As he watched his two year old daughter dancing to the music he was playing with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band last month, Ben Jaffe was struck by two flashbacks.
The first was built around familial love. As chieftain of Preservation Hall, the famed French Quarter music haunt, as well as the Grammy winning band steeped in New Orleans jazz tradition that bears its name, Jaffe saw in his child the same love of music he felt as a youth. Growing up, he regularly saw his father, Preservation Hall founder Allan Jaffe, perform with early incarnations of the ensemble.
The second was more complex. It was stemmed back eight years to the same event he played in late April – the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, long known to fans and locals as simply JazzFest. Back in 2006, the festival made its first showing in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the monstrous storm that shut the doors of Preservation Hall for nearly eight months and threw its future into limbo.
Five members of the band lost their homes, their cars and their instruments to Katrina and were forced to live outside of New Orleans for the first time in their lives.
“That first Jazzfest after Katrina, we were struggling emotionally, we were struggling physically,” Jaffe said. “We had really been brought down to our knees. The rebuilding process, even on the best day, was overwhelming.
“In that first year, our audience was a couple hundred people. Our audience last weekend was probably over 5,000 people. It was a huge crowd. And to be up on that stage… it filled me with so much pride and so much happiness – a happiness for the guys in the band because it was really a reflection of how much they persevered. And we’re still here. That’s really the story of New Orleans. So, yeah – it became overwhelming to me. I actually had to stop playing because I was so choked up at one point.”
Perhaps the moment also reflected just how far the Preservation Hall Jazz Band has come since Katrina. Though he still has not returned to full time touring duty (Jaffe plays tuba, the same instrument favored by his father, when performing with the band), Jaffe has overseen a series of extraordinary recordings. They include 2010’s Preservation (a benefit recording for the band’s music outreach program that featured vocal help from Steve Earle, Tom Waits, the Blind Boys of Alabama and many others), 2011’s American Legacies (a full collaborative album with the famed bluegrass quintet The Del McCoury Band), two 2012 releases – 50th Anniversary Collection (a four-disc retrospective) and St. Peter & 57th St. (a live set recorded at Carnegie Hall) and 2013’s That’s It! (its first ever recording of all original material.
That’s It! also continues a fruitful artistic relationship with Jim James of Louisville’s My Morning Jacket. James co-produced That’s It! with Jaffe.
“Getting that opportunity to work with Jim was life changing for me and for the band,” Jaffe said. “The interesting thing about the Preservation Hall Jazz Band is that we are all the sons, grandsons and great grandsons of New Orleans musicians. When you are inside a tradition, when you’re part of a legacy, perspective can be challenging. So you turn to people like Jim, who understand and appreciate what you are and what you create and can build on that tradition while honoring the tradition. They can take it a step or two forward. That’s an amazing thing.
“It takes a special artist who has maybe not been influenced by New Orleans music but has been inspired by the legacy. People like Steve Earle, people like Tom Waits, people like Jim honor that and respect that. They know these are important shoes that we wear.”
Preservation Hall Jazz Band performs at 7:30 tonight at the Lyric Theatre, 300 East Third. Tickets are $36.50. Call (859) 280-2218 or go to www.lexingtonlyric.com.