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A Big Easy education

When his parents started the Preservation Hall, a performance space in the French Quarter, Ben Jaffe was handed the keys to New Orleans jazz’s future. It wasn’t until after Hurricane Katrina that he learned what that meant.

CityLife: Explain New Orleans jazz to Las Vegas.

Ben Jaffe: New Orleans jazz was born and raised right here. This is where it all started. People like Jellyroll Morton, Louis Armstrong, Freddie Keppard and King Oliver. When you look at Preservation Hall, you have to see us as a legacy band. The members today are incidentally offspring of those early jazz musicians. Every member of the band is from a musical family living in New Orleans for multiple generations. It’s what makes New Orleans so valuable and Preservation Hall so unique. I tell people the easier comparison is the Buena Vista Social Club. People say we’re like them. But they’re like us.

New Orleans jazz isn’t Dixieland, correct?

The word “Dixieland” was a marketing term created to popularize and sell a style of music that really has nothing to do with Preservation Hall. When I think Dixieland, I think a bunch of white guys wearing striped vests and garter belts, kicking their legs in the air, playing a caricature of New Orleans music. Dixieland is a reference to slavery, and if you’re from the South, flying the Dixie flag, you may as well be flying a KKK flag as far as most African Americans are concerned.

How do you feel you’re carrying the tradition that your parents started at Preservation Hall?

I was raised surrounded by older musicians who all took me under their wing whether they knew it or not. I was able to participate and experience these social musical events from the day I was born. As a result of that I realized at some point in my life, without anyone telling me, I have a responsibility to carry on this tradition. And you accept it as part of who you are. Your grandfather was so and so and you accept that music will be handed down from generation to generation.

What has your impact on the community been?

One of the things the hurricane revealed to me was how fragile of a community we live in here. That a lot of our traditions don’t translate to other cities. The strength of New Orleans is its community. And when that community got sent out across the world after the hurricane, I realized that, man, if we don’t all get back together again, a lot of these traditions are going to die. So there was a sense of urgency after the hurricane that the New Orleans community, the cultural community, was cared for and nurtured and brought back as quickly as possible. And I think we were incredibly successful in doing that and I think Preservation Hall is a spokesperson and ambassador for that community.

Your music doesn’t try to stick to the original 1920s NOLA jazz format. Do you get guff for it from traditionalists?

Yeah. But I’m not a traditionalist. I’m not a recreationist, either. I’m not trying to recreate a sound from 100 years ago. We’re part of a legacy, and it’s our obligation to honor the legacy. But it’s also our responsibility as artists and the torch-bearers to leave our print on the tradition as well. When the tradition stops breathing, stops being functional and relevant to the people creating it, it may as well be hung on a wall in a museum to be studied.

Your band spans generations. How does age play into the music?

It’s critical to who we are. There’s a mentoring that takes place where we have a responsibility to the older generations of musicians still playing this style of music. I think that’s one of the coolest things about our band. We have players in their 30s and their 80s rocking the house. Is there any other group like that in the world? Maybe a symphony orchestra. But they don’t rock the house like we do.

How does it feel to be one of the first jazz performers at a Las Vegas performing arts center?

I think Las Vegas probably has some of the same issues as we have in New Orleans. If you live in Las Vegas you don’t go to a casino every day, just like I don’t go to Bourbon Street every day or a Mardi Gras parade and catch beads and drink beer. In that way I think Las Vegas and New Orleans are sister cities. We both have that outward image that is often the thing that gets portrayed to the public. As you and I know, there’s much more depth to both of our cities than that. We’re excited to be one of the first bands to play this venue.

Friday-Saturday, June 29-30, 7 p.m., 9:30 p.m.; The Smith Center, 361 Symphony Park Ave., 749-2012, $42-$56