Preservation Hall Jazz Band’s Goal: Keep History and Make It

July 7th, 2013

Douglas Mason/Getty Images

The Preservation Hall Jazz Band at the Bonnaroo festival last month. Its album “That’s It!,” with all new material, is out on Tuesday.

At the recent Bonnaroo festival in Manchester, Tenn., the Preservation Hall Jazz Band ran a musical marathon.

When the Saturday headliners, Mumford & Sons, canceled after a band member’s medical emergency, the group was drafted to play a set of its own in one of the tents. As soon as that performance ended, five of the band members got into a van and sped to the main stage, where they joined the substitute headliner, Jack Johnson, for the final song of his encore (hastily rehearsed that afternoon in a motel lobby), in front of a stadium-size audience. As fireworks burst overhead, the band members piled back into the van, returned to the tent and served as the horn section for a post-midnight, all-star soul “superjam,” backing up vocalists including R. Kelly and Billy Idol and the jam’s organizer, Jim James of My Morning Jacket.

“Sometimes it feels like someone came up with some crazy script that you’re living,” Ben Jaffe, the creative director for the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, a New Orleans institution, said a few weeks after Bonnaroo last month. “But that’s something New Orleans jazz musicians do better than anybody — nothing fazes them. Whether you’re playing for 100 people or 100,000, you’re doing what you’ve trained your whole life to do.”

On Tuesday the band releases “That’s It!” (Legacy), an album produced by Mr. Jaffe and Mr. James that is Preservation Hall’s first record to be made up exclusively of new compositions. It’s a bold move for a group that proudly bears the word “preservation” in its name, based in a city with a unique relationship to tradition, musical and otherwise. (The group will perform at the McKittrick Hotel in Chelsea, from Sunday through next Saturday, and will also appear on “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon” on Monday and Tuesday.)

The band recently celebrated its 50th anniversary. “I spent a lot of time sorting through the archives, choosing tracks for an anniversary release,” Mr. Jaffe said by phone from his home in New Orleans. “But I felt like the next project shouldn’t just be a reflection of the past, that we had a responsibility to contribute something new to our musical legacy,” he said. “Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, King Oliver — all the pioneers of New Orleans jazz” wrote much of their own material, he added, “which forged a new direction for American music.”

Mr. Jaffe, 42, a wild-haired Oberlin graduate, is the tuba- and bass-playing son of Allan and Sandra Jaffe, who were instrumental in founding Preservation Hall in the early 1960s. He assumed the reins in 1995, facing both a decline in the caliber of the band’s musicians and an aging, dwindling audience. He responded by steering the group in a new direction, collaborating with artists like Tom Waits and Mos Def and booking it for rock and dance festivals.

Since Hurricane Katrina, Mr. Jaffe said, the band members — who range in age from 36 to 80 — have become “the visual spokespeople for the rebuilding of New Orleans.” Just in the last few months, in addition to Bonnaroo, the band has played with Dr. John and the Black Keys at the Grammy Awards; sat in with the English indie rockers Alt-J; and backed up Billy Joel for his set at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.

The group’s steadiest partnership, though, has been with Mr. James, who took them on the road with My Morning Jacket after he sang on a 2010 benefit record that Mr. Jaffe produced. “We just really hit it off and enjoyed playing together,” Mr. James said in an e-mail. “I think we all come from a similar school of music spiritually.”

Not everyone has been thrilled by Mr. Jaffe’s choices for a group that was created with the express purpose of showcasing traditional New Orleans jazz. “It’s not a unified opposition,” Bruce Raeburn, curator of the Hogan Jazz Archive at Tulane University, wrote in an e-mail, “more properly offhand comments made in passing, some of them from older people.”

Yet Mr. Raeburn acknowledges that “there are real issues,” like “the decline in use of clarinets in brass bands, and movement away from polyphony toward section riffing.” Nonetheless, he sees Mr. Jaffe’s approach “as perfectly consistent with how New Orleans musicians have conducted themselves in the past, embracing eclecticism and experimentation and seeking to attract the widest audiences possible to their music.”

To those who perceive it as repertory music, Mr. Jaffee said, “It’s really so far from that.”

“This is the music we play when we’re out with our friends,” he added. “These are living, breathing traditions, and then every generation leaves its own mark.”

With Mr. James’s encouragement, the band started composing new material for “That’s It!” As Mr. Jaffe put it, “A whole burden is lifted when someone you respect gives you permission to explore something that might feel dangerous.” The A-list songwriters Chris Stapleton and Dan Wilson and the Oscar- and Grammy-winning Paul Williams also contributed to the album.

Most of the results, recorded at Preservation Hall in the French Quarter, stay firmly rooted in traditional New Orleans styles, though “August Nights” offers a late-night, torchy feel, and “I Think I Love You” adds a Caribbean beat.

“We all understood that the sound of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band is classic and timeless,” Mr. James said. “It’s not like we wanted to replace all their instruments with synths and computers or something radically different. We just wanted to infuse their sound with a deep production and sound that might appeal to listeners of contemporary soul, hip-hop or rock.”

Mr. Jaffe explained: “This is never about us being well known. It’s about a fundamental belief that what we do is important — that this music and tradition make people rejoice and celebrate. That’s what got me into music, and it’s what we give back.

“And the great thing is that this new audience has no preconceived notion of who or what we are,” he added. “Now I get asked a lot where we come from.”

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.