On the way to its 60th anniversary, the venerable Preservation Hall Jazz Band explores its Afro-Cuban lineage
The talk turns to food—red beans and rice, gumbo, all that good stuff—and how cooking, like music, is as much about circulating knowledge as it is about getting fed.
“I learned to cook in the kitchen,” says Ben Jaffe. “‘Here, wash these. OK, now peel this. Go grab that bowl and bring it over here. Now cut these up.’ That’s the same way I learned music: ‘OK, we have a parade at four o’clock. Show up on this corner and bring your horn.’ You learn from being in the middle of it.”
Like most New Orleans-born-and-bred musicians, Jaffe understands music not as a byproduct of the human experience but as a heart-deep part of that experience itself: “It’s like air, or food, or relationships. Once you get on that level, you’re talking about the four or five essential elements of life.”
Jaffe—tuba player, bassist and current leader/co-composer for the venerable Preservation Hall Jazz Band—comes by it honest, as they say. In 1961, his parents, Allan and Sandra Jaffe, founded the Preservation Hall venue at 726 St. Peter St. in the French Quarter—a performance space especially notable during the Jim Crow era for being one of a handful in New Orleans open to both white and black players. What started as the venue’s de facto house band is now a pillar of New Orleans’ musical history: a live performance, recording and educational outreach project 55 years strong and counting.
PHJB’s new album, So It Is (Sony/Legacy), continues the band’s longstanding custom of preserving and contributing new material to traditional New Orleans acoustic music. But So It Is looks south and east, across the gulf to Cuba, for its primary musical idiom.
“We’d been planning the trip for a couple of years by the time we went in Christmas 2015,” says Jaffe. “The history between New Orleans and Cuba runs so deep, and a lot of people don’t know about it. We’re all connected by this history, this rhythmic pulse that runs from Africa and Spain to Cuba, and from there to New Orleans, and of course it became different things in different cities. Cuban Moros y Cristianos (a white rice and black beans dish cheekily named for the Moors and Christians of the nation’s colonial history) became red beans and rice in New Orleans. It’s a little different, but really, it’s the same cultural tradition. The same development happens with the music—it’s a blend, like red beans and rice, that’s specific to that place, that you’re not going to find in any other city. And if you do find it in another city, it’s because someone from New Orleans brought it there.”
So It Is, like most of Preservation Hall Jazz Band’s 30-plus album catalog, begins in the commitment to recording the music as it would be heard live, in the venue or in the streets. TV On The Radio’s Dave Sitek, who co-produced the new record with Jaffe, understood that commitment intuitively. “We worked hard on the mix and the production,” says Jaffe. When he was told that the bass and the percussion on the record sound so clear it’s like the band’s set up in the next room, you can practically hear him smile: “Yeah, that’s the point. That’s the heartbeat of our kind of music. Sometimes when you hear New Orleans music live, the bass and the drum are all you can hear.”
Fifty-five years, 30-something albums and god alone knows how many long-term and rotating band members later, Preservation Hall Jazz Band has made a record that brings to the forefront the Afro-Cuban ancestry that’s always been one strand of its DNA. From the snake-in-the-grass bass intro to the title cut, through the street-march percussion and bluesy piano of “Convergence,” to the storefront-church vocal stylings and muted brass of “Mad,” So It Is honors and celebrates those lineal ties in ways both traditional and contemporary. Anyone who wonders how a band more than a half-century old can continue to explore its core aesthetic rewardingly should remember the lesson of a good bowl of red beans and rice—a meal that’s kind of the same each time but also radically different every time you open up. The blend is what makes it, and the blend is an art, not a science. “In New Orleans, the blend is palpable,” says Jaffe. “You can find African elements in every place you look.”