Preservation Hall’s Ben Jaffe balances tradition and innovation

Editor’s note: This is a fairly lengthy post. I suggest you fire up Preservation Hall’s live performance on World Cafe, maybe mix yourself a hurricane, and settle in.

Ben Jaffe grew up with dreams of becoming a modern jazz musician, “really hell bent on moving to New York.”

Family responsibility and appreciation of where he’d come from put him on a different path.

Ben Jaffe, far left, with Preservation Hall Jazz Band.

Ben Jaffe, far left, with Preservation Hall Jazz Band.

Jaffe is the son of Allan and Sandra Jaffe, who established Preservation Hall in New Orleans in the 1960s then grew it into a jazz institution.  They are credited with not only building the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, which played Saturday Night Live and Newport Jazz Festival before Ben got to kindergarten, but with protecting the heritage of New Orleans jazz itself.

Allan Jaffe died of cancer at 51 while son Ben was still in high school, then Ben went off to Oberlin College to study music.

Ben Jaffe had grown up around music, considering Preservation Hall an extension of his living room, but “it wasn’t until college when I realized how unique my childhood was.” He began to reflect on the way music permeates the culture of New Orleans – it is not unusual to hear talented musicians playing on the street or in an alley for whoever wanders by, not to mention at weddings and funerals.

“I didn’t grow to appreciate New Orleans until I moved away and I’ve never moved away since.”

Jaffe graduated from Oberlin in 1993 and stepped into tradition the next day, flying to Paris to meet up with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band on tour.

Though he was back in the French Quarter, and taking over his father’s duties as director of Preservation Hall, Jaffe said it took until his early 30s to set his own course.

“It took me about 10 years to figure out what we were trying to achieve,” said Jaffe, now 38.

Today he’s working at balancing transformation of Preservation Hall into a modern, multimedia experience with protecting its rich heritage. He is also on his own path of evolution as a creative, pursuing filmmaking projects in addition to managing PHJB and playing tuba with the band.

Education as a mission of Preservation Hall

When the last original member of the band, Narvin Kimball, stopped touring in 1999, Jaffe seriously considered what that meant.

“That was a huge turning point,” Jaffe recalled. For the band to continue to evolve, and not become a parody of itself, it needed a reason to be.

Jaffe collaborated with Oberlin classmate Ethan Graham to develop a music education and outreach program. They would bring in a couple hundred kids to introduce them to New Orleans jazz, second line dancing and other parts of regional culture.

“I wanted kids to put their hands on a piano. I wanted to demystify music,” Jaffe said.

Preservation Hall wants its MTV

Out of the education programming, Jaffe began to think of Preservation Hall as a multimedia experience.

He worked with friend Rebecca Snedigar to archive his parents’ copious film properly – the hot, humid air of New Orleans risked ruining it, and Preservation Hall famously lacks air conditioning.

Footage from the 1960s “really renewed my belief in how important Preservation Hall is to the community and really, the world,” Jaffe said. They developed a 10-minute Preservation Hall history video and showed it whenever they played.

Digging into the film helped Jaffe understand his parents’ risks – a Jewish couple from the north who moved to New Orleans, pre civil rights, and ran a business upholding traditionally black music, showcasing “mixed” bands, even if it meant getting arrested. Jaffe watched a Brinkley News Hour interview where his father referred to the band’s black members as “gentlemen,” and admired the subtle political statement.

Preservation Hall meets New Orleans Bingo! Show

New Orleans Bingo Show must be seen to be fully appreciated. It takes all your senses.

New Orleans Bingo Show must be seen to be fully appreciated but you can start by listening to them on their MySpace profile. Click here.

The first time Jaffe saw punk cabaret act New Orleans Bingo! Show, he only went to accommodate a friend who wanted to go. “I could have cared less.”

Then he walked into the back room of Fiorella’s, the French Quarter fried chicken joint where Bingo played weekly, and saw a clown on the bar dancing, a video playing, a big bingo board and a “bingo girl” working the crowd.

“I immediately recognized I was in the presence of true performers,” Jaffe recalled. “I knew nothing about them but I was immediately touched by what they were doing.”

Part of that was Bingo front man Clint Maedgen. “The electricity of Clint’s voice and the entire experience stopped me cold.”

Having enjoyed making the history video, Jaffe recalls he approached Maedgen saying something like “You don’t know who I am but I have an idea.” Jaffe proposed a one-take video with Maedgen singing the Kinks song Complicated Life while delivering Fiorella’s on his bike, winding through the Quarter. Jaffe remembers Maedgen’s response as “if you’re crazy enough to think I can sing with Preservation Hall, I’ll give it a shot.”

They shot the video in 2005, a few months before Katrina hit New Orleans. They hadn’t released it before the hurricane devastated their beloved city, and luckily the video and Preservation Hall itself survived.

When Preservation Hall reopened in May 2006, during the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, I’m honored to say I was there for the debut weekend of the Complicated Life video.

It’s an understatement to call life post-Katrina complicated. Many of the band’s members lost their homes.

“It was amazing the timeliness when it came out, even though it was shot before the hurricane. It gave everybody in my world hope.”

What’s next?

Cartoon Clint Maedgen sounds just as good as the real-life version.

Cartoon Clint Maedgen sounds just as good as the real-life version.

Driving Mr. the Turk? Ronnie Numbers rides shotgun.

Driving Mr. the Turk? Ronnie Numbers rides shotgun.

Jaffe continues to scratch his filmmaking itch. The day we first spoke by phone, he was on site for a Terence Blanchard video project with Ron Rona — AKA Ronnie Numbers, the Bingo Show clown.

Bingo and Preservation Hall are all tangled together, with Rona leading Preservation Hall’s PR and Earl Scioneaux, Bingo’s keyboardist AKA Madd Wikkid, doing PHJB’s engineering.

Another example of that comingling is an animated video more than a year in the making. A King Britt arrangement of St. James Infirmary, the video to be released Oct. 20 features animator James Tancill’s cartoon versions of Bingo Show and Preservation Hall, along with New Orleans icons like Marie Laveau. Jaffe gave me a sneak peek and I couldn’t stop comparing it to the masterful Triplets of Belleville. Check out their YouTube channel later this month.

Preservation Hall is exploring the recording business, including releasing both new tunes and remastered archival material.

Jaffe has also begun interviewing family and friends about his father. He started out to make a documentary but has since realized it is also an intensely personal project, getting to know the man he only had in his life until he was 16.

Transformation versus preservation

Jaffe knows he risks alienating jazz traditionalists — not only fans, but his band mates — when he invites U2’s The Edge to sit in with them, for example.

“At the end of the day, I have to be true to myself,” he said. “It’s a balancing act.”

“If you look at what we’ve done, it’s no different from what New Orleans musicians have been doing for 100 years,” Jaffe said. “They’ve always pulled from different cultural influences. Otherwise we just become an artifact or a museum piece.”

As he told another blogger recently:

“When you combine a song that was written in the 1820’s with African rhythms,” he said, “you have the beginnings of what we know today as New Orleans jazz.” He winces at Bourbon Street’s lecherous, debauchery-laden reputation and thinks that the dignity of pure jazz is often overlooked. “You really have to look beyond Bourbon Street to see my New Orleans,” Ben said.

Jazz has alienated its audiences by becoming too precious, too serious, not engaged enough with modern culture, Jaffe said.

“As a band, we have a responsibility to be entertaining and to evolve.”

“I’ve always battled with that ‘Preservation’ in our name,” he said. “I like the definition ‘to protect.’”

“I think you pay homage to your history and your culture by becoming someone who protects the blessings you’ve been given.”

And what if one day his children take Preservation Hall in a direction different from his?

“I’d like to think I’d embrace it,” he said. “I think the key to any creative decision is knowing in your heart that it is done with the utmost respect and integrity.

“You can’t make a bad decision if that’s how you approach life.”

Free consulting, worth exactly as much as you paid

Ben didn’t ask me what I think Preservation Hall should do next, but since it’s my blog, I can say so anyway:

  1. Launch a Preservation Hall branded jazz channel on XM Radio to take their visibility to a broader audience, or at least a show on the Real Jazz station like Wynton Marsalis.
  2. Continue collaboration outside the jazz genre — my top recommendations include Eddie Vedder, Aretha Franklin and Ray Manzarek.
  3. Roll out a series of PHJB jazz-apalooza shows across the country, curated to show their sense of traditional jazz and innovation. Since Bingo Show has practice organizing the line up of a tent at Voodoo Festival in New Orleans, I’m betting Ron Rona could bring some fantastic ideas to this and their new agency TKA could help drive it.
  4. Don’t let the traditionalists — both inside and out of the band — feel forgotten. Sometimes you just need to hear When the Saints Go Marching In.

Oh, and did I mention coming back to New York? Ben, you don’t have to live here to enjoy the Big Apple.

Categories: career, creativity

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

19 replies

  1. Excellent suggestion! The new CD comes out on Fat Tuesday, next week, and includes an all-star line up of collaborators including Pete Seeger, Dr. John, Blind Boys of Alabama, Ani DiFranco, Merle Haggard, Richie Havens, Del McCoury, Bobby McFerrin … Wow.

    • Excellent album-purchased a copy today. As a former resident of New Orleans, listening to this album makes me want to get in my car and drive down to the city to experience again the treasure of Preservation Hall. This album is an amazing tribute by so many incredible musicians who are doing their part to preserve one of the most famous landmarks of the greatest city in the United States. I salute all those who were involved in the production of this album and urge others to purchase a copy when you can. You won’t be disappointed.

  2. Check out this Preservation Hall video. This is for a good cause so get out there and grab an album ASAP!

  3. Lynne, I’m using WordPress. They host my blog so my address is (WordPress also has software you can use to design your own site, and in that case, you can call your site whatever you want, I believe.)

    I had a blog before on Blogger. Both are pretty easy to use but I had several tech folks suggest WordPress was better so I switched to give it a try. I like the data available on WordPress better.

    Good luck with your blogging.

  4. Hi, what blog platform is this? Is it working for you or..? I would really appreciate it if you could answer this question! Thanks in advance!

  5. Excellent post, Colleen. Thanks for the thoughtful content. I really enjoyed the videos.

    And thank you Ben for doing what you do!


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