Ben Jaffe has led the Preservation Hall Jazz Band into uncharted territory on its all-new release That’s It!, and in no small way because of the “all-new” part. This is the first completely original release in the group’s five-decade-long history.
How he came to this unfamiliar path was more about happenstance, about feel, than any grand design, Jaffe admits.
“I wish I could say that there was some blueprint for what we’re doing,” Jaffe tells Popdose. “But there’s not. I follow my heart when it comes to creative decisions. I try to do what feels most organic and natural at the time — and this is what the band has evolved into.”
It started, this idea of shaking things up, with a conversation between Jim James of My Morning Jacket fame and Jaffe — who took over what had always been a repertory old-time jazz group, founded by his parents Allan and Sandra, some 20 years ago. The two had met when James guested on the PHJB’s all-star 2010 recording Preservation; Jaffe and Co. later toured in support of My Morning Jacket.
“At one point, he was just sort of reflecting,” Jaffe says. “It wasn’t like a big conversation we were having. We were just back stage, and he said: ‘You guys have any of your own songs?'” Jaffe had to admit, actually, that they didn’t. “Interesting,” James replied, then added before walking away: “Why not?”
Jaffe said a creative light bulb appeared over his own head. “I thought: ‘You know what? Why don’t we write our own songs? Louis Armstrong wrote his own songs. Jelly Roll Morton wrote his own songs.'” He’d hit upon a different way of advancing the tradition his parents and the other members of their group had spent decades honing and then, ultimately, embodying.
And he’d found a way, finally, to make the Preservation Hall Jazz Band a living document.
“Being a part of that tradition for so many years, you feel like: ‘What is the mark that you are going to leave on it?'” Jaffe says. “One of things that I am always hyper-aware of is, this idea of ‘Preservation Hall.’ Because ‘preservation’ is in our name, you get this idea that we’re trying to recreate something from the past — when really what we are is the exact opposite of that. Actually, we’re the descendants, the torchbearers.”
There is, in fact, within the PHJB a kind of built-in historical road map back to New Orleans’ — and jazz music’s — earliest days, and not just via Jaffe. Clarinet player Charlie Gabriel’s family, for instance, has been a part of the city’s musical landscape since the 1850s, Jaffe reminds. It’s a tradition this group would come to codify and popularize well outside of its mythical French Quarter environs.
When Allan and Sandra Jaffe decided to transform a former Big Easy tavern at 726 St. Peter Street into a jazz music venue in 1961, and then began touring worldwide two years later, it was with charter members who had performed with pre-war legends like Armstrong, Morton, Buddy Bolden and Bunk Johnson. The goal, then, was to recapture some of that magic in the century’s second half. By the 1990s, when Ben took over after his father’s death, the last of those Preservation Hall Jazz Band stalwarts were beginning to pass away, too. The group seemed destined to become a caricature of itself, a ghost band.
It took a friendly nudge from James to redirect Jaffe, but he quickly warmed to the idea. That’s It, due today (July 9, 2013) from Legacy Recordings, is a hip-shaking, knee-slapping, chin-wagging testament to the nervy energy that Jaffe’s next-gen lineup brings to these age-old forms.
“My dad’s role in Preservation Hall was to capture a snapshot in time — the same way that, maybe, Ry Cooder captured the Buena Vista Social Club,” Jaffe says. “That was my dad’s philosophy, to present the music and the musicians the way that they have been performing in New Orleans for decades. Now, we are five decades removed from the musicians that my dad literally matured and grew up with. It’s a matter of how to be relevant to New Orleans today. I don’t want to become a museum piece, and I don’t want to hang on the wall collecting dust. I want the kids in New Orleans to listen to our music the same way that they did 100 years ago, when this was the hippest and coolest music in the world.”
With That’s It!, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band has done just that, staking a new claim without giving up an inch of hallowed ground. This 11-track effort, co-produced by James with Jaffe and recorded at the group’s now-legendary St. Peter Street concert space, reflects a smart grasp of the tradition even as it advances the music into new places.
“That’s what I see as our responsibility: To create a new body of standards — not just for the Preservation Hall band, but really for New Orleans,” Jaffe adds. “We need a new ‘Saints Go Marching In.’ We need the old ‘Saints Go Marching In,’ and we also need a new one, you know?”