Preservation Hall Jazz Band Evolves, Slowly

There’s a sign on the wall inside of New Orleans’ Preservation Hall that announces the customary request fee for its illustrious house band to play songs from the sprawling NOLA songbook: $5 for traditionals, $10 for others, and $20 for “When the Saints Go Marching In.” There’s never been an explicitly assigned fee for Preservation Hall Jazz Band’s original works, but that’s because when founder Allan Jaffe put the sign up to deter tourists from requesting the only song most of them typically knew by name, there has never been an album of PHJB originals. That changed last summer, when PHJB released That’s It!, a record of all original compositions created under the guidance of current Preservation Hall director and bassist Ben Jaffe, and produced by PHJB ally Jim James, front man of My Morning Jacket.


The crux of That’s It! is that it sounds like it could very easily belong to the very canon of early jazz that Preservation Hall sought to preserve and promote when it was founded in 1961. Its title track is a torrid processional perfectly fit for tramping up Magazine Street, and “Rattlin’ Bones” is a tumbledown rag that reveres the macabre bedrock of holiday saturnalia. Jaffe doesn’t doubt that the idea of creating an original work ever occurred to his father in the near-quarter century that he shaped and guided the Hall’s mission, but ultimately there wasn’t a place for it within that mission. There was already too much unheard material to work with and too many unacknowledged musicians that needed to be heard outside of the city.

“When my father started the Hall, one of the amazing things about being alive then was that you could literally go see the originators of jazz. You could go see Big Jim Robinson, you could see George Lewis, you could see Punch Miller,” Jaffe said in a recent interview. “These were musicians who were alive during the birth of jazz, were part of its creation. When you have a 96-year-old bass player in your band, that is what he knows.”

Today, none of those originators are still living. Even 102-year-old Lionel Ferbos is still considered Second Wave. With Preservation Hall’s 50 th anniversary arriving last summer, there was an organic opportunity to evolve the mission beyond finding new ways to expertly interpret the canon. Jaffe credits James, who brought the Preservation Hall Jazz Band on tour with My Morning Jacket in 2010 and occasionally pops up in their live shows when the opportunity presents itself, with pushing them to create That’s It!

“For me having Jim’s perspective was enormous. It’s why people go to therapy. To have someone who understands your creativity, and he’s not afraid to explore that side of himself,” Jaffe added.

It might not have taken much goading, however. Preservation Hall had already primed itself to expand boundaries by hosting the Brassft Punk parties, an acoustic music tribute of dance music innovators Daft Punk by the house’s sound engineer Earl Scioneaux III. Shortly after the release of That’s It!, it would host another of Scioneaux’s parties, the release of his Madd Wikkid project’s mixtape, Don’t Tell Nobody. The scene inside was not something you’d expect inside Preservation Hall: Macbooks, mixers, solid dance beats, and samples of Mystikal and Lil Wayne set to Ernie K- Doe and Dr. John. These rare diversions are just that, even if they are becoming more common, but Jaffe understands that the songbook of New Orleans with which Preservation Hall is charged with caretaking reads in a descriptivist language, not a prescriptivist one.

“Even though our philosophy has remained the same, the mission has evolved. When you’re building a place that reflects the living history of New Orleans, as that history evolves you evolve,” Jaffe said. “I think youth culture is very important, you know. I mean, jazz grew out of youth culture. I have a daughter and I’m sure I’m not going to understand the music she’s listening to 10 years from now. That doesn’t take anything away from it or make it less valuable. In fact I think it makes it more valuable because that’s the future.”

He suggests it’s not entirely farfetched to believe that the Preservation Hall Jazz Band could be conjuring up instrumentals or Mystikal or Lil Wayne tracks when his daughter is at the Hall’s helm decades from now. The tropes that define traditional jazz are already deeply intertwined with the influences of the city’s most current musical progeny — Trombone Shorty, Kermit Ruffins, the Stooges Brass Band, etc. They’re an organization who committed themselves long ago to preserving the music that defines the city, in whatever shape it arrives. One thing won’t change, however — “Bouncing Back” might cost $10 to hear in 2054, but “Saints” will still cost you $20.