Jewish New Orleans jazz player looks back at legacy

Tuba player Ben Jaffe says time with legendary musicians as a child was like hearing grandparents’ Yiddish.

Preservation Hall in New Orleans 370 (photo credit: CTLiotta)
Preservation Hall in New Orleans 370
(photo credit: CTLiotta)
Growing up in New Orleans as the son of the man who turned a French Quarter art gallery into one of the longest-running and most-successful music venues in the world— Preservation Hall—Jewish tuba player Ben Jaffe had jazz running through his veins from a very early age.
Jaffe recalls in an interview with that spending time during his childhood with the legendary likes of Allen Toussaint, Pete Seeger, and the Creole duo of Billie and De De Pierce was like “going to your grandparents’ house and hearing them speak Yiddish.”
Despite his father Allan’s passing in 1987 and the near destruction of his home and his state-of-the-art recording studio during Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Jaffe continues to perform and promote his beloved Jazz in New Orleans and around the world.
As he prepares to release a Preservation Hall Jazz Band 50th anniversary box set on the Columbia/Legacy label in September, Jaffe found a few moments to reflect on his musical life thus far.
“I grew up around Preservation Hall,” Jaffe explains, reminiscing about days and nights spent with his father and local legends like the Humphrey Brothers, Walter Payton (father of Nicholas) and others. “If I wasn’t at home, I was at Preservation Hall two blocks away.”
When asked if he has any particular memories of his days in the Hall, Jaffe smiles and says, “Memories? My whole childhood is one big fairytale memory!”
In addition collaborating with members of his own band and their musical predecessors, Jaffe was privileged to go on gigs and tours with some of New Orleans’ (and the world’s) greatest creative powers.
“I was blessed to grow up around an incredible community of musicians and artists,” he says. In addition to having the sound of Yiddish—the “mamaloshen”—in his ear, Ben grew up at the knee of his tuba-playing father.
“I had the sound of bass in my [head] long before I started playing music,” explains the bass and tuba player who began playing at age 6 and performed in his first Mardi Gras parade with his father at 9.
When asked what else might have led him to his musical choices, Jaffe explains that he believes people “gravitate to instruments that reflect their personality.”
Perhaps this is why Jaffe has been able to remain so grounded despite the highs of fame and the lows of sadness that have befallen his family, his city, and his genre in recent years. In addition to mourning his father and his studio (which housed many of the Hall’s archives, some of which were thankfully saved and preserved on the new box set), Jaffe lost many friends in Katrina and has also seen how jazz as a whole has been slowly dying as clubs continue to close and radio stations continue to cut their jazz programming. That is why he continues to work so hard to maintain and preserve not only the legacy of the Hall (which, as its name attests, was created as a means of preserving the original sound of New Orleans Jazz), but also of the city.
While Katrina devastated much of his physical home, Jaffe is almost thankful for the hurricane that revealed the true heart and soul of the Crescent City. “I never knew how strong of a community we have in New Orleans until Hurricane Katrina,” he says, noting that, as the Hall has gone, so too has the city. “Preservation Hall is a reflection of New Orleans,” he suggests.
As the traditions of the Hall and of the city go so deep and stretch back so far, Jaffe sees it not only as a matter of pride, but as one of “responsibility” to care for and nourish his traditions and those of the music on which he and his family (immediate and far extended) was raised.
That is why, 50 years on, Jaffe gives the same heart and soul to the Hall and the music that his father and his many musical friends have and continue to give. “I want to pass on the tradition the older generation and the generations that came before me passed to me,” Jaffe says. “It’s important to me to pass on the musical traditions that I inherited. That’s the greatest gift in the world.”
Jaffe remains astonished by what the Hall and its legendary “house band” have meant to his city and the world. “It’s amazing how much joy the band has brought into the world,” he observes. “We are better people because of Preservation Hall.”