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 group, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. The venue is still a hot spot in the city known for live music.
The touring Preservation Hall Jazz Band will give San Antonians a taste of its 10th annual Creole Christmas on December 11 at the Empire Theatre. The group will perform holiday classics and also material from its previous albums.
It’s been a long road for PHJB, and no one knows the history better than music director Ben Jaffe, son of the late Allan Jaffe.
“[My parents] had a very strong sense of equality and justice, and that’s what brought them to New Orleans,” says Jaffe 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.”
As soon as Ben Jaffe graduated from music school in Oberlin, Ohio, he joined the Preservation Hall Jazz Band and took up managerial duties at age 22 (“I was getting them hamburgers at two in the morning”), a job he held “for many years.” But 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! (their first album of originals), 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’s “Tusk,” a track that paired that group with the University of Southern California’s Trojan Marching Band.
“It’s like the sound of elephants coming down the street,” Jaffe says of “That’s It!” “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 danceability, too. A group of Los Angeles-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.
“[James] brought a whole new sense of fidelity to the way we usually record the band,” says Jaffe. “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.”
So what exactly is it about Preservation Hall’s music that 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.”
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