American Routes Shortcuts: Ben Jaffe

Oct 18, 2019

Ben Jaffe
Credit American Routes

Ben Jaffe grew up in Preservation Hall, surrounded by jazz legends, immersed in the musical traditions his parents fought to preserve. He marched in Mardi Gras parades and jazz funerals, and toured the country with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, honing his chops as a bass and tuba player. After earning a music degree from Oberlin, Ben moved home to manage the hall. He is now creative director and has opened Preservation Hall to other styles of music. 


Ben Jaffe: I don’t have a memory of my first Preservation Hall experience, it was an extension of our house. That was our normal, growing up around these- really the last generation of jazz pioneers, Sweet Emma Barrett and George Lewis and Billie and De De Pierce and Narvin Kimball and Sing Miller and Cié Frasier, Jim Robinson, Willie and Percy Humphrey, those were the musicians that I grew up around and also a world that my parents helped create because nothing like Preservation Hall existed before that. We were really the first generation to experience this collective of musicians, you know, playing seven nights a week. My parents didn’t create Preservation Hall to preserve a style of music so that it wouldn’t change forever, you know, they wanted to create a place where Billie and De De Pierce could come and play, you know. And you can’t replace Billie and De De Pierce when they’re gone, you can’t replace a Sweet Emma Barrett when she’s done, you can’t replace a Sadie Colar when she’s gone, you can’t replace Kid Sheik, you can’t replace Kid Thomas, so it’s not always just about having Preservation Hall be one thing, it shouldn’t be one thing, it should be something that reflects New Orleans today. 

Nick Spitzer: You have taken freedom with Preservation Hall to bring in other kinds of music beyond the music that was traditionally associated with it, and it seems to me you’ve been pretty successful at it, talk about why you introduced some of the things that are not of New Orleans but you wanted at the hall and what you’re trying to do with the hall in another generation here. 

BJ: I went away for college and came back in ’93, and what I discovered is things don’t stay the same. You know, if you try to keep a living tradition exactly in tact, it’s going to lose the thing that gave it life in the first place. We’re just playing the music that we know. This is just like what makes us dance, you know, this is what makes us move and shake and feel good about ourselves, you know, so we’re gonna play “My Feet Can’t Fail Me Now,” but we’re gonna play it a little faster than our parents played it, or we’re gonna play it a little slower, you know. We’re just gonna use the techniques and the things that we grew up with, and you can do that and still have reverence and respect for your past and still carry your traditions forward. They have to, traditions have to evolve. You know, sometimes that’s painful, but sometimes that’s what you have to do, you have to like let those things go so that they can grow and breathe. 

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