Preserving Traditions While Pushing Boundaries

Thérèse LaGamma:  You’ve performed alongside legendary heavy weights like Stevie Wonder, Elvis Costello, The Grateful Dead as well as modern giants like My Morning Jacket, the Black Keys, and Arcade Fire on festival stages from Coachella to Newport. What are some of your favorite types of gigs to play? Give us a highlight.

Ben Jaffe: There’s an energy you feel when performing in front of large crowds. When everybody is dancing and moving together the positivity and love are so strong that you can feel the vibrations. For us, playing at the Hall in New Orleans is like that. There’s nothing like playing music in your own house. Preservation Hall is our chapel. When we play it’s our church. Music is our faith, it’s our religion.

LaGamma: Tell us about the venue back home in New Orleans that houses the band. What happens to Preservation Hall in New Orleans while the band is touring? Is there a core of musicians that stay behind?

Jaffe: Preservation Hall in New Orleans is a modest room, only fits about 70 people that gather nightly to listen to music performed by bands led by some of New Orleans’ finest musicians. Even when the Preservation Hall Jazz Band (PHJB) is traveling there’s music pouring out of Preservation Hall. We never have a dark night! 7 days a week, year round! We’re the Niagra Falls of music!

LaGamma: Are there any New Orleans traditions PHJB tries never to miss?

Jaffe: I always make an extra effort to be home on Mardi Gras Day. It’s important to me to be here then. It’s a day when the entire city is unified and celebrating life. As a child, my dad would take me to march with him and the Olympia Brass Band. Those were some of my earliest musical memories.

This year, I was out of town dealing with a family emergency. My wife and daughter came to visit me and as Mardi Gras approached, my wife could see how torn I was not being at home. She insisted I fly back late on Monday night just so I could be in New Orleans to play as the sun rose over the city on Mardi Gras Day. It made for a very special moment I’ll always remember.

LaGamma: It was exciting to see you folks performing at the Grammy Awards a couple of years ago. What was that experience like and how did the invitation come about?

Jaffe: It’s overwhelming being in the same room with so many artists that have made so much great music, what an honor! A couple years ago we paraded into the Grammys with Dave Grohl playing drums. It totally disrupted the entire event! Dave had this huge grin on his face. We were having so much fun that we kept playing and marched throughout Staples Center. 

LaGamma: I’ve read that many of PHJB musicians are related to the original players by blood, and all are connected through the sheer power of tradition. Who is your newest member? Who has been there the longest?

Jaffe: The most recent member to join the band is Branden Lewis…Branden has a very interesting story. His grandfather was a musician in New Orleans in the 1950’s. He played Sax with Lil’ Millet and the Creoles. Like many African Americans from New Orleans, he moved his family during the great industrial migration to the Los Angeles area. That’s where Branden grew up. He returned to New Orleans to discover his family’s strong roots here. The senior member of the band is Charlie Gabriel who’s been performing in New Orleans since the 1940’s!

LaGamma: Describe some of the ways in which band members are involved in the work of the Preservation Hall Foundation?

Jaffe: All of us from New Orleans learned from the older generation. The tradition is sacred. It’s passed down from one generation to the next. There’s both a formality and informality to learning in this tradition. You need to put in the time, but you also have to revere and enjoy the process. It’s a fine line we walk. Because we grew up learning this way; from the masters who came before us, we’re now passing this tradition on to the next generation of New Orleans musicians…..

LaGamma:  This will be your fourth visit to The Music Hall in Portsmouth, NH. What can fans look forward to?

Jaffe: We’re focusing on material from our latest release “So It Is”. It’s going to be a Cuban/New Orleans dance party. Wear your comfy shoes. It’s hard to listen to us and sit still!