May 29, 2008
Jazz: Made in New Orleans
(Page 2 - Previous Page)Allan Jaffe died in 1987, at the age of 51, of cancer. Ben was 16 at the time. Sandra continued to run the Hall with her sister Risa, who took over the day-to-day operations.
Ben Jaffe's own involvement in Preservation Hall was not planned; it just evolved. He grew up in the Quarter, living a few blocks away from the hall. As a boy, he watched jazz funeral parades and Mardi Gras marches, and he hung out at Preservation Hall, where he heard many of New Orleans' greatest performers. Without any conscious effort, he absorbed it all. But he was more interested at that the time in reggae and rock 'n' roll. New Orleans jazz -- that was his parents' music.
Looking back with 20/20 hindsight, Jaffe now says of hanging out at Preservation Hall: "That was my school."
He went to Oberlin College, known for its music program, and the day after Jaffe graduated in 1993, he flew to Paris and joined the Preservation Hall Jazz Band as its regular bass player. I asked Jaffe if he had to audition. He laughed, saying that it was a coincidence that the bass player had recently taken ill and stopped touring.
"The timing could not have been better," he said.
However, for him, "stepping into the band was a natural progression."
Jaffe played some 200 dates a year with the band and eventually took on managing the band and Preservation Hall, as well.
"At the time I simply felt motivated to keep Preservation Hall open and running," he said. "I never really had a mission statement or a business plan."
No plan could have prepared anyone for Hurricane Katrina in 2005, or its aftermath. Knowing that Preservation Hall, being in the French Quarter, was on high ground and that he could go there if needed, Jaffe remained in New Orleans. "We weathered the storm," he said, helping musicians get out of town -- among them banjo and string bass virtuoso Narvin Kimball, then 95, whom Jaffe helped evacuate to Baton Rouge and whose banjos and photographs he helped remove from his home -- luckily, because that's all that survived the storm. (Kimball died in South Carolina in 2006.)
"As everyone saw on television, it was a national embarrassment what took place here," Jaffe said.
He said the financial hardship was great and continues: "Our lives were shaken around like a snow globe."
Five out of seven members in the band lost their homes. They all suffered tremendous financial losses.
It's hard to appreciate, Jaffe explained, but people who had school-age children could not come back to New Orleans for at least a year -- there were no schools and hospitals -- and those with special-needs children could not get the services they needed. And once you've been living in another place for two years, it's hard to come back -- who wants to be uprooted again?
"There are a million stories," Jaffe said, one for each of the evacuees, and each is different and filled with its own pain and difficult choices. "That's the hard part to understand."
That being said, Jaffe feels that the post-Katrina City of New Orleans has made an even greater commitment to New Orleans Jazz. The Hurricane Emergency Fund, which Jaffe co-founded, has evolved into "Renew Our Music," a grassroots community development organization. Jaffe released the box set "Made in New Orleans: The Hurricane Sessions," which is a treasure trove and, in some ways, a collaboration between his late father and himself, incorporating early recordings and sessions interrupted by the Hurricane.
Preservation Hall has launched several education and outreach programs for schools and children. Jaffe has also been able to work on several projects with The Jazz and Heritage Foundation and the State of Louisiana, including launching SYNC UP, cutting-edge online technology that allows music supervisors to search for New Orleans musicians and music to use or license for film and television.
More than 45 years after his parents established Preservation Hall, Jaffe feels New Orleans' music is rich in history and well stocked with new generations of artists filled with a love of traditional New Orleans Jazz (which is refreshed and reinvented each time it's played).
Jaffe also has established a fairly exhaustive database of New Orleans musicians: "I can't tell you the last time I went to a show [in New Orleans] and saw a musician and didn't know who they were."
He cites jazz trumpeter Mark Braud, grandson of trumpeter John "Pickett" Brunious Sr., and nephew of Preservation Hall's John Brunious Jr., as being a fourth-generation jazz artist.
"Find me a fourth-generation anything, anywhere," Jaffe said.
So, next time you head down to New Orleans, stop in at Preservation Hall. Chances are you'll find Ben Jaffe there, a fourth-generation musician who's the second generation to run the hall.
Tell him Tommywood sent you. That and $10 will get you a seat to hear America's indigenous art form, a living tradition that is the heart and soul of a city, the music that made New Orleans.
Tom Teicholz is a film producer in Los Angeles. Everywhere else, he's an author and journalist who has written for The New York Times Sunday Magazine, Interview and The Forward. His column appears every other week.
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