An interview with Ben Jaffe is like taking a historical talking tour of one of America's greatest cultural cities.
The curly-haired 39-year-old is not only the director and tuba player for the Preservation Hall Jazz Band — which will bring its popular Creole Christmas show to Bend next week (see “If you go”) — but he grew up around the corner from the legendary New Orleans jazz venue Preservation Hall, which his parents founded in the heart of the city's famous French Quarter, three blocks from the Mississippi River.
So when Jaffe talks about his — and the hall's, and the band's — home town, his words are soaked with authenticity and adoration, especially when he's asked about the recent, post-Hurricane Katrina surge in respect and interest in Preservation Hall.
“We had a choice after Katrina. Either this was going to become your life and a battle cry and something you were going to die for, or you were just going to accept things and just move on with your life, and I ... found myself choosing to fight for what I believed in,” Jaffe said in a jet-lagged telephone interview last week from San Francisco. (He'd just flown in from playing for the king of Thailand.)
“I believe in New Orleans. I believe in our way of life. I believe in what New Orleans stands for. I believe in our history. I believe in our culture. I believe in red beans and rice and Mardi Gras and 98-percent humidity,” Jaffe said. “I believe in all the things that make me who I am, and you only find those things in New Orleans.”
Also only in New Orleans: Preservation Hall, an old-school music room with no fancy sign out on the sidewalk, no significant updates to the interior, no food and drink for sale. It's an austere music venue where the focus is on the music, which is provided nightly by some of New Orleans' finest jazz musicians.
Jaffe's parents, Allan and Sandra, opened the hall in 1961 in an effort to help preserve and perpetuate New Orleans-style jazz, which was waning in popularity thanks to rock 'n' roll and more modern forms of jazz. The Jaffes were a young white couple who'd just moved to a segregated New Orleans from the north, but they jumped in with both feet, building their life's work around music being made by older African-Americans.
“They never set out to create a music venue or to create a part of American history,” Ben Jaffe said. “They set out to be involved in a movement that they felt passionately about, and it led them down this path.”
Fifty years later, the hall is as strong as ever, though it hasn't always been a smooth ride. Allan Jaffe died in 1987, and Preservation Hall experienced some “dark years,” Ben Jaffe said, due to lack of leadership. Jaffe took on that leadership role in 1993, and he's been leading the venue's renaissance in recent years.
“My biggest fear in the world is (the hall) becoming a museum piece,” he said. “That's not what New Orleans music is to me. New Orleans music is vibrant and it's alive and it's a living, breathing tradition.”
To that end, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band — which has performed across the country in various incarnations for decades — has spent the past several months touring with My Morning Jacket and Del McCoury and working with Mos Def, Lenny Kravitz and Trombone Shorty. The band just released a limited-edition 78 RPM record — yes, 78 RPM — with Tom Waits. Earlier this year, it released “Preservation,” a benefit compilation featuring collaborations with Andrew Bird, Ani DiFranco, Brandi Carlile, Merle Haggard and Steve Earle, among others.
It's that kind of effort that has raised Preservation Hall's profile and dragged this defiantly throwback institution into the 21st century.
“An institution is a hard thing to change the direction of. You don't make a turn in a car going 100 mph,” Jaffe said. “It involves people and personalities and ... a cultural tradition that needs to be respected and honored along the way, and at the end of the day, it's also a business.
“There's lots of bands making great music that aren't popular and can't survive because they can't make a living. So it's a real balancing act. Just because something deserves to be here doesn't always mean it will be here,” he said. “I've found a way to make Preservation Hall commercially successful while honoring the tradition.”
Tradition drives the band's Creole Christmas program, which is rooted in the Jaffe family's annual custom of gathering some musicians — Allan Jaffe called this the Santa Claus Band — and taking a trip around the French Quarter to play Christmas carols and other favorites.
“Christmas became this bonding time for me and my family, when we came together and we gave music back to the community,” said Ben Jaffe, who grew up Jewish. “Creole Christmas isn't some big revue. It's the Preservation Hall Jazz Band playing songs of the season and some of our traditional favorites. It's us getting a chance to just share what the holidays mean to us.”