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Preservation Hall Jazz Band's Ben Jaffe: 5 songs that changed my life

Holly Gordon

You’ve seen its members performing with the likes of Erykah Badu, My Morning Jacket and Mos Def over the years, appearing with Dr. John and the Black Keys at the Grammys, and even marching through New Orleans with Arcade Fire for a David Bowie tribute parade. But even before all that, the name Preservation Jazz Hall Band has been a storied pool of talent for decades. So if it feels like the New Orleans institution has been around a long time, it’s because it has: the Preservation Hall Jazz Band celebrated its 50th anniversary three years ago, and there’s no slowing down.

“We were one of the first acts to play at a lot of these jazz festivals,” says Ben Jaffe, the band’s creative director and tuba player. “Newport Folk Festival, Newport Jazz Festival, the Montreal Jazz Festival, the New Orleans Jazz Festival. All these iconic festivals, Preservation Hall's been there from the beginning.”

Jaffe’s parents, Allan and Sandra, turned the Preservation Hall into a venue in the French quarter in 1961, organizing a touring band based out of the hall in 1963. The Preservation Hall Jazz Band became an institution, reviving New Orleans jazz at a time when the then Jim Crow state almost silenced it. Those first years continue to propel the band forward.

“We represent something very important about our city and that respect that we all individually have for the musical traditions that have been handed to us,” says Jaffe. “It's a big part of what keeps us going. Respect for our ancestors and the people who helped really create this style of music.”

Jaffe took the reins as creative director in the 1990s, after his father's death, and it took another decade for him to turn to the band's now revered collaboration projects into a form of keeping the Preservation Hall's tradition alive.

“In the weeks post-Katrina ... we saw this incredible outpouring of support and appreciation for New Orleans and Preservation Hall,” says Jaffe. “And that's when we began exploring the possibilities of working with artists outside of our genre. That was also when we began to realize how valuable our tradition was, how valuable it was to people outside of New Orleans.”

While Jaffe declined to name any favourite collaborators — “usually by the time we get to working with someone at Preservation Hall, it's someone that has inspired us in some shape” — just the list of names on the 2010 Preservation album is impressive enough: Ani DiFranco, Merle Haggard, Buddy Miller, Blind Boys of Alabama, Brandi Carlile, Tom Waits and more.

After a 2013 album — That’s It!, their first of original compositions — the band is looking to release another original album in 2017. But before the members finish their current tour and head back to New Orleans for the rest of the year, they’ll be at the Halifax Jazz Festival this weekend. We asked Jaffe to take a deep dive and choose five Preservation Hall songs that have changed his life. Read on to play his picks, from Tom Waits to the Kinks.

‘Complicated Life’ with Clint Maedgen (Kinks cover)

“We recorded this song in 2004 and it's a cover of a Kinks song from an album called Muswell Hillbillies. When I heard this album, and it's one of their earliest albums, it all kind of sounded like New Orleans jazz to me. And we ended up covering this song and it was the first time that Clint Maedgen performed with the Preservation Hall Band and it was also the first music video we ever made…. That was a big one creatively, it was the first time we had ever done that kind of cover before, stretched out to do something like that.”

‘Tootie Ma is a Big Fine Thing’ with Tom Waits

“Recording with Tom Waits and recording ‘Tootie Ma’ was a big one for me. That was a song that is a very old New Orleans Mardi Gras Indian song that appeared on albums before, and the version that we use as our inspiration was recorded by Danny Barker in the 1950s.

“Tom Waits is someone who's inspired me since I first discovered him in junior high school … we had the chance to meet him at a concert post-Katrina and I reached out to him two years later about participating on this record [Preservation] but I knew that the song we recorded – not only did it have to be something that fit him, you know, that he could interpret, but it also had to have deep and significant meaning to New Orleans and Preservation Hall.

“I had the [‘Tootie Ma is a Big Fine Thing’] album since I was a kid, I've been aware of the song, but I never really gave it much thought until the project and then … one day it just hit me, I was like oh my God, that's the song that I'm going to ask Tom Waits to do with us.”

‘I Think I Love You’

“I wrote a song inspired by my daughter. It wasn't so much inspired by her as it was me trying to soothe her back to sleep at like four o’clock in the morning after being awake for two hours and just being at my wit's end. And I was like, I have to channel this energy into something so I sat down at the piano – and you're at this point of exhaustion – and I just started singing the lyrics that became a song called ‘I Think I Love You.' I brought the idea to two friends of mine, Dan Wilson and Chris Stapleton. And this was in 2013. And look where Chris Stapleton is today. I won’t take 100 per cent credit for it, or where that song has brought him today, but I like to think that his experience coming to Preservation Hall and working with me and writing had something to do with the good success that he's experiencing today.”

‘That’s It’

“It was a title song off of our [2013] album. And that song kind of was a way for us to announce the arrival of this new creative chapter in our lives. Jim James co-produced the album with me and I was describing the song to him, what I wanted it to sound like and how I wanted it to feel. And I described it as a parade of elephants charging through the French Quarter [laughs]. And that's what it sounds like when it opens. It's just this infectious drum beat. The roar of the horns – it's a really powerful song.”

‘La Malanga’ (to be released in 2017)

“I'm gonna put on there a song that we haven't released yet. In December, the entire Preservation Hall Band went to Cuba for two weeks to perform at the Havana Jazz Festival. And we were so touched by the experience that we had there, and the musicians we met … the rhythms in Cuba and the musicians we met were so inspiring that we went through this metamorphosis while we were there that resulted in us being a different band. Just hearing and feeling and experiencing music differently. And all of the songs that we recorded for our new album were inspired by that trip.”

While you have to wait until 2017 for that track, this video was posted a week before the Preservation Hall Band’s trip to Cuba, where they would reunite with Cuban pianist Ernan Nussa.

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