Generations of Music
Preservation Hall Jazz Band Cooks at the McCallum
By Rebecca Redshaw
When Ben Jaffe talks about the Preservation Hall Jazz Band you can almost taste the music. In a recent phone conversation from New Orleans, the head of operations at the hall and youngest band member at thirty years of age, described the band’s philosophy.
“I like to compare the music in New Orleans to the cuisine,” Jaffe said. “Our ninety-three-year old banjo player taught me how to make red beans and rice when I was very young and his grandmother had taught him, so we’re talking about a recipe that dates back to the 1850’s. It’s the same ingredients but I have a grocery store and a gas stove so the process is different. It’s the same with the music as it’s passed down from generation to generation.”
The Preservation Hall Jazz Band will end its summer tour at the McCallum Theatre on Saturday night, July 28th at 8 p.m. and then return home to New Orleans. The musicians play more than a hundred concert dates outside the Big Easy throughout the year, including recent engagements in Norway and France.
Jaffe noted, “There’s a great appreciation for New Orleans jazz in Europe, different from here. There’s more of a historical consciousness about the music there, where as in the United States they appreciate it more for what it can do rather than what it has done.”
The music should not to be confused with the two-beat Dixieland style. The tempo is a shade slower than the other jazz forms and the melody is always clearly heard with improvisation at its heart.
Consisting of varied instrumentation with five to seven players, the band plays without written music, a tradition that has been passed down aurally from one generation to the next.
Although there are songs that have infiltrated the repertoire over the years, basically the music has stayed the same for the last eight decades. “Basin Street” and “St. Louis Blues” are intertwined with old hymns like “Just a Closer Walk with Thee” and “His Eye Is on the Sparrow” and pop songs like “Bill Bailey” and “Memories.”
“I don’t like to think things stay still in New Orleans,” Jaffe stated. “But when you come here you get the feeling that it’s a city that doesn’t beat to the same drummer as the rest of the world, whether it’s the architecture, the food, the way we talk, or the music. It’s different than anyplace else in America.”
At home in Preservation Hall, the band shares the stage with two other groups, performing all but four nights throughout the year. On New Year’s Eve and during Mardi Gras the French Quarter is too crowded for concert goers to navigate.
Jaffe clearly loves the musical tradition established by his parents in 1961.
“If I had my choice, I would play every night in Preservation Hall. It’s the most magical place in the world to play music. But since it’s impossible for everybody to come to the Hall, I love the fact that we can tour and bring our music to people all over the world. The joy that it brings on a nightly basis is incredible.”
One of the most important qualities of New Orleans jazz is that there is no delineation between the band and the audience. During the course of performing, the audience becomes part of the band, regardless of the venue.
Recently the band performed with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. A graduate of Oberlin Conservatory of Music, Jaffe wrote special arrangements for the classically trained musicians.
“It’s a little tricky what we do. We’re probably the only band in the country that the symphony has ever performed with like this, but music is the common language and I was able to find a common ground in notation for the symphony.”
Concert dates similar to the one at the McCallum are more typical although the band does play parades as well as funerals. One fan in Ireland, wanting to “go out in style,” requested the band perform at his burial.
“People fall in love with New Orleans and the music and that’s how they want to be remembered,” Jaffe said.