By Rebecca Bulnes
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The smoke. The backbeat. The dancing. The jubilation. The hand claps. The bouncy New Orleans jazz scene that thrived in the Sixties sure as heck isn't dead. Not if the Preservation Hall Jazz Band can help it.
Ben Jaffe, who plays bass in Preservation Hall, just turned 33 years old. He was born and raised in the French Quarter of New Orleans. The business his parents started shares a wall with world-renowned pub Pat O'Brien's. But he's never had a Hurricane. Why not? "When you grow up in the French Quarter and you see what they do to people, you tend to stay away from them," he says.
The wealth of libations in New Orleans is sure a draw for thirsty tourists and spring breakers, but when it came time for college, Jaffe left the Quarter, moved to Ohio, and entered Oberlin College. He became an English major, "detached" from New Orleans and the family business. But during his junior year he had a revelation. "There was a small group of very dedicated musicians who practiced and rehearsed together day in and day out," he says. "We all came from different parts of the country -- California, Michigan, New York, New Orleans -- and I wanted to play some New Orleans songs. I remember how difficult it was to teach them the music. I just realized that I had something I was given that I never asked for, but was given and was blessed to have."
The music is New Orleans jazz, and the family business is Preservation Hall, the former art gallery turned bare-bones music venue opened in 1961 by his parents, Allan and Sandy Jaffe, as a home for music indigenous to the Quarter. After 40 years, Preservation Hall has become as recognizable a symbol of the city as the brightly colored rum drinks sold by its next-door neighbor.
Jaffe grew up at the knees of some of New Orleans's most renowned musicians -- temperamental pianist Sweet Emma Barrett, brothers Percy and Willie Humphrey, and the recently retired banjoist Narvin Kimball. Over the course of a year, as many as 75 play for the Hall, with around 30 performing on a regular basis. And like Jaffe, whose late father was a tuba player, nearly every member grew up in a musical family in the Crescent City.
"We come from a long tradition and line of musicians in New Orleans," Jaffe says, "and we're just continuing a tradition that we're fortunate enough to be given. It's very much like the food that we eat here. I mean, we eat red beans and rice every day of the week practically. It's just a staple of our cuisine. I was taught the recipe by our banjo player, who just celebrated his 95th birthday. He learned the recipe from his grandmother, so now you're talking about a recipe that dates back to the 1800s. Essentially the ingredients and the taste of the food haven't changed at all. I can cook on a gas stove instead of a wood stove, so the process has changed, but essentially, at its heart, the product is the same. And that's how I think about the music that we play. A few things have changed about it, but at its heart, the experience is exactly the same."
Though the hall itself is the same cramped building his parents opened, the business has indeed grown. Seven nights a week (except during Mardi Gras and on New Year's Eve) patrons of all ages line up by the iron gate entrance on St. Peter's Street for one of the hall's concerts, which are performed 360 times per year. Jaffe, the youngest member of the group by more than a decade, tends to it when he's not on the road. He's just started a Preservation Hall record label for current and vintage recordings, as well as other non-Preservation Hall jazz artists from the city.
"You can't teach the kind of emotion and the kind of swing and the kind of life that we live in New Orleans," he says. "I mean, the music we play is really a reflection of the way we live. In so many cities jazz is not part of the daily life and cultural framework of the city, but in New Orleans the two are intermingled. And Preservation Hall's been around for so long that we have people who are in their fifties and sixties who came to Preservation Hall in their teens. They bring these stories of hearing Sweet Emma, of hearing Billie and De De Pierce. And now they're bringing their children and their grandchildren. It's amazing to me. People always come up and they have stories about my father, and it's very heartwarming because you really become part of people's lives. You're not just a band that's passing through town, but you're a memorable experience that people live with."
The Preservation Hall Jazz Band performs at 7:30 p.m. Friday, April 2, at the Coral Springs Center for the Arts, 2855 Coral Springs Dr, Coral Springs. Tickets range from $23.85 to $42.93. Call 954-344-5990. They also perform at 8:00 p.m. Saturday, April 3, at the Duncan Theater, Palm Beach Community College, 4200 S Congress Ave, Lake Worth. Tickets range from $15 to $25. Call 561-868-3309.