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Preservation Hall Jazz Band’s Ben Jaffe talks about the musical traditions of New Orleans

New Orleans’ own Preservation Hall Jazz Band is one of three headliners at this year’s Elkhart Jazz Festival. Bandleader Ben Jaffe talks about how jazz changed the world.

Posted on June 17, 2014 at 4:27 p.m.

ELKHART — Shortly after Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast and their hometown of New Orleans in 2005, members of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band serendipitously found themselves in the band instrument capital of the world.

Several instrument manufacturers in Elkhart, including the Conn-Selmer factory, opened their doors to the band, replacing many of the instruments they had lost in the storm. Preservation Hall Jazz Band is coming back to the City with a Heart on Friday, June 20, to headline a concert at the Lerner Theatre for the Elkhart Jazz Festival.

Musician Ben Jaffe called The Elkhart Truth from his home just outside the French Quarter in New Orleans. Here is an excerpt from his interview:

Elkhart Truth: Your parents were instrumental in developing Preservation Hall, the home of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, in the heart of New Orleans more than 50 years ago. Did you grow up there knowing that one day you were going to be part of the band?

Jaffe: “No, but at the same time I never really thought I would do anything else.

Growing up in New Orleans, especially in the community that I grew up in, you are encouraged and it’s almost part of the fabric of the city, to carry on certain traditions, and that’s one of the magical, beautiful things about our city is that traditions here are sacred. That’s the world that I grew up in.

If someone asked me when I was 8 years old what I wanted to grow up to be, I still wanted to grow up to be an astronaut, a doctor or a lawyer like all kids. I got bit by the music bug and I found myself in that world of musicians, like my father and the people he played with.”

How to see Preservation Hall Jazz Band in Elkhart
  • When: Friday evening, June 20
  • Where: The Lerner Theatre
  • Tickets: Included with Elkhart Jazz Festival passes or $30 to $60 for individual tickets at thelerner.com, by phone at 293-4469 or at The Lerner box office, 410 S. Main St.

Elkhart Truth: New Orleans-born trumpeter Wynton Marsalis was the headliner at last year’s Elkhart Jazz Festival, and he said in an interview that jazz is part of our heritage as Americans. Why do you think it’s important to keep that legacy going?

Jaffe: “It’s a significant tradition and it’s a significant part of our history, specifically as New Orleanians. We are the birthplace of jazz and that’s something that’s incredibly important.

Jazz changed the world. Jazz is the bedrock of all American music, and I think for bands like Preservation Hall and musicians who come from musical families, particularly in New Orleans where you find musicians who are members of musical families over 100 years, those are traditions that are important to me, traditions that have changed my life for the better.

I feel blessed to be able to do what we do and we still have a community that holds our traditions in such high regard. This doesn’t happen anywhere else. It only can happen in New Orleans.”

Elkhart Truth: You guys have shared the stage with some big name artists outside of your genre, such as the Black Keys, and the Foo Fighters recently did a surprise show at Preservation Hall. Whose influence is that?

Jaffe: “I have been responsible for spearheading those efforts of broadening the band’s fanbase. Being in the business I’m in, I grew up with traditional jazz, I grew up marching with brass bands and I grew up performing in parades. I grew up with Mardi Gras, I grew up with WWOZ and I grew up with jazz fest, but I also grew up with rock ‘n’ roll. I grew up with Madonna, Michael Jackson and Prince and the Rolling Stones. They’re part of my identity as well.

When you think about rock ‘n’ roll, you think of American music. If you follow the family tree and go far enough from rock ‘n’ roll backwards, you end up in New Orleans. You end up with Fats Domino, you end up with Smiley Lewis, you end up with Louis Armstrong and you end up with King Oliver, Buddy Bolden and Jelly Roll Morton.

The idea of beginning to collaborate and work with bands that have been influenced by jazz is a way really to spread awareness more than anything.”

Elkhart Truth: Spreading the gospel of jazz to new audiences, has that been a focal point for the band?

Jaffe: “For us, it’s not just spreading the gospel of jazz. It’s spreading the gospel of New Orleans.

Jazz that happened in Chicago, New York, St. Louis, Memphis (Tenn.) or Philadelphia has its own tradition.

We’re very rooted in our heritage and our history and every band member has some connection to New Orleans music. Our tuba player Ronell Johnson’s great uncle Joseph Butler was one of the first bass players in Preservation Hall. That’s huge. You can’t replicate that.”

Elkhart Truth: For the first time, Preservation Hall Jazz Band has released an album with original compositions. It’s called “That’s It!” Where did these songs come from and how do they reflect where you guys are as a band?

Jaffe: “A lot has happened in New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina and one of the things that happened with the band in the last nine years is celebrating our 50th anniversary. We put out several albums of classic New Orleans material and then one of the things that happened too, not only does an anniversary get you thinking about your past, for me it was also a time when I started thinking about the band’s future and what our role is beyond carrying on a musical tradition.

We also have a responsibility to influence that tradition and have an impact on it. That was really the idea behind this new album, to create the next new New Orleans jazz standards the same way Louis Armstrong or Jelly Roll Morton did 100 years ago.”

Follow Elkhart Truth reporter Angelle Barbazon on Twitter at @tweetangelle.


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