Preservation Hall Jazz Band leader Ben Jaffe on their upcoming performance at The Broad Stage with Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Allen Toussaint
The collective entity of American roots music is seasoned by individual cities and regions — Appalachia, Austin, Bakersfield, Chicago, Memphis, the Mississippi Delta, Nashville — but none as expansive a cradle for American music as New Orleans, with its tangled African, English, French, Native American and Spanish ancestry. Blues, Cajun, funk, gospel, hip-hop, jazz, ragtime, R&B, rock, soul, swamp pop, zydeco … New Orleans has nurtured them all.
Ben Jaffe is intimately familiar with the city and its diverse music. The son of Allan and Sandra Jaffe, who founded Preservation Hall in the French Quarter in 1961 and shortly thereafter organized the Preservation Hall Jazz Band to further exalt New Orleans jazz, Jaffe’s been playing tuba and string bass with PHJB since he left college. In 1995 he took over as creative director and has since reached across genre and generational lines to involve the band with artists like Dave Grohl, My Morning Jacket’s Jim James, Del McCoury and Trombone Shorty. Under his guidance, PHJB finally ventured into songwriting for last year’s joyfully swinging, critically acclaimed album “That’s It!”
For the first time, they’re touring with longtime friend and Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Allen Toussaint, the influential pianist/producer/songwriter responsible for “Ride Your Pony,” “Southern Nights” and “Working on a Coal Mine.” In an interview last week, Jaffe estimated they’d played “45 shows in 50 days”; after a pair of shows at The Broad Stage on Friday and Saturday, they’ll play several more dates before wrapping up in Louisiana next month. — Bliss Bowen
Many regions in America boast distinctive sounds and styles, but nowhere does music seem so woven into day-to-day culture as it is in New Orleans.
You used a really important word: “woven” into. That’s really what it is. Music is the bond that connects every aspect of life in New Orleans. Music and food.
Is live music still as prevalent after Hurricane Katrina?
Yes. Very much so. Music was the thing that gave us all strength to move forward after the hurricane. … When we didn’t have electricity in our homes, we had music in the street.
Have the PHJB band members displaced by Katrina returned?
Everybody has replaced their home, and everybody’s back in New Orleans playing two, three nights a week when we’re home. … Allen is back too, which is wonderful. Sometimes people forget that Allen lost his business, his studio, his home, and members of his family lost their homes. There was incredible tragedy we suffered. … Your life is forever changed by this one historic event that altered an entire city’s life. Recovering from something like that is a communal experience, with everybody healing together. It brought us as a city much closer together.
What was it like running around Preservation Hall as a kid?
A little bit like a “the hills are alive with the sounds of music” scenario. Take away the hills and the smiley kids and put me in the French Quarter surrounded by aging African-American jazz musicians, my dad taking me to funeral parades on weekends, marching alongside my godfather in Mardi Gras when I was 9 years old. Studying with legends I didn’t even know were legends. “Go ask so-and-so about that chord change, I don’t know where you put your fingers.” That’s how I learned to play music.
Did you see Allen Toussaint play then?
Probably one of the most important musical moments of my childhood was going to see Allen on this gigantic boat, the US President; they used to have concerts back in the 1970s and ’80s [that would] go all night. The boat would go up and down the Mississippi, and that night it was Fats Domino, Dr. John, Ernie K-Doe, Jessie Hill, Allen Morgan and Allen Toussaint on the bill. I was probably 10 or 11. My dad had me out way past my bedtime. My mom didn’t know where we were and I was the only kid there, running around like I owned the place. Allen had just come out of “Voulez Vous Coucher Avec Moi” for LaBelle. He was a rock star. His whole band had on tuxedos with ruffly shirts and big lapels, and those guys were tight. It blew my mind.
And now you’re playing with him.
[Laughs] It is intimidating when you play with someone of his status and caliber, who has achieved so much. You put all the decades together, he is responsible for 50 years of New Orleans music. Irving Berlin, Rodgers & Hammerstein — Allen is part of the Great American Songbook too. The fact that we get to play with him every night is amazing. … He is the living incarnation of Jelly Roll Morton and Professor Longhair and Fats Domino. What connects us all is New Orleans,
and common experiences we had growing up there.
How does your mission as Preservation Hall’s creative director differ from your parents’?
We’re not that far off from one another. Preservation Hall was founded on a philosophy of racial equality and justice, and as a home that celebrated the music of aging African-American musicians. It became this essential part of the New Orleans musical community, a resource to musicians and their families. I feel like Preservation Hall’s philosophy is one of empowerment and supporting our musical community so that there are generations of future New Orleans musicians. That doesn’t mean teaching kids notes; that means teaching kids values and a certain appreciation for what already exists. … It’s a living, breathing, evolving, traditional art form.
Preservation Hall Jazz Band and Allen Toussaint perform together at 7:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday at The Broad Stage, 1310 11th St., Santa Monica. Shows are preceded by conversation with Toussaint and Jaffe, 6:45 to 7:15 p.m. Tickets are $69 to $110. Call (310) 434-3200; visit thebroadstage.com, allentoussaint.com, preservationhalljazzband.com.