Houston does not have a musical ensemble anywhere close to the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, but then again, no other city does either. Based in a cozy former art gallery not far from Jackson Square in the French Quarter, this old-timey brass band has become one of one of America's leading pan-generational cultural ambassadors.
Not only have they entertained kings and queens and heads of state, but they've appeared on 60 Minutes and jammed with the likes of Steve Earle, the Del McCoury Band (on 2011's American Legacies album) and My Morning Jacket. Most recently, Preservation Hall became the Foo Fighters' headquarters during the New Orleans-set episode of HBO's rock-travel series Sonic Highways.
Benjamin Jaffe, whose parents Allen & Sandra Jaffe founded the band in the early '60s and who now serves as its tubist and artistic director, says Preservation Hall does some 100 tour dates a year to go alongside 150 dates in their hometown and extensive outreach work through the Preservation Hall Foundation. Like the rest of New Orleans itself, the band was almost wiped out by Hurricane Katrina almost a decade ago but, also like the city, has made a remarkable recovery and is "going stronger today, 50 years after it was established, than it ever has," Jaffe marvels.
Amazingly, Preservation Hall released its first full-length recording of all-original music, That's It!, only last year. Rocks Off spoke with Jaffee last week while he was in the middle of juggling the band's jam-packed schedule, which brings their "Creole Christmas" holiday program to Jones Hall tonight thanks to Houston's Society of the Performing Arts. What follows are some edited excerpts from a conversation we didn't want to end.
Houston Press: Is the travel ever difficult for the band, given some of the members' advanced ages? Ben Jaffe: Traveling the way we do isn't like going on a family vacation. It's not like piling the kids into a minivan and hitting the road. It really is a different way of seeing the world, you know?
Everybody in the band has our own set of challenges. I have a newborn, so I'm away from my family, so there's the difficulties and challenges of being away from your wife and baby. For the older musicians it's the rigors and physicality of being on the road.
How big is the band's roster? There's eight members in the band. Each one of us is related to or somehow connected to either a former member of the Preservation Hall band, or had a cousin or relative who was in the band. All of us are somehow legacy members.
Tell us about Dave Grohl coming to use the Hall for Sonic Highways. Dave was working with his production company; they were looking at New Orleans as a city to include in this project. They wanted to come to New Orleans and knew that a lot of the studios they wanted to go to had been destroyed in Hurricane Katrina. They called me to ask about what was going on in New Orleans, and what was still open and what was operating.
I said, "Look, you're right. All the historic studios you're talking about - Allen Toussaint's studio is gone. Honestly, when we come to town and record in New Orleans, we record at Preservation Hall." Their response was, "Is that even a possiblilty?' I was like, "It's totally a possibility. It would be a real honor for me to have someone who I have incredible amounts of respect for and whose music has impacted me come record at Preservation Hall. Absolutely."
And it just went from there. They came and spent a week recording a song at Preservation Hall. They spent the week hanging out in the French Quarter, just being locals for a week. It was an amazing time for me. I got to sit in the engineer room with Butch Vig; I got to look over his shoulder. I got to hang out with Pat Smear and Dave Grohl and Nate and Keith and all the guys from the band, Taylor. We all became like a little family for that week, eating three meals a day together and drinking together, just hanging out talking about music and going through old records. Just being kids jamming in a garage somewhere -- that's what it felt like.
Did you get to sit in with the band at all? Yeah, a couple of things happened. Originally, Dave sheepishly came to me like, 'Hey man, there's this part in the song that maybe horns would sound cool in. I don't know because I'm not a horn player and I've never played with horns before. I only play with guitar players and I don't know what horns do...what do they do?'
We just got to hang out, and the more he was there, and the more comfortable he felt around us. It was a beautiful experience to me to share with somebody like Dave, our music; like, "oh, this guy can do this with his trombone [mimics trombone], and he was like, "Oh my God, let's do that!" you know?
So we played on the track with them, and all week we were jamming at the Hall. The guys were like, "Hey man, I'm not a jazz musician, but would you show me that thing you did on the bass?" The next thing you know we're hanging out in the courtyard, showing each other like, "Yeah, but how do you do that thing on that song?" "Oh, you mean this thing...all it is is this." The next thing you know I'm playing a Foo Fighters song on tuba.
What did the other guys in your band think of this rock band coming to town and spending a week down there? We have to back up a little bit to really understand where my band's mind is these days. This is not the first time we've stepped outside our genre and collaborated with a band that on paper you might do a double-take.
Story continues on the next page.
You did the Del McCoury thing before. Yeah. We did an album and a tour with Del McCoury. We've done tours with My Morning Jacket, [and] worked on a project with Pretty Lights. We played with Fishbone this summer.
The interesting thing is these are all bands that are all somehow connected to me and my musical influences or somehow connected back to New Orleans, or somehow connected to the roots of American music like Del McCoury. The Blind Boys of Alabama. Pete Seeger. Steve Earle. Those people are the foundation of American music. Richie Havens.
Has this all this Foo Fighters stuff increased the band's profile at all? We'll find out Friday for sure [the New Orleans episode had not yet aired when we spoke]. But I can tell you this much. Shortly after the word got out that the Foo Fighters had done a concert at Preservation Hall, like an unannounced show, I was wearing a Preservation Hall shirt at this studio [in California] called Rancho de la Luna.
My buddy operates it, and we were out at Joshua Tree for his birthday, having lunch at a barbecue place called Pappy & Harriet's. It's a legendary desert venue out there. The woman at the table next to me leaned over and said, "Hey, did you hear that the Foo Fighters played at that place?"
As the director of operations, have you made it a point to reach out to different sorts of audiences in recent times? Part of my philosophy is based around the impact that Preservation Hall music has on people. I've been touched so deeply by New Orleans music in so many ways. It's something that's in my DNA. I've seen what New Orleans music does for a community, how New Orleans music strengthens a community. It really was music that saved us after Hurricane Katrina.
Not only is it fun to dance to and really great to have an evening with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, it really makes a difference. It builds communities. It literally rebuilt New Orleans after the storm. Believe me, I know the power of our music. I've seen it. I've witnessed it. I've been a part of it. To me, broadening our audience and getting our music into other people's lives, like with Dave Grohl, is beautiful.
It changes lives. It changed Dave's life that week. He left that week and he told me, he said, 'Man...' you can look these quotes up, it's in Rolling Stone [and] he said it on TV, he says it all the time. He said, "That week in New Orleans changed my life forever. I learned to love music again."
How does it make you feel, when you see people say things like that? It makes me want to well up and cry, and just say thank you. That's why we do what we do. That's why we put in the time and effort to make such a remarkable place exist.
The Preservation Hall Hall Jazz Band presents their "Creole Christmas" carols at 8 p.m. tonight at Jones Hall, 615 Louisiana. See spahouston.org for more information.
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