Preservation Hall Jazz Band celebrates 50 years with anniversary box setWritten by Jeff McGinnis | | firstname.lastname@example.org
Ben Jaffe wasn’t prepared for the effect that assembling a 50th anniversary collection for the Preservation Hall Jazz Band would have on him.
Sure, he probably should have suspected the project would have an emotional impact. His father, the great tuba player Allan Jaffe, bought the Preservation Hall in New Orleans in the early 1960s. Under his dad’s guidance, not only had the building’s signature group become one of the most famous names in jazz, but a whole renaissance of New Orleans music had begun.
After his father’s passing in 1987, young Ben took up the mantle, becoming the Jazz Band’s new creative director and tuba player. Ben oversaw the group as it continued to tour worldwide and maintain its legacy in musical history, even through the assault of Hurricane Katrina.
But as Jaffe began work on a box set to celebrate the 50th anniversary of his family’s musical legacy, the emotions that struck still took him by surprise.
“It all hit me at once,” Jaffe said in an interview with Toledo Free Press Star. “I was immersed in all the old archival recordings and I was deep in it, and I’d been in it for a couple days straight. You know, it’s like digging in a cave — you just keep going further and further and further.
“I didn’t realize how emotional it was going to be, actually going back and listening to tracks that my father had produced or that my dad played on, or that I knew all the musicians on. It was a very emotional process for me. And it was very cathartic, and it also gave me a lot of hope for the future. For our future.
“No one imagined that we were gonna be here for 50 years.”
Today, for jazz fans the throughout the world, the name Preservation Hall carries an almost sacred level of significance. Jaffe believes numerous factors have led to its status within the musical community.
“Longevity has something to do with it, but I also think there have been a lot of bands that have been around that long that don’t remain relevant. And I think that’s really a testament to one of the beautiful ingredients to New Orleans jazz, and New Orleans music and New Orleans culture is that it is still relevant. And it’s still a living and breathing organism in New Orleans.
“I don’t think that my parents or myself could have written a screenplay that predicted any of this. It’s really beyond anyone’s imagination that Preservation Hall is still here. That Preservation Hall opened its doors in the first place is really a miracle. Considering the time — 1961, New Orleans — in the middle of the civil rights movement. It’s a big statement; nothing was like it at the time, nothing existed like it. To this day, nothing is like it.”
Jaffe clearly bears the responsibility of maintaining that legacy proudly, and in compiling the 50th Anniversary Collection — which will be released Sept. 25 — he took special care to represent as many eras of the group as he could.
“A lot of people are going to be surprised by some of the choices that we made, or that I made,” Jaffe said. “A lot of criteria went into it. Everybody’s got their favorite Preservation Hall setlist, or playlist, as they say. But for me, it was important to represent everything from the earliest recordings at Preservation Hall, so that people really got a good understanding of the evolution of the band. Not just the musical evolution, but the personal evolution of the band.
“So, I wanted there to be recordings from 1961, the very first year that we were open. I mean, they’re pretty obscure recordings and bands that people have to be real, real serious New Orleans jazz-heads to be familiar with those recordings. So they’re not the most popular songs that the Preservation Hall Band ever recorded, but there is a certain historical significance. And when they’re juxtaposed with songs recorded in 2011, there’s a beauty to that. To be able to hear the band 50 years apart, and if it wasn’t for the recording techniques used, you wouldn’t be able to distinguish what decade it is.”
The collection is also a tale of a phoenix rising from the ashes. The hall and its recording studio were among the landmarks devastated by Katrina in 2005. As the hall was being prepared for its reopening, some of the classic master tapes were salvaged from the studio. After being restored, they will be released in the anniversary collection for the first time.
“I think that something that’s very difficult to grasp is the destruction — not only of a city physically, but the destruction of a community, neighborhood and tradition,” Jaffe said. “And essentially, when our city flooded, that’s what it did. It literally dispersed our neighborhoods all over the country. And none of our traditions could exist anywhere else but New Orleans.
“There was a community realization in New Orleans, about how much certain things meant to us. And to me, that meant our musical community and our cultural community. I always knew that it was fragile. I knew that our cultural community is something that requires a lot of encouragement and a lot of nourishing. But I had no idea, I could not imagine that in one fell swoop it could all disappear right before our eyes.”
But as long as the soul of New Orleans lives, its music — and the world-famous Jazz Band which celebrates it — will remain part of its lifeblood.
“It’s my belief that New Orleans wouldn’t be New Orleans without music or without great food. That is what we are. That we’re a city that embraces those things and that holds them in very high esteem. To us, music is air. It’s nourishment. It’s not just something that we get at school or after school, it’s part of who we are.”