Interview: The Preservation Hall Jazz Band

PHJB

New Orleans is one of my most favorite places on the planet.  I take a yearly autumnal sojourn to the Crescent City,  (because if you go in the summer, you’ll melt); there’s just something magical about that town–the food, the culture, the history, and of course, the music.  Everywhere you go, music is wafting through the air; there are folks busking on every corner, people swing dancing in the streets, brass bands parading behind wedding parties…as a musician, it totally rejuvenates my spirit to be there.  I’ve spent some time in “standing room only” sweating it out in the back of the legendary Preservation Hall, home of the world-renowned Preservation Hall Jazz Band, and I’ve loved every minute of it.  Imagine my delight when I found out the collective was coming to my neck of the woods to perform this September at The Pilgrimage Festival in Franklin, Tennessee; the lineup is aces, so if you’re up forBenJaffe an amazing experience, you should definitely make your own pilgrimage and come here for the fun.  Band leader and tuba master Ben Jaffe was kind enough to answer some questions for us:

Mother Church Pew:  The band spends a good amount of time traveling to festivals and shows and recording with other artists, have you had any moments where you’ve been starstruck or been able to check adventures off of the band’s “bucket list”?

Ben Jaffe:  There’s a gathering that takes place in the Sahara called Music Au Desert.  From what I’ve been able to gather, it happens sporadically without a definite date.  I think maybe it stopped for a few years due to civil unrest.  I found a website in French once and sent in an application to bring the Preservation Hall band.  I’d love to raise the funds to bring the band there.

MCP:  You were recently in NYC doing outreach/supporting young students at the Brooklyn Conservatory of Music. Can you tell us about that, and about some of the other things the PHJB does outreach and education-wise?

 BJ:  Everything we do is outreach!!  Everything we do makes the world better……That’s the God’s honest truth.  It’s undeniable.  New Orleans is a special place.  It’s an energy center.  So much emanates from New Orleans.  If you want to understand music, there are a few journeys one must take.  New Orleans is one of those journeys.

MCP:  What’s the strangest thing the band’s been asked to do?

BJ:  What appears to be strange to others is just another day at work for us!!  I don’t know any other band that receives as many requests to appear at funerals as we do.  But that’s part of our culture.  There’s always a band at a real New Orleans funeral…I’ve been attending funerals since before I could walk.  That’s just how we do it in New Orleans.

MCP:  The 2013 LP That’s It features an album of entirely new material written by the band; what was the writing process like?

BJ:  Writing music is one of the great joys in my life.  It’s amazing how you can take an event or a sentence or a phrase or an emotion or a tempo and build a whole song around it.  It’s beautiful to write a song from scratch.  It’s like painting on a blank canvas.  The possibilities are limitless.  For That’s It, I co-wrote with the other members of Preservation Hall, in particular Charlie Gabriel.  Charlie has such command of music that he can hear a chord progression once and write the most beautiful melody you’ve heard over it!!  I also got to write with Dan Wilson and Chris Stapleton, which really blew my mind.  It was the first time I sat down and wrote with people who look in the mirror and see a songwriter.  I look in the mirror and see a tuba player.  Part of this process of writing new material was seeing ourselves in a new way, not just as improvisers, but also as part of a great tradition.

MCP:  When you are traveling, what do you miss most about NOLA (family excluded)?

BJ:  We definitely miss sleeping in our own beds.  The road is great but it can really beat you up.  A different city every night. You’re always on the loom out for a good meal!!  We miss New Orleans!!  Everything about it!! Even the humidity!!

MCP:  Can you explain what differentiates New Orleans jazz from other jazz music?

BJ:  That’s like describing the difference between gumbo and soup–you’ll know it when you taste it!!

MCP:  You’re performing at a brand new festival in town, the The Pilgrimage Festival in Franklin, Tennessee in September.  Will you have time to explore and mess around in Nashville? What do you like about Nashville (assuming you like Nashville haha)?

BJ:  We’ve got a lot of friends in Nashville.  In fact, one time, about three years ago, we appeared at the Schermerhorn with the Nashville Symphony.  It so happened that The Del McCoury Band was appearing that same night at the Grand Ole Opry.  As luck would have it, Del went on before us.  So, we walked over to the Opry and sat in with Del and his band.  They told us it was the first time they ever had a tuba on the Opry stage!!  And then Del and his band paraded with us back down the hill to the Schermerhorn and played a song with us and the Synphony.  They told me that was the first time a bluegrass group had ever appeared with the symphony in Nashville!

Susan Hubbard

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