New Orleans jazz institution preserving tradition while moving forward

For its 50th anniversary, Preservation Hall Jazz Band did something the New Orleans jazz institution had never done before. The ambassadorial band, which started as a house band, recorded an album of all new original material.

“When you move into your sixth decade, you wonder what is it that is truly important? What is our legacy? We’ve spent our careers carrying forward the traditions that were handed to us by generations that came before,” says Ben Jaffe, the tuba player and hall director whose parents founded the Preservation Hall in 1961. The band started two years later.

“As I look back on New Orleans’ musical history, there was a time jazz didn’t exist. That’s important. There was no jazz before Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton. These musicians wrote and performed the material that would become the foundation of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. For me it’s returning to that same idea of creating original and new material. That’s what jazz needs to propel itself forward. It’s our way of being true to ourselves as creative people and to our community by performing music that’s relevant to this generation – not only playing music that’s 100 years old.”

Under the 43-year-old’s leadership, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band raised its profile among non-jazz fans after Hurricane Katrina. They supported the Blind Boys of Alabama on 2006’s Grammy winning “Down in New Orleans,” toured with My Morning Jacket and others, worked with artists such as Tom Waits and Pete Seeger on a benefit album, and recorded an entire record with bluegrass legend Del McCoury. On 2013’s “That’s It!” the band worked with producer and My Morning Jacket leader Jim James.

“One of the things I’m very proud of is finding ways to introduce – not always younger – but new audiences to our music. When I was born in the 1970s, jazz was 70 years old. Now jazz is 115. … All American music was touched or evolved in some way from New Orleans jazz. Some people would argue it’s also the birthplace of gospel or the blues or rock ’n’ roll. It’s important to whatever you do musically to connect to the source,” Jaffe said.

But Jaffe and the octet, many of who are also second and third generation New Orleans musicians, don’t just work with anyone.

“It’s not that we’re always on the lookout for a collaboration. …We’re doing more than putting two musicians in a room and seeing what happens. We’re bringing two worlds together. Whether it’s DJs like Pretty Lights or rock bands like My Morning jackets or older artists like Richie Havens, Merle Haggard and Tom Waits, the reason why we’re doing these things is I’m a believer that the more people interact with one another the deeper the understanding you have for one another and the creative process is toward creating a more bountiful environment,” he said.

For Jaffe, the band is linked to New Orleans’ culture, which he wants to see thrive again.

“People come to New Orleans to discover the source of American music. Music plays a different role here. It’s central to our identity. Music is one of those components that make us what we are,” he says. “We were a city that people appreciated, but I don’t know if people really understood how unique and rare we are. I’m focused on protecting our community and making sure our community is healthy. If it’s healthy then our music will be healthy and persevere.”