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Pres. Hall leader on Big Easy Christmas

by Ryan Snyder

For all that hurricanes and oil spills can take away, tradition isn’t among them. At least not while institutions like Preservation Hall exists. After a series of commemorative shows at home, the famed jazz club’s house band is preparing to celebrate 50 years as the standard bearers for New Orleans jazz by doing what they do best: hitting the road for a special performance at Carnegie Hall in January. Until then, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band is evangelizing other Big Easy musical traditions with their Creole Holiday tour, coming to SECCA in Winston-Salem this Friday. Below, Preservation Hall Cre- ative Director and tuba player extraordinaire Ben Jaffe, son of hall founder Allan Jaffe, waxes on NOLA holiday traditions influenc- ing seasonal music and how relationships formed during the recording of the band’s 2010 benefit album have shaped the institu tions future.

Ben Jaffe: It’s a chance for us to share this very unique New Orleans experience with the audience, to celebrate the way we do there, which is with music and of course food. We can’t cook for everyone though unfortunately. What’s considered a tradi- tional Christmas celebration in other cities is a lot different than how we celebrate here. I mean, we still have all of our leaves on our trees. I’m eating a grapefruit right now that I picked from my backyard this morning. Eating gumbo, that’s always a tradition for us and my family always went swimming on Christmas Day. A lot of those little nuances are reflected in the music we play during the holidays.

Y!W: It seems it’s slowly getting easier to enjoy some of those traditions again.

BJ: You would think it’s not even the same city in many ways that it was six years ago. The city’s doing great. We’re experienc- ing what I like to think of as a renaissance of sorts. One of the things the hurricane did for New Orleans is that is brought so much awareness to our city that it created a huge influx of youth and artistic minds that bring a lot of new perspectives.

Y!W: Does that make your mission of preserving the city’s musical heritage a little muddier?

BJ: I don’t think so. The tradition that Preservation Hall is a part of is so intertwined into the fabric of our city that it can’t die. New Orleans without red beans and rice ain’t New Orleans anymore. We have certain things that make us who we are and one of those things and our con nection to the earliest days of American mu- sic. Whether it’s Fats Domino, the Meters or Allen Toussaint, Dr. John, Preservation Hall, we all share a common language that only people from New Orleans understand. I think that’s one of the beautiful things about New Orleans and that it evolves. I definitely see people who come to the city absorbing the musical culture and also bringing their own influences. That’s one of the responsibilities of the torchbearers to understand that nobody’s a creative island.

Y!W: Preservation Hall has been really visible in other musical spheres since the benefit album. Is that because of opportunity or are you taking a more aggressive approach to putting the band out there?

BJ: After the hurricane there was a heightened awareness of exactly what it was that made New Orleans such an important cultural center. That’s something as a nation that we all feel connected to. I really think that every human being yearns for things that are special about our history. I think that New Orleans exemplifies a lot of things that we’ve lost in our country; this idea of family and community, this idea of children following in the footsteps of their parents, and of family businesses and businesses that have been around for hundreds of years I always look for the bigger message in what we do because you can just break it down and say that we’re just seven guys who play music, but at the end of the day, that’s not what we are.

Everyone in our band comes from a multi- generational musical family and actually there are guys in our band who are seventh- generation New Orleans musicians. Seven generations. Their families have been playing music in New Orleans since the 1850s. You can’t find that anywhere else.

Y!W: It seemed that the most fruitful partnership to come of the benefit album was with My Morning Jacket. What was it about working with Jim James that works so well?

BJ: The best thing to do is tell you about the first time I met Jim after he came to New Orleans to record on that benefit album. Maybe I have a different sensibility, but when I meet people I immediately know that there’s a connection. Jim and I immediately had a very, very deep connection when we met at Pres Hall. I knew that we listened to the same music and walked the same walk. We live in different worlds but we share an appreciation and respect for good people and elders and tradition. Jim is carrying on a great American tradition which is the rock tradition. And what a brave statement that is: to be afforded the opportunity by a band who could ask any group in the world to open for them, but say, “We want to bring the Preser- vation Hall Jazz Band into stadiums.”

Preservation Hall HJAzz Band comes to SECCA on Friday.

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