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Music

Preservation Hall Jazz Band guards tradition while looking ahead

The Preservation Hall Jazz Band of New Orleans
Benjamin Jaffe, center, and other members of the current lineup of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band of New Orleans
(Danny Clinch)

The Preservation Hall Jazz Band of New Orleans was born in 1961 with a mission outlined in its very name.

The goal: to preserve a traditional style of music at a time when it was being overshadowed by the arrival of rock ‘n’ roll as well as more contemporary forms of jazz such as bebop.

So how did this venerable, historically minded institution, which comprises both touring ensembles and the titular home court venue in the Crescent City, mark its 50th anniversary in 2011?

By releasing the first album in its half-century history consisting of new material, rather than the early jazz and pop standards that have long formed the core of its repertoire.

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That was only the beginning.  

Five years later, the band has been busy putting yet another unexpected spin on its ever-evolving traditions, working on a new album, this time one that’s co-produced by the group’s leader, tuba player Benjamin Jaffe, and musician-producer Dave Sitek, best know for his work with adventurous indie rock group TV on the Radio.              

“The new album is inspired by all of our travels and experiences, and we’ve had some very big emotional experiences over the past couple of years, starting with our 50th anniversary,” Jaffe said from El Paso recently while wrapping up mixing the work.

“This album takes all those experiences and really explores many of the overlooked, under-examined sides of New Orleans. If you live there and are from there, it’s in you already – all those influences from all different nationalities that have found their way to New Orleans and influenced our culture.”

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New Orleans is perhaps the quintessential musical, cultural and gastronomic melting pot, mixing elements of American Southern culture with strains from the Caribbean, Latin America, Africa, Europe and, more recently, Southeast Asia, from which large numbers of people have settled in southwestern Louisiana.

“We’re not under any strict label deadlines to deliver it, but we’re hoping to get it out this year,” said Jaffe, whose parents, Allan and Sandra Jaffe, were the driving forces in opening Preservation Hall 55 years ago.  

Benjamin Jaffe, 45, was raised listening to veteran players such as Willie and Percy Humphrey, “Sweet Emma” Barrett, George Lewis and others. These are artists who played the vibrant strain of jazz brought to the world in the 1920s through recordings and live performances by Louis Armstrong, King Oliver, Kid Ory and other New Orleans jazz innovators.

“We’re more concerned with putting out the best album we could possibly make,” Jaffe said. “It’s a beautiful gift to have the luxury of time to work on it. This is kind of the first time that creatively, the band has had this much time to sit back and breathe and focus on writing and recording new material.”

Keeping things more interesting, the Preservation Hall band is undertaking a summer tour with indie rock collective Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros. In staying with the New Orleans tradition that prizes spontaneous improvisation over tightly scripted music-making, the shape of the collaboration isn’t written in stone.

“It’s still coming together,” Jaffe said. “A lot of those things come together in real time, inspired in the moment. That’s something I really appreciate about Preservation Hall and about Edward Sharpe: They’re very in tune with the energy of the moment, in the moment. If that turns into collaboration, great. When we were in Brooklyn together, it turned into a parade. Things happen when we’re together that are unpredictable.”

Eight dates on the band’s spring-summer tour are bills they share with the Magnetic Zeros, the fluidly staffed ensemble fronted by singer and songwriter Alex Ebert. He moved the group’s base of operations a few years ago from Los Angeles to New Orleans because he found the city’s rich musical environment inspiring.

“Alex has a knack for being at the center of creative places,” Jaffe said, “and New Orleans is one of those magical centers.”

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None of the shared bills, however, are among the shows the Preservation Hall band is playing in California.

Jaffe and his cohorts just concluded a four-night residency at the new San Francisco Jazz Center’s Miner Auditorium, and will come south this time around only as far as Santa Barbara for a June 10 stop at the Lobero Theatre.

The final California date is June 13 in Livermore.

One of the big emotional moments of recent years that Jaffe cited was a three-month tour the group did in 2014 with pianist-composer-producer Allen Toussaint, one of the prime architects of New Orleans R&B and rock music of the 1960s, ’70s, ’80s and beyond.

Toussaint’s death last fall, at age 77 while on tour in Spain, “felt like a member of our immediate family had left us,” Jaffe said. “That’s a big hole that’s hard to fill. I can only say that I feel blessed to have been part of his life.

“I was there to see him become an elder statesman,” he said of the musician who worked for decades largely behind the scenes, leaving the spotlight on other musicians whose recordings he produced, arranged and often played on.

“To see the world recognize him, to learn about him, appreciate him, experience him, to be part of the team of people that toured together and made that happen, that’s a beautiful thing.”


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