Preservation Hall Jazz Band brings New Orleans flavor to Milwaukee
For about half of the year, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band calls its New Orleans namesake home, playing bright brassy jazz to the residents of the Big Easy. For the other half of the year, however, the legendary jazz band brings that Cajun flavor and music across the country to cities needing a little extra kick.
Milwaukee is next up on the menu, with the Jazz Band prepping fill one of our city's own legendary venues – the Turner Hall Ballroom – with the spirit of Preservation Hall on Friday, Aug. 29. Before then, OnMilwaukee.com got a chance to chat with Ben Jaffe, the tuba player, bass player and creative director for the band, about the band's legacy, what makes its past so special and the cool things it has prepared for the present – mainly involving the Foo Fighters.
OnMilwaukee.com: When was the last time you guys were in Milwaukee?
Ben Jaffe: It's funny. There was a gentleman. I think his name was Mr. Barkin – this was years ago, back in the '70s – and when I was a kid, I used to travel to Milwaukee with my father, who was a member of the band – the original tuba player. I remember coming to Milwaukee, and this gentleman – Mr. Barkin – would take the band out to get bratwursts or sausages or something in a beer hall kind of place. So my memories of Milwaukee go way back; the Preservation Hall Jazz Band's been going there for over 40 years now.
OMC: As the son of the co-founders, was there any pressure on you to join into the Preservation Hall Jazz Band and to lead it and even simply just to go into music?
BJ: It's funny. You watch these TV shows where the parents are making their kids practice sports and those real competitive kids shows, the pageant shows. I saw some weird show about this little girl named Asia who's an 8-year-old dance phenom, and her parents are driving her to be a superstar. And it's really sad to me. That's really sad.
My father wasn't like that at all. I wanted to be a musician because I saw how much fun my dad was having doing it and how much fun the people around him were having, how much joy it brought to their lives. That's why I wanted to do it, not because someone was making me practice.
If anything, my dad encouraged me to play sports and be better in school than play music. He never actually … I had to come to him to ask to take lessons on my instrument. I had to go to my parents and ask them to buy me my first bass. It wasn't one of those things where it was like, "You're going to study this, and you're going to go to this school, and you're gonna do X, Y and Z." It wasn't that at all.
But when you grow up around such amazing people … now, being a new father myself, I see how it rubs off. I think it's infectious when a parent or a community does something – like Preservation Hall – I think it's infectious. Who wouldn't want to play New Orleans music for the rest of their lives? It's an incredible thing, and I'm just glad and blessed that my dad and mom left behind such an amazing legacy that really my job and responsibility has been to carry on many of the traditions that they already established.
OMC: Preservation Hall and the Jazz Band are such a fascinating combination of the past and the present in terms of music and culture. There's a quote from you on your website about how that's kind of the band's responsibility on some level. How do you try to accomplish that?
BJ: One of the characteristics of our band is the age range of the musicians in the group – the youngest member of the band being in his 30s, the oldest member of the band being in his eighties and such a wide range of musicians in between. I think that right there alone is an incredible example of how we maintain continuity. The older musicians are teaching the younger musicians, and vice versa.
The one thing that I've learned about great New Orleans musicians is, no matter how old they are or how long they've been around, they still want to be cool and they still want to be hip. And a lot of times, coolness and hipness comes from youth culture. It's a balancing act; it's a constant conversation and dialogue, and more often then not, it's a musical dialogue that takes place.
There's a constant conversation and exploration taking place, and that is truly the beauty of what I get to do and really the thing that brings me the most joy. I love to perform, but I love these light bulb moments between artists from all walks of life. I've seen how Preservation Hall has touched people and how it's impacted them.
That's what Preservation Hall was built on: this idea of social justice and good through the music of these pioneers of New Orleans Jazz. That's what my parents created when they opened the doors. They created an environment where people couldn't be blinded by racism when you're looking at a treasure.
At the time, it was such a revolutionary concept, to have a venue that celebrated and honored and respected this African American tradition in a Jim Crow city at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, being operated by a young white Northern couple. That was … people were disappearing because of their participation in the Civil Rights Movement, so for my parents to make such a huge statement, that we're going to celebrate this African American tradition and put these musicians on the pedestal they deserve to be on, please come and arrest us, tell us this isn't the right thing to do.
There's no two ways around it: When it's framed and positioned that way, you have to acknowledge the treasure that is this New Orleans tradition. It's so appropriate, especially what's happening right now in our own backyard right here in Ferguson. It's the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Amendment. All of these things are sitting right here everyday right before us, and Preservation Hall's mission is, yes, to continue this musical tradition, but the musical tradition has been a vehicle for social justice. That's just something it's always been.
OMC: You guys play a significant role in the Foo Fighters' upcoming "Sonic Highways" album and HBO documentary series. How did that all come together, and what was the experience like working with them?
BJ: I got a text message from the president of our record label, and he said, "Hey, I'm on the phone with the Foo Fighters' manager. They want to record in New Orleans; can I put you two in touch?" I was like, "Absolutely!" Probably five minutes after receiving the text, I was on the phone with their manager, getting asked about Preservation Hall and about what other things were in New Orleans.
First, they explained to me the project, which sounded amazing to me. The basic principle is the Foo Fighters are going to eight different cities in the U.S. to record eight different songs that Dave (Grohl) hasn't composed the lyrics to yet. And through interviews and through the experience of being in that city over the course of the track, Dave would piece together the lyrics of the song. And on the last day of the session, Dave would take this entire experience of being in the city, interacting with people, living there, becoming a part of the city, understanding the musical history of the city and using all of this experience to write the melody and lyrics to the song.
OMC: Did you guys get to record with them?
BJ: That was the amazing thing. The Foo Fighters actually came and actually took over Preservation Hall for about a week and recorded their track in Preservation Hall. During the course of the track, I was there every day, and Dave and I began talking about possibly using the Preservation Hall horns on the track. He said, "Man, we've never used a horn section before. Is this something you'd even consider doing?" It was such a beautiful question because it was filled with so much humility.
That's what I really took away from the experience that week: how humble the Foo Fighters are, that they feel like they're simply rock 'n' roll musicians who are still learning to play music, and to be able to come into your house – Preservation Hall – and record with you is our honor. That was really beautiful. You don't encounter that enough, and that's a beautiful, beautiful thing.
OMC: I have to ask: You guys spend a lot of time on the road. Do you prefer playing at Preservation Hall, or do you enjoy playing on the road more?
BJ: We're one of the few bands that has its own venue, so it's rare to have a place that you call home when you're not touring. That's an amazing thing.
The two experiences are not comparable because Preservation Hall is so unique onto itself. You're performing in a room that's 30 by 20 feet, with maybe 70 people in the room with you. You can feel the heat off the other people's bodies you're so close. It's as if you've invited 70 people into your living room to come hear you perform. That's an impossible experience to replicate. You can't replicate the texture of the walls and the wood and the smells and the heat and the humidity and the painting. That's what makes Preservation Hall that special of an experience.
Every venue we perform in, though, has some history to it, making that experience unique and making that audience unique. The two aren't comparable; we love both of the experiences. If we were at the end of a gangplank with a sword to our back, and they said pick one, of course we'd pick New Orleans. That's our home. We get to be with our families and eat red beans and rice and walk to work. It's all of those things.
That doesn't diminish at all the experience of touring the world and getting to bring your music around the world. It's one of the most thrilling things ever. To be able to go to an audience in Slovakia or Japan and perform for people who've never heard you play live before and have never had the opportunity to go to New Orleans, that's incredible.
To me, you're at the core of why Preservation Hall does what it does today, and that's because, at the end of the day, our music makes people happy, and it's a celebration. That period of time, we're having this communal experience that people can carry with them and can make their lives better. God knows we need that more than ever.
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