The Great American Rivers connect many things in this nation of ours. After the natural disasters of recent years, they provide a direct connection between Iowa, Omaha and New Orleans, home of The Preservation Hall Jazz Band.
New Orleans, Omaha and Iowa are now all too familiar with flooding. For the Crescent City, it was Hurricane Katrina that made an indelible mark. Omaha and the rest of the Midwest was hard hit in 2011, with new chapters being written as this article was being readied for publication.
There also is the Boys Town connection. Omaha, of course, is the site of the original home for youth, while New Orleans also has a campus, with the Southern site benefiting from the support of The Preservation Hall Jazz Band.
“We’ve been involved with Boys Town for many years,” said Ben Jaffe in an interview with The Reader. Jaffe learned jazz at the feet of the masters, including his parents who founded the band that he leads today.
As the two regions share a familiarity with floods, The Preservation Hall Jazz Band is no stranger to the Omaha area. They have performed here on multiple occasions, most recently on April 12 at the Holland Performing Arts Center.
The iconic American jazz ensemble plays Council Bluffs on June 8 as part of Loessfest and the Living With Floods series of concerts, which has them performing six Iowa shows as part of a flood awareness program sponsored by the University of Iowa. The band’s status provides them with a platform that can be used to bring awareness to causes.
“It’s something we’ve been involved with,” Jaffe said. “We’ve become synonymous with floods . . . There’s a sort of solidarity.”
Involved is an appropriate word with talking about Preservation Hall. Those who love and follow music know that New Orleans is not just any American city, but a place where music is part of the landscape, even the DNA of the population.
Jaffe said the musicians in Preservation Hall all were born in or grew up in musical families.
“There’s nothing to really compare us to,” he said. “There’s nothing quite like New Orleans . . . We’re all connected.”
It may seem as if the Preservation Hall Jazz Band has always been with us, and in reality, the ensemble has existed for 52 years. There are eight core members, occasionally supported by up to another seven players. Call it Dixieland or New Orleans Jazz, it is a mixture of melody and rhythm and improvisation sparked with humor and energy that could come from only one place on the planet.
Jaffe grew up in New Orleans, the son of the group’s co-founders, Allan and Sandra Jaffe. He was raised in the heart of the French Quarter and absorbed its culture. Preservation Hall is the name of the music venue where it all came together for the band.
He started playing bass in his school band at the age of 7, and learned his craft from school band director Walter Payton, later playing with the director’s son, Nicholas Payton in the All Star Brass Band.
In 1993, Jaffe graduated from Oberlin College. The next day he flew out to join the Preservation Hall Band as bassist on their world tour. As time passed, he assumed his late father’s role as Preservation Hall’s director. He also serves as an adjunct professor at his high school Alma Mater, the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts.
His music grew from traditional jazz repertoire and songs that only could have come from New Orleans, from clubs and churches. Blessed with parents like his, the young Jaffe was able to learn from the area’s jazz royalty, including Sweet Emma Barrett, William and Percy Humphrey, Louis Nelson, and Chester Zardis and dozens of others.
“We’re the inheritors of that, literally,” Jaffe said. “It’s a living and breathing reflection . . . of a music community.”
Music is such a part of New Orleans, he said, that it is difficult for a person living there to go through a day without experiencing some sort of musical performance. In New Orleans, Jaffe said, people are exposed to music prior to birth.
“No other city has that as a reference point,” he remarked. “In New Orleans, you have to try NOT to hear music . . . it’s on every street corner.”
Part of the group’s strength comes from its willingness to collaborate. One such recent project was with Preservation Hall’s work with The Del McCoury Band, a bluegrass ensemble.
Why, and how did that come about?
“Collaboration with other artists is essential to who we are,” Jaffe said. “You could argue we never would have jazz today if collaboration had never happened.”
Which is another of the amazing things about the music of New Orleans. When asked, Jaffe agreed that the music of his hometown, while taking many forms, all has an amazing naturalness to it – sounding as if it burst spontaneously from the souls of its creators. Music that comes from within a person and needs to be let loose, giving it an amazing honesty and credibility, as opposed to something concocted to gather attention.
That said, he isn’t about to share any secrets on how the magic is made.
“That’s like telling the recipe of your Mom’s red beans and rice,” he chuckled. “You tell them up to a point.
“I don’t profess to know why it happened here.”
The magic returns to the Metro area on Saturday.
The Preservation Hall Jazz Band performs a free concert 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, June 8, during Loessfest at Tom Hanafan River’s Edge Park in Council Bluffs For more information go to loessfest.com .