"It's funny to me when I see films of parades and there are people standing on the sidewalks waving. In New Orleans," Ben Jaffe explains, "everybody is in the parade. There is nobody watching because they are just in it."
Ben Jaffe knows a thing or two about New Orleans parades. As the enthusiastic Creative Director of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, he spends his life playing traditional New Orleans-style jazz music in Mardi Gras parades, jazz funeral parades, at the band's legendary Preservation Hall in the French Quarter, and, tonight, at the Dallas Symphony Orchestra's Meyerson Symphony Center.
I asked Jaffe what it is like to translate the band's signature participatory, relaxed vibe to a formal concert hall. "New Orleans musicians," he says, "have this excitement, this energy and joy that they bring to a performance when they play. We could be in a room rehearsing music by ourselves or in front of 50,000 people in a stadium and it really wouldn't matter, they'd be doing the exact same thing."
Jaffe speaks with tremendous respect about New Orleans jazz musicians like 81-year-old Charlie Gabriel, the oldest member of the Preservation Hall band. "These older musicians would always tell me to 'play to the room.' I never understood really what that meant until I started performing in these different locations around the world. Everywhere you play, you are thrown into a different environment with a different audience and a different size venue. Take Charlie Gabriel for instance, he's probably played in 10,000 different theaters around the world. But one thing is consistent -- the spirit and the soul of the music that we play -- that is intact no matter where we go."
Jaffe's parents, Allen and Sandra Jaffe, founded Preservation Hall, the French Quarter venue for which the band is named, in 1961. Ben Jaffe describes his parents' vision: "The principal behind Preservation Hall was to create an environment where these aging African American pioneers of American jazz could perform in a place that honored and celebrated their music, instead of treating their music as the background to something else."
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Ben started taking lessons from some of the musicians in his father's band when he was 9 years old. He became "a fully anointed member" in 1993 and took over the position as creative director after his father's death.
"I've always looked to older musicians for inspiration and to sort of guide me," Jaffe says. The music that the band plays is not notated, it is a sound tradition of improvisation and learned technique that is passed down aurally, and Jaffe knows how important it is for the tradition to continue. "These guys are masters at what they do," Jaffe says with awe.
Some might say the same about Jaffe.