Ben Jaffe was born into the family business, and he’s determined to take it to new heights.
Jaffe is the musical director and tuba player for the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, the New Orleans cultural institution his parents founded 50 years ago last month. The group plays two sets today at the Marin County Fair (2 p.m. and 4 p.m.), where they’ve performed for the past 20 years, making the fair and the Bay Area a second home of sorts for the group and its brand of New Orleans culture.
“We have deep, deep roots in the Bay Area,” says Jaffe, noting a poster in his office of the band’s 1968 Fillmore performance with the Grateful Dead. “I used to travel out there every summer, and we’ve been playing the fair forever. The band really feels connected to the area.”
Jaffe is building on those ties, partnering with his friend Jack Knowles to open Preservation Hall West on the former New College property in San Francisco’s Mission district that Knowles bought after the school closed in 2008. The project includes the Chapel at 777 Valencia, an upscale restaurant serving New Orleans and Southern food, as well as the more casual Second Line Café and an auditorium will be an entertainment venue, according to the plans. It’s expected to open at the end of the year, with an opening party on New Year’s Eve, Jaffe says.
The project and the band’s live shows all over the world are part of Jaffe’s goal of both enticing newcomers to New Orleans jazz and preaching to the converted. It was fifty years ago this June that Alan and Sandra Jaffe transformed Larry Borenstein’s Associated Artists Gallery in the French Quarter into a fledgling music venue. It remains one of the pillars of the musical and cultural scene in New Orleans.
Based on the group’s seemingly ubiquitous presence at this year’s Bonnaroo Festival last month, the group seems driven to spread the word. In the course of the three-day event on a farm in Tennessee, the band played with members of Deer Tick, the Low Anthem, the Original Meters and others, backing headliners My Morning Jacket onstage and parading through the festival grounds like a second line to a surprise set by Portugal The Man on top of a Mr. T Mardi Gras float. The band also co-created the festival’s theme song with the Del McCoury Band, one of many of the group’s collaborations in recent years.
“We really wanted to go above and beyond this year since it was a big year for Bonnaroo and obviously big for us with this being our 50th anniversary,” Jaffe says. “It was an opportunity to show everybody all of the amazing projects we’ve been involved in.”
Those collaborations have occurred with groups many might not associate with jazz, particularly My Morning jacket, the Kentucky-based rock band known for its epic guitar anthems.
“We have very different styles of music but they come from a place that embraces tradition and culture the same way we do in New Orleans,” Jaffe says. “Even though we’re playing different instruments, we’re all playing the same 12 notes. We all speak a common language. It’s about finding people who have respect for the culture and who want to carry the torch.”
Jaffe admits that its has gotten easier, to a certain degree, to carry the torch of New Orleans culture in the six years since the worst tragedy ever visited upon the city – Hurricane Katrina. In a bittersweet twist, the horrific disaster and its aftermath have revived global interest in New Orleans and its music, Jaffe says.
“It’s an incredibly difficult bitter pill to swallow,” Jaffe says. “The city is in many ways in a stronger place than we were six years ago because of the hard work of the people of this city. Now we have the unconditional support of the world. We used to feel like the odd man out. We never received the recognition that we deserved for being such a cultural center and so important to American history. But that’s changing.”
That support has been bolstered by Treme, the HBO show co-created by David Simon as a window into post-Katrina life for the musicians, chefs and residents who sought to rebuild their lives after the tragedy.
“Often times people will come to New Orleans and do a bubble gum version of what they want New Orleans to be,” Jaffe says. “They’ll shoot what I call the three B’s – Bourbon Street, boobs and beer. New Orleans is not any of those three things. New Orleans is a place that is so layered it’s almost impossible to understand. Look at Tennessee Williams. He captured it better than anybody and even to him it was a mystery.”
“The writers of Treme have done an incredible job of paying respect to New Orleans and trying to be honest about it,” he continues. “I have so much respect for the work they’ve done. It takes someone who has a deep love for New Orleans to dig beyond the surface to really tell the whole story.”
Jaffe says he’s more invigorated than ever to preach the gospel of New Orleans culture to the world, with the Bay Area as a satellite platform to do so.
“I really can’t imagine doing anything else,” he says of the musical life he’s led since childhood. “When you’re a musician in New Orleans, it’s something you are. I can’t imagine any other life because it wouldn’t be me. This is something you live 24-7. No matter where we go or what we do, Preservation Hall will always be a part of us.”
Fair Concert: Preservation Hall Jazz Band
Time: Monday, 2 p.m. and 4 p.m.
Where: Marin County Fairgrounds, Play Fair Pavillion
Cost: Free with fair admission ($15 adults, $13 children & seniors)