Ben Jaffe has a hard time understanding that some people didn’t grow up hearing live music every day.
He knows on a rational level that his experience was unique, but still, he can’t imagine a childhood without a daily dose of jazz history.
Jaffe, 44, grew up in New Orleans, just a short walk from Preservation Hall, the jazz preservation organization his parents started running in 1961. So every day Jaffe could walk into the small storefront venue and see jazz veterans rehearsing or playing as part of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band.
“When I think about it, it’s such a beautiful thing I was able to grow up that way,” said Jaffe. “I guess that’s part of what makes our city unique.”
Jaffe, the band’s director and a tuba player, will bring some of New Orleans’ music and heritage to Portland on Wednesday when he and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band perform at Merrill Auditorium. The show was organized by Portland Ovations.
People who come to the show can expect a mix of traditional jazz tunes associated with New Orleans for a hundred years or more, like “St. James Infirmary” or “Just a Closer Walk with Thee,” as well as new compositions by band members, Jaffe said. The band’s latest album, “That’s It,” is the first to feature only original material.
But Jaffe says he can’t predict exactly what the band will play in Portland.
“We don’t even know ourselves until shortly before a show,” said Jaffe. “We like to be kind of improvisational, and that keeps us on our toes.”
The Preservation Hall Jazz Band, which has played Carnegie Hall, the Kennedy Center and the United Nations, performs more than 100 concerts a year, all over the world. Photo by Danny Clinch
Courtesy of Dino Perrucci
Courtesy of Dino Perrucci
The band’s membership is a mix of new and old too, with ages ranging from 30s to 80s. The oldest current member is clarinet player Charlie Gabriel, 82, whose family has a history in New Orleans’ jazz dating back to the 1850s. He’s the great-grandson of bass player Narcesse Gabriel, the grandson of cornet player Martin Joseph and the son of drummer and clarinetist Martin Manuel Gabriel.
Jaffe’s roots in New Orleans aren’t quite as deep. His parents, Allan and Sandra Jaffe, first discovered the city on their honeymoon. Allan Jaffe was working in a Philadelphia department store when the couple decided to move to New Orleans and get involved in the music scene there. They co-founded Preservation Hall, a venue and music preservation organization, in 1961.
Part of the mission was to give New Orleans jazz veterans a regular place to play traditional jazz, and early members of the band had played with legends like Jelly Roll Morton and Louis Armstrong. The band and its small venue in the French Quarter are one of the city’s biggest tourist attractions today, and the band attracts audiences wherever it plays around the world.
The band’s style, like many New Orleans’ brass bands and marching bands, includes using a tuba the way a bass might be used in rock music. It’s just one of the things that sets the band, and New Orleans music, apart.
“Bands here use the tuba as not just a harmonic instrument, but as a rhythmic instrument,” said Jaffe. “In other places kids want to play guitar or deejay, but here everyone wants to play tuba because it’s the coolest. It’s probably because New Orleans, literally, is a city that beats to its own drum.”
Some quick facts about the Preservation Hall Jazz Band
FOUNDED: As an offshoot of Preservation Hall, which opened in 1961 and was started by Allan and Sandra Jaffe, transplants from Philadelphia.
HOME: A small storefront venue on St. Peter Street in New Orleans’ French Quarter.
STRUCTURE: Organization includes the venue, the band and a recording label.
SCHEDULE: More than 100 concerts annually, around the world.
HIGHLIGHT PERFORMANCES: Carnegie Hall, the Kennedy Center, Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival; the United Nations; and numerous TV appearances.
FAMILY LEGACY: The current director is tuba player Ben Jaffe, son of the founders.