“New Orleans is this anomaly, this spiritual center, this backbone, the DNA of American music”
Editor’s note: As part of our ongoing editorial coverage of GOODFest, we’ll be chatting with an artist from each of our five shows about the intersections of music and activism as it pertains to them. Check out our complete GOODFest coverage here.
Ben Jaffe could easily audition to be the next Dos Equis man. His title alone, creative director and tuba player for Preservation Hall Jazz Band, most certainly qualifies him as The Most Interesting Man in the World.
Jaffe, who is playing Tuesday night’s GOODFest show with Glass Animals in New York City’s BAMcafé, was born into music royalty as the the son of PHJB’s co-founders. His love for music appears to be a perfect pairing of nature and nurture. Beyond jazz running through his blood, Jaffe also had the privilege of growing up immersed in the music, culture, and diversity of New Orleans.
Building upon the foundation set by the band’s jazz legend forbearers (Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton), Jaffe has helped the group expand from revered French Quarter institution to a world-touring, Coachella-performing, Pitchfork-reviewed favorite of a new generation.
GOOD: What’s the band’s approach to charity and social responsibility?
Ben Jaffe: Preservation Hall has had altruism and social justice built right into our mission since the band was founded. This rich connection to the cultural community of New Orleans formed at a time when whites and blacks weren’t even allowed to socialize in public. We’re talking 1961, before the Civil Rights Amendment, so it’s something we’ve always stood for.
Over the years, as the times have changed and history has marched on moving forward (and now backward), we began to better understand the cycles of our cultural traditions in New Orleans. So, we started making music education a core component of what we do. The passing of the musical torch, so to speak.
Music is something that exists in our families and community tracing back for generations. You can trace the music roots of some of the members of our band today back seven generations to the 1850s when their great-great-great-great-grandparent played music in New Orleans.
An understanding of and respect for music makes for a better society and better people. It’s a bridge. So, anywhere we go in the world, we might not be able to speak the language, but we can communicate through music.
Beyond allowing us to transcend cultural barriers, this respect for our heritage allows us to communicate with other genres and musicians from other walks of life that might not have the blessing of knowing anything about New Orleans or jazz. And vice versa. It enriches us and broadens our understanding.
What bit of New Orleans’ music history do you find most people to be unaware of?
The various musicians I’ve come into contact with all have this deep understanding and appreciation of New Orleans history. It’s not just the birthplace of jazz. It’s actually the birthplace of rock & roll, of gospel, even of American classical music. Look up the name Louis Moreau Gottschalk and your mind will be blown.
You begin to understand that New Orleans is this anomaly, this spiritual center, this backbone, the DNA of American music. The New Orleans diaspora spread out around the country as the industrial revolution took place. As travel became easier, via trains and boats, the music spread and out culture traveled with it.
How did Hurricane Katrina change that?
For the first time in my lifetime, a bright spotlight was on New Orleans and there was a palpable vibration as people came out to talk about the importance of New Orleans.
When you look back, right after Katrina, at the things people were talking about at that time, saying ‘Oh, New Orleans shouldn’t be rebuilt,’ or ‘It may never come back.’ That was insane talk. You don’t talk about New York or San Francisco that way. You don’t talk about a major international city that way. New Orleans is the most important cultural center in the United States and to even entertain those conversations is an insult. It’s disrespectful.
This showed me that there wasn’t, at the time, a real understanding of how important New Orleans is. And it was the artists, the musicians, the Springsteens, the Tom Waits all the way through the spectrum to Pretty Lights and Mos Def who came to our rescue.
It does seem that in the wake of the storm, the hip side of the industry has taken a liking to what NOLA has to offer and part of that has been a keenness to collaborate with you.
I don’t like to talk about our music in terms of charity. It’s one thing to offer someone a helping hand, and it’s another to encourage someone the way Jim James (of My Morning Jacket) did when he reached out to us and asked, “Do you guys ever play arenas? Could you?”
That’s like teaching someone to fish. And we didn’t really need anybody to give us a meal. We needed the introduction to new audiences and the encouragement to try something beyond what we already knew. Opportunity and appreciation was the greatest gift of all after Katrina.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.