50 Years of Jazz Fest: Historic Preservation

Dean Budnick on May 4, 2019
50 Years of Jazz Fest: Historic Preservation

photo by Dino Perrucci

Ben Jaffe, the son of Preservation Hall’s founders, maintains his family’s mission.

This article is part of our 50 Years of Jazz Fest celebration and appears in the special Collector’s Edition April/May 2019 issue of Relix. Subscribe here using code NOLA50 and get 20% off.

Allan and Sandra Jaffe moved to New Orleans together in 1961. They immediately grew enamored of the city and its cultural traditions and, despite the barriers imposed by legal segregation, established Preservation Hall. Located within the French Quarter, the venue hosted live performances in which the music was paramount, irrespective of its performers or audience members’ skin color or ethnic origin.

Allan Jaffe passed away in 1987 and his son Ben (who plays tuba like his father, as well as bass) now serves as creative director of both Preservation Hall and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. In these roles, he seeks to perpetuate a musical legacy while introducing those sounds to a new generation of listeners, at times collaborating with such artists as Arcade Fire, My Morning Jacket and Foo Fighters. The new documentary, A Tuba to Cuba, explores the origins of the band’s music as well as the lineage that informed the sounds of New Orleans.

Your parents grew up in the Northeast. What led them to found Preservation Hall?

They moved to New Orleans together in 1961. Prior to that, my father had been stationed outside of New Orleans at Fort Polk, La. He had gone to college on one of those ROTC scholarships and then did his basic training in Fort Polk. That was the first time that he ever physically laid eyes on New Orleans.

From there, he brought my mom to New Orleans. They had a room in the French Quarter and, through word of mouth, encountered a brass band that was doing a demonstration of a jazz funeral. At that time, jazz funerals were pretty much unknown outside of the actual community that they served. So, if you weren’t living in that African-American community in New Orleans, you were pretty much not aware that the tradition existed. That experience led my parents to discover this art gallery in the French Quarter that was very quietly holding informal jam sessions. Sometimes that happened behind closed doors, because we’re talking about the Jim Crow South, the segregated South. This was a time when blacks and whites were prohibited by law from socializing openly. From that, this idea of having a musical session on a regular basis become more and more real to them. That’s when they were approached by this gentleman [Larry Borenstein] who would become a mentor. He was the one who started the art gallery and recognized that my parents had an outsider perspective and an ability to organize and manage people.

To what extent was race a barrier for your father?

My dad had this unique gift of being a tuba player in New Orleans. If you’re a tuba player in New Orleans, you’re pretty much one of the most in-demand musicians, and that’s not the case anywhere else in the United States. So, all of a sudden, my dad was like, “Oh my God, maybe I can make a living here as a tuba player!” It happened in a blink of an eye they were given this opportunity and had this unique set of gifts and traits that allowed them to create this place that celebrated this African-American tradition.

In the case of my father, he happened to enter New Orleans at a time when there were no young tuba players, and there was a need for young tuba players because of the physical rigors of marching and playing a tuba. Let me tell you, marching with a 40-pound horn for like three miles and playing it at the same time is a real challenge. So it’s not something a lot of older musicians can keep up with.

Ben Jaffe (right) plays with Allen Toussaint

You mentioned jazz funerals. Growing up, the first time I heard of this tradition was in the James Bond film Live or Let Die.

My dad’s in that scene with my godfather. That’s the Olympia Brass Band—those are the musicians who raised me. There are two gentlemen in the scene standing and one of them asks the guy next to him: “Who’s funeral is it?” And the guy goes, “Yours,” then he stabs him. And then they take the coffin and put it on top of him. The guy who said, “Yours,” and then stabs him, was Alvin Alcorn, a trumpet player that used to play at Preservation Hall with my dad. That was the first and one of the only times that a New Orleans funeral has been represented on film. Back then, movies were a much bigger deal.

When it comes to the media’s representation of New Orleans, I’ve heard that the film The Big Easy resulted in Cajun food being added to restaurant menus in the city.

It was a great movie, but it solidified in people’s minds that New Orleans is this Cajun city. That’s not how we see ourselves. We’re not a Cajun city, we’re a Creole city. Cajun is something that’s found in places like Lafayette; that’s the heart of Cajun country where you find French Acadians who came to New Orleans from Nova Scotia. The French who came to New Orleans directly from France settled in New Orleans, so we have French Creole culture here.

God bless everybody for wanting to take us to the local Cajun restaurant when we’re in whatever city we’re in. It comes from a place of love—we know that—but it’s hard to replicate New Orleans food because it’s more than food. It’s the generations of people, and the love, and the tenderness, and the attention and the life. It’s not just eating red beans and rice; it’s where you’re eating it and who prepared it for you. You can get all the ingredients right and it can be almost perfect, but there’s just something about having that plate of food in Miss Leah Chase’s kitchen, where she’s been cooking it for the last 80 years of her life. That’s where you want to eat your red beans and rice.

This article originally appears in the April/May 2019 issue of Relix. For more features, interviews, album reviews and more, subscribe here.