Ben Jaffe can quickly describe his life and times with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band.
“It’s an honor, it’s a privilege, it’s a dream — more like a fantasy,” said Jaffe, creative director and tuba player for the keepers of New Orleans’ musical heritage. “It’s a lot of responsibility, a lot of work, a lot of blood sweat and tears. It’s a lot of exhausted days and nights and weeks and months and years.”
Jaffe and his brother musicians will explain further Sunday afternoon, when the group plays the annual Freihofer’s Saratoga Jazz Festival at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center.
Twenty-two other acts have been booked for the two-day, two-stage event, which begins at noon both Saturday and Sunday. Saturday performers include David Sanborn and Bob James, the McCoy Tyner Quartet, Arturo Sandoval and the Gary Smulyan Quartet. On Sunday, Tony Bennett, Buddy Guy, Kevin Eubanks and the Chris Bergson Band will entertain.
Preservation Hall’s lineup of woodwinds, brass, strings, keys and percussion will take the main stage at 5 p.m.
Born to play
Jaffe, 42, was born into the business. His parents, Allan and Sandra Jaffe, formed the band in 1961 — naming it after the famous music venue in New Orleans’ French Quarter.
Freihofer’s Saratoga Jazz Festival
WHEN: Noon to 11 p.m. Saturday and Sunday,
WHERE: Saratoga Performing Arts Center, Route 50, Saratoga Springs
HOW MUCH: $80-$40. Kids, 12 and under, free on the lawn
MORE INFO: www.spac.org/events
The mission was simple then and remains simple today — bring New Orleans’ style of sometimes bold and bouncy, sometimes slow and somber jazz to the world. The band began touring in 1963, and Ben Jaffe is grateful for the chance to both lead and perform in the famous outfit.
“Every great thing I have in life is a result of me being a member of a community of people in New Orleans who have given me the greatest gift of life, and that’s this musical tradition,” said Jaffe, who joined the band the day after he graduated from Oberlin College in 1993, originally on bass guitar. “They’ve opened their arms to me and welcomed me to be part of it.”
With hundreds of songs in memory, jazz fans in Saratoga can expect to hear numbers such as “Tiger Rag,” “Georgia on My Mind,” “Bourbon Street Parade” and “Mood Indigo.”
“We’re not trying to recreate songs from 1928; we’re playing songs that we were taught by our grandparents, who lived in 1928. That’s a big difference,” Jaffe said. “We are direct descendants of the creators of jazz. There was no jazz before Jelly Roll Morton, King Oliver, Louis Armstrong, Sweet Emma Barrett. That’s who we take our lead from, that’s who we want to be like.”
Jaffe can point out another difference — one between bands that play New Orleans-style music but are not native Louisianans and bands whose musicians grew up with Cajun influences.
“You can’t describe a bowl of gumbo until you come down to New Orleans and eat it yourself,” Jaffe said. “I can tell you what goes in it, but there’s something else. I can tell you the music makes you dance and makes you feel good. It’s a very old tradition.”
Preservation Hall plays many outdoor festivals, and also spends evenings inside theaters. It can be a strange contrast.
“In the theaters, there’s a controlled environment,” Jaffe said. “At a festival, people are out there in shorts, having a good time and drinking, looking to be entertained and dance and move. It’s a different experience. You can hear the same exact thing in two different places and it will be a complete different experience. And it is for the band, as well.”
People may not hear much of the band’s somber side — such as funeral-style marches played on New Orleans’ streets.
“We’ve played some concerts where that made sense and was appropriate, and other times where it was not,” Jaffe said. “We take it very seriously, when we play something from a funeral march or a memorial event. We’ve played those songs our whole lives, we’ve played those songs for our grandparents, our parents and our relatives, so when we perform them, we feel very connected to them. When we perform them live, it has to be in an environment that respects the music, and sometimes, playing them outdoors and everybody’s rowdy, it may not be the right environment, the right time, the right place. Maybe the right time is in New Orleans, maybe they will encourage some people to come to the source and hear and experience them for themselves in New Orleans.”
And while Preservation Hall musicians have a respect for old pieces, Jaffe said musicians’ own compositions are equally important.
“Philosophically, I feel it’s a responsibility we have to our tradition,” he said, adding he does not want to see the band become a museum piece.
Personally, Jaffe prefers music that persuades people to leave their seats and use their feet.
“I like playing anything that gets people dancing,” he said. “We just played a huge festival outside Nashville called Bonnaroo, and we opened every one of our concerts with a New Orleans parade song, and from the beginning of the first beat of that song, people can’t resist getting up and dancing. That’s one of the things that brings me so much joy in life.”
Reach Gazette reporter Jeff Wilkin at 395-3124 or at [email protected]
More from The Daily Gazette: