Jazz is America’s oldest form of internationally popular music and tonight, Aspen gets an authentic taste of it.
New Orleans’ Preservation Hall Jazz Band, which has been touring worldwide since 1963, brings its show to Belly Up Tuesday night. For band leader Ben Jaffe, performing live is an attempt to translate the New Orleans experience to the road. He said an ideal venue is one in which the crowd is having as much fun as the band.
“It doesn’t really matter whether we’re playing in a gymnasium or at (Harlem’s) Apollo Theater, we come to play and have a good time,” said Jaffe, who took the reins of the band in the 1990s, years after the passing of his father Allan Jaffe, who, as a penniless musician, opened the Preservation Hall’s French Quarter venue in 1961.
In 2010, Preservation Hall went on tour with one of today’s best live acts, My Morning Jacket. The two groups had met each other at a festival in Mexico, where Jim James, My Morning Jacket’s frontman, sat in with Preservation Hall. The collaborative relationship led to a national tour and the 2013 release of “That’s It!”, Preservation Hall’s first album of original music. Jaffe said the friendship has exposed New Orleans jazz to a whole new audience.
“It’s good to know a young rock ‘n’ roll band is receptive and open and wants to introduce their audience to a very important tradition,” he said. “That’s really super cool, and it’s bold. It takes guts to do that.”
While touring, both bands took cues from each other. One of the things Jaffe learned is that My Morning Jacket goes hard for three hours every night, connecting with the audience the entire time. Jaffe said James and his mates walked away with a greater appreciation for simplicity: “It’s just us and our instrument, that the note you’re producing is literally the air coming out of your mouth vibrating through the horn.”
“When you play electric guitars your whole life, you don’t have that experience,” Jaffe said.
When Jaffe was in high school, he looked after the band’s equipment, carrying his father’s tuba from hotel to hotel. It wasn’t until 1993, when he returned from Oberlin College in Ohio, that he assumed his father’s role as the band leader. Musicians are fair people, he said, but you have to earn their respect. Preservation Hall, which has existed alongside the Neville Brothers, Fats Domino, Professor Longhair and Dr. John, is a New Orleans legend, and Jaffe had to “sit at the feet of the masters” before earning his stripes.
The fact that all the original members of Preservation Hall have passed on speaks to the durability of the New Orleans jazz legacy, he said, and the current members’ roots run deep. Trumpet player Mark Braud is the nephew of two former band leaders, Wendell and John Brunious Jr., who brought the show to Aspen in 2004. Clarinetist Charlie Gabriel’s musical heritage can be traced back to the 1850s. He is the great-grandson of New Orleans bass player Narcesse Gabriel, grandson of New Orleans cornet player Martin Joseph and son of New Orleans drummer and clarinetist Martin Manuel Gabriel. Drummer Joe Lastle Jr. was born and raised in the Lower Ninth Ward, while trombonist Freddie Lonzo hails from New Orleans’ uptown neighborhoods.
“Someone asked me, ‘What is one of the things that makes me want to live in New Orleans?’,” Jaffe said. “Music would be at the top of that list. It’s a reflection of the city and the neighborhoods and all the different styles that have come out of New Orleans.”