decision is not an easy process, it has consequences that impact a lot of people especially when you’re involved with something as big as Preservation Hall; you’re impacting families and individuals and community and the city.
I also took away from him the importance of being able to run and operate a successful business. That was very important to my father, and it was important to his father who ran an art supply and wallpaper shop in a very small town in Pennsylvania; he was an immigrant to this country who became a shop owner, he became the stock boy, the salesman, he was everything. He was everything. He was able to send both of his kids to college, that was amazing. My dad instilled inside of me a lot of that work ethic that his grandfather had, that he was raised with. Not to be afraid to do everything. And that every day, you have to roll up your sleeves and dig in. That’s something I value, I appreciate being instilled in my from a very early age, and my parents did it from example. They never moaned about going to work, it wasn’t work for them, it was Preservation Hall and it was whatever had to be done.
I enjoy what I do, I appreciate what I do and I love the community I get to be a part of. I value that a lot. I don’t take that lightly at all. This is a blessing to be able to stand in these shoes and do what I do every day."
On the power and universal language of music: "I’ve never walked into a situation with another musician where we weren’t able to discover within seconds of meeting each other some common ground. And without even being able to speak each other’s native language we can immediately start playing music together. It may not be the common language but we’re able to have a conversation. And Charlie Gabriel, our oldest member of our band, 85 in a couple months, he has this amazing quote that is ‘musical conversation cancels out complication.’ He always, always repeats that, almost religiously.
I truly believe that when you see us play at Preservation Hall, there’s something healing about it. The same way that there’s something healing about music being played in church services. It’s a celebration. Music is healing, I’ve seen it, I’m part of it, I’ve attended and played at funerals, dozens, hundreds, maybe, where you can see someone who is in the most excruciating pain of their life because they’ve lost a loved one. When the music goes from playing dirges and spirituals to happier, danceable music, you see the weight of the world lifted off their shoulders, you see this pain replaced with joy. I know it exists, and I’ve seen it happen. It’s not a miracle, but there’s something miraculous about it."
On the three people he'd invite to dinner: "This is so not fair. So unfair. You should be like, how many people born on April 1st, 1937 would you want to eat with? And that would a tough question. Of course, I’d love to have my dad back to have a meal with, as an adult, I would love that. I mean, honestly, I’d rather just have three meals with my dad."
The Preservation Hall Jazz Band visits the Neptune Monday, April 17th. 7 p.m., $33.50, 1303 NE 45th St., 206.682.1414; stgpresents.org