In New Orleans, a centuries-old musical tradition continues as it always has, in the streets, at parties in people’s homes, and in classic venues such as Preservation Hall. Founded in 1961 when Allan and Sandra Jaffe took charge of some nightly jam sessions that were happening in an art gallery on St. Peter Street, the Hall came into existence because the top jazz musicians in the city were being neglected by promoters who only wanted the new thing, which at the time was rock and roll. Within two years of opening, Preservation Hall had become an institution, and in 1963, the Jaffes organized a road show, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band (PHJB), that continues to play 100 or more concerts all over the world every year. Now under the direction of Allan and Sandra’s tuba-playing son Benjamin Jaffe, the group will appear at the Lobero Theatre on Friday, June 10.
I caught up with Ben Jaffe by phone as the group prepared for a show in Fort Worth. It’s been a busy spring for the PHJB, as they have been opening for fellow New Orleans residents Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros on their tour since early March. The Lobero show is all their own and represents the southernmost stop Pres Hall will make in California this summer. The Lobero is a perfect place to check out how the band has reinvented itself and the New Orleans style of music. Listening to their most recent recordings, it’s impossible not to notice that, without losing any of their authenticity, the group has broadened its range and that now they encompass many styles of jazz and funk and rhythm and blues, all of it saturated with the unmistakable beats and sounds of a traditional New Orleans ensemble.
Asked about how he and the other musicians plan their programs, and in particular about where in the set they locate the driving funk of “That’s It!” (the title track of their 2011 album), Jaffe said, “We try to let the environment dictate the set. There have been times when we come right out with ‘That’s It!’ blasting and don’t let up all night, and there are other gigs when we play it in the middle or at the end. To me, a set list is like a playlist, which means that it’s a personal thing, but you want everyone to be into it.” And how does the Preservation Hall Jazz Band manage that? “We get to the venue, we absorb the vibe there, and then we huddle up right before we go out onstage. That’s when we decide what we’re going to play that night,” said Jaffe.
Something similar goes into the work of writing original material, a practice that Jaffe has championed for the group in recent years after decades of playing mostly standards and jazz classics. “The most important element in writing music for us is that every member of the band has to feel good about what they are going to be playing. We’re a family, and each player represents that.” Asked about his role as the group’s tuba player, Jaffe laughed, saying that the instrument has been great to him and is “like the drums in a way, because the person who chooses to play tuba is somebody who wants to have fun and get loud and is okay with walking around inside this thing that looks like an octopus.” Despite his unflagging pride in the Crescent City, Jaffe appreciates the warm welcome the group always receives whenever they come to Santa Barbara. “There’s something special there,” he told me. “Santa Barbara has always been very good to us.”
The Preservation Hall Jazz Band will appear Friday, June 10, 8 p.m., at the Lobero Theatre, 33 East Canon Perdido Street. For tickets and information, visit lobero.com or call (805) 963-0761.