Earlier this week I met with Ben Jaffe, Director of legendary New Orleans jazz institution Preservation Hall, Creative Director of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, and organizer of the New Orleans Musicians Hurricane Relief Fund. His parents founded Preservation Hall in 1961 and he continues their same tradition of hosting pure live New Orleans jazz seven nights a week without offering food or liquor. I tried to memorize every moment, from the sweet musty smell of the 1750’s-era French Quarter building to the dulcet sounds of the clarinetist warming up in the hallway. Ben has performed with a mind-numbing litany of the world’s best jazz musicians, as well as a few others you may have heard of (Jim James, Ani DiFranco, Jason Isbell, Pete Seeger, and Del McCoury). He possesses a quiet charisma and unshakable authenticity that could unnerve a highly caffeinated ultimate fighter. It was an evening I’ll never forget.
Sitting in Ben’s office surrounded by hundreds of old records I learned things about jazz that I never knew, like its influence by French opera and that the word “jazz” stems from the brothel term “jass,” which refers to a woman’s…you know. New Orleans was settled by the Spanish and later purchased by the French. The earliest known style of jazz had its roots in the late 1800’s. Slaves were brought to New Orleans from Africa and for the first time, several different cultures were forced to exist with each other. “We’re a city of many races,” Ben said. “People of different nationalities mixed here openly, and it all happened here because the Mississippi River was the first big entryway to the rest of the country.”
All of a sudden New Orleans featured classically trained musicians performing French opera, traveling gospel groups and blues artists singing songs from the countryside, and African Americans engaging in West African rhythms. After the Civil War, African Americans started writing original compositions and playing western instruments like trumpets and French horns. Brothels in New Orleans’ red light district became jazz’s breeding ground. “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. “Musicians like Jim Robinson are my New Orleans. We carry on the same musical traditions that existed more than 100 years ago and have fourth and fifth generation New Orleans musicians playing here.”
After Katrina attacked his beloved city in 2005, Ben knew there would be survivors and those who wouldn’t recover. “It’s been a catch-22,” he said. “In some ways we’re better off for it. It has been a blessing to many musicians by giving them new life and it shined a spotlight on them because the whole world was watching. It also crushed a lot of them by causing them to leave and hang up their instruments. We’re still in survival mode.” The storm taught him a few important lessons. “We found out that no one was there to hold our hand,” he said. “When our whole world came crashing down on us four years ago, we literally were left on our own to bring back our individual lives, our businesses, and our culture. That’s what makes me proud.” Ben attributes his New Orleans upbringing and “gotta-get-on-with-life attitude” with being able to deal with the hurricane. As with many New Orleans natives, he was introduced to the concept of death at a very young age. “Before I could walk or talk I attended funerals in people’s houses. In New Orleans, we’re all sitting around waiting to die,” he laughed.
Looking ahead, Ben is fervently committed to protecting the history and integrity of what he calls “America’s greatest contribution to music.” He would like Preservation Hall to assume its sacred social function within the New Orleans community for as long as possible. “What we do here is a living and breathing art form,” he said. “It’s something that we still go out and dance to and hang out all night and listen to.” He also feels that traditions must have enough room to evolve naturally and not be suffocated. “One way to pay homage to the past is to always be connected to it,” he said. And so the Preservation Hall Jazz Band continues to record albums and tour around the world. In October the band will release a Max-Fleischer-style animated music video of old blues tune “St. James Infirmary.”
“Being part of a community is something I cherish,” Ben said. “The more I see that dissolving around me and throughout the country, the more it becomes important. We need to look out for each other’s wellbeing and have a sense of pride and history about our culture.” He believes those “a-ha moments” that happen at weddings and funerals, the ones that remind you of your vulnerability and make you wonder if it’s worth holding grudges, define what we’re made of. “What it’s really all about,” he said, “is the love between people.”