When Allan Jaffe and his wife Sandra moved from Pennsylvania to New Orleans in the early '60s, they didn't initially come for the music. But they ended up staying for the music after they took over a small, dingy art gallery in the French Quarter and turned it into Preservation Hall, a 100-seat concert venue that became the home of many a New Orleans-style jazz jam session and yielded the touring band, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. The venue is still a hot spot in the city known for live music.
No one knows the venue's history better than Ben Jaffe, son of the late Allan Jaffe. He spent some serious time hanging out at Preservation Hall while growing up and currently serves as a music director of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band.
"[My parents] had a very strong sense of equality and justice, and that's what brought them to New Orleans," he says via phone from his New Orleans home. "The fact that there was music here was icing on the cake. They came to New Orleans because they were attracted to what was taking place and happening here. The whole country was transforming, starting with Rosa Parks. The fact that they got involved with music was a complete coincidence."
That said, he says his parents loved music and were big jazz fans. He recalls that his mother constantly reminded him that the first record she ever bought was a Louis Armstrong 78.
"Musicians they had listened to were still alive but didn't have an outlet to perform in the style and in a way that celebrated their music and history," Jaffe says. "There were opportunities to perform in New Orleans then, but it was degrading and humiliating. Preservation Hall created an environment that celebrated African-American history and music and culture. It opened its door to both black and white audiences. That was unheard of."
In the late '80s, Jaffe moved to Oberlin to attend music school. He has fond memories of living in Northeast Ohio and traveling into Cleveland to see bands such as the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Primus while they were working their way up from the club circuit. But as soon as Jaffe graduated from Oberlin, he joined the Preservation Hall Jazz Band and took up managerial duties.
"I was 22," he says. "I was playing with some of the original members of the band. My job at that point was to make sure things were organized and ran smoothly and that the musicians were taken care of on the road and didn't have anything to worry about. I was managing them but not the way most people think of a manager. I wasn't behind the scenes making phone calls. I was getting them hamburgers at 2 in the morning. I was going to soundcheck and setting up the lights. I did that for a long time."
When Hurricane Katrina slightly derailed the long-standing band's mission in 2005 by temporarily shutting down the club, the group hit the road for an extended tour. By spring of 2006 the club was re-opened, and the band was once again playing to capacity crowds in the tiny room.
The band's new album, That's It!, reflects that vitality and rebirth. The title track signifies just how well the band can groove. While tubas provide the booming bass riff that drives the song, blaring horns make it really swing. The song sounds something like the New Orleans equivalent of the Fleetwood Mac tune "Tusk," a track that paired that group with the Southern California University marching band.
"It's like the sound of elephants coming down the street," Jaffe says of the tune. "We wanted to make the bass fuzzy and indefinable. We wanted the rhythm to be really strong. When you slow it down or just pick out one track at a time, you hear the definition in the individual tracks. It's actually two tubas playing together at the same time. A lot of bass players use octave pedals to make it sound fuller. We just decided to use two tubas. That's how you get that full sound. I wanted it to capture the energy and intensity of a New Orleans band coming down the street and being followed by hundreds of dancers."
The song's music video emphasizes the song's dance-ability too. A group of L.A.-based breakdancers approached Jaffe about the choreography, and he was all for it.
"They reached out to us and got their hands on the track through a competition we posted online," he says. "They realized something that I've always known — that what we play is hip-hop. It's rock 'n' roll. That's what Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, and King Oliver were doing. A hundred years ago, they were like Nas, Kanye and Jay-Z. If you had to identify those guys, they were hip-hop rock 'n' roll superstars. I know that once people are exposed to [our music] and hear it, they flip out. When I saw these young dancers who don't listen to jazz at all getting into the music, that's amazing to me."
Co-produced by My Morning Jacket's Jim James, That's It! is a bit funkier too.
"He brought a whole new sense of fidelity to the way we usually record the band," says Jaffe when asked about James' contribution. "He was able to bring his ears and knowledge of recording into our world. That was amazing. We had never made such a high fidelity recording of the band. He and his engineer packed up the My Morning Jacket studio and they literally packed his entire studio into his tour van. It was probably 100 pieces of equipment and 50 microphones. We unloaded it and recorded for a full week."
So what exactly is it about Preservation Hall's music is so appealing?
"There's something universal about it," Jaffe says. "We were just in Korea. Our clarinet player is 81. We were playing for 30,000 kids at a festival who were literally going apeshit for us. He said, 'It's not different than when I was a kid. They're having a good time and out in the fresh air, dancing and singing.'"
"It was so encouraging and refreshing," he continues. "You know how different the United States can be, even from county to county. Our music is somehow above that. That's something I learned. These musicians aren't political people. But they taught me that you impact the world and you don't let the world impact you."