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5 Questions with Benjamin Jaffe

by on August 28, 2012 10:46 AM

When Benjamin Jaffe talked by phone in early August from his New Orleans home, it had just been three weeks since his wife gave birth to a baby girl — the couple’s first child. That perhaps was the start of the next generation to continue the tradition Jaffe’s parents, Allan and Sandra, began had begun.

In 1961, Allan and Sandra Jaffe opened Preservation Hall in the French Quarter as a place where “New Orleans musicians could play New Orleans jazz, a style they believed should not disappear.” Thanks to their son, who is now the band’s creative director and tuba player, and the many musicians who have been a part of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, that style has remained vibrant and relevant.

The Preservation Hall Jazz Band visits Eisenhower Auditorium on September 28 in a special concert with bluegrass icons the Del McCoury Band. The concert begins the 2012-13 season for the Center for the Performing Arts at Penn State. Benjamin Jaffe talked about performing with Del McCoury and the importance of keeping the tradition of New Orleans jazz alive.

T&G: The band is in the middle of celebrating its 50th anniversary. What’s been the key to its longevity?

Jaffe: It’s a testament to New Orleans’ music and New Orleans’ culture and its strength. Any art form that can be relevant for this long period of time is amazing to me. No other American art form has survived in popularity as New Orleans jazz has — it’s incredible. New Orleans has suffered — not as much today — but from the perception of just being Bourbon Street and people drink, party, and celebrate. There’s something much deeper and serious going on here, and Preservation Hall is a part of it. There’s a deep culture and history, that hasn’t been documented in any way, that’s thriving. Hurricane Katrina devastated this city and dismantled the community. It’s amazing to me how powerful the community really is. So many of the traditions have returned after the city was physically brought to its knees.

T&G: Do you feel the significance of the band changed after Hurricane Katrina?

Jaffe: All our roles changed since Hurricane Katrina. We’ve become better in a lot of things — the entire band and entire community. We’ve become a stronger community that’s more in touch with its roots and history. There’s pride with that. It’s something Preservation Hall has always taken seriously. It opened in 1961 in New Orleans, in the throes of the Civil Rights movement. It became a social event that encouraged different cultures and races to mix.

T&G: How did you and the Del McCoury Band end up collaborating?

Jaffe: I met Del three years ago. Preservation Hall started its music outreach program and Del was the first person to work on the project. It was the first time they had been in Preservation Hall, and it was a magical experience. It was the first time I grasped in my mind what Preservation Hall meant to an outsider — the reaction on his face as he walked into the hall and started singing with us and recording in the hall itself. It gave me a sense of how important what we were doing was. Del and I became very close. There was an immediate connection. We respect all the same things — the same values of family and tradition and honoring those traditions.

T&G: Were you surprised on how well the music came together?

Jaffe: Someone should write a doctoral thesis on these deep connections between New Orleans jazz and bluegrass. It was beautiful. We created a hybrid and called it Mardi Grass. It’s one of the most awesome collaborations I’ve been a part of or witnessed. It was a beautiful collaboration because it wasn’t forced. It was something generated by the artists and something the artists believed in doing. It was something very special. The feeling was mutual for both sides. We were both really amazed about this thing we did. It’s like going into the kitchen to cook something new — you don’t know if it’s going to work.

T&G: What’s in the band’s future?

Jaffe: Our biggest responsibility is to the community of New Orleans — that’s first and foremost. We wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for the outreach of the community here. It’s a tradition that came out of my parents and it’s been passed on to another generation. We want to continue that tradition but also leave our own stamp on it — infuse that tradition with who we are as musicians.

David Pencek is editor of Town&Gown magazine, Town&Gown's Penn State Football Annual, and Town&Gown's Penn State Winter Sports Annual.
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