Musical legends to join forces
By Lou Fancher
Once in a lifetime isn't a phrase to toss around indiscriminately, but occasionally, it's the best phrase to fit the bill.
When R&B legend Allen Toussaint and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band join forces at the Bankhead Theater on Nov. 20, expect a one-and-done sonic storm. And then, much like Hurricane Katrina in 2005 -- an event whose repercussions still tousle the New Orleans-based musicians -- their mighty winds will move on, leaving ripples and perhaps irrevocably changing a few lives.
Too grand a claim? Not really, because it happened to Ben Jaffe, the 40-year-old director of the 54-year-old jazz band, when he first encountered Toussaint in the 1970s.
Toussaint, the now 76-year-old American musician, songwriter and producer, was then on the U.S.S. President, appearing with other jazz luminaries while the ship was docked in New Orleans during the annual Jazz Fest.
"I was about nine-years-old," Jaffe said while on the road in Atlanta, "It was a nighttime show, way past my bedtime. Allen came onstage, and it was life-changing: I'd never heard anything like his melding of R&B, jazz and soul music."
For many musicians, not the least of which were the aging African-American jazz masters Preservation Hall was created to honor, collaborative melding is the very essence of their art form.
Jaffe's parents, Allan and Sandra Jaffe, set the stage in 1961 by opening their then-revolutionary club that brought together musicians and audiences of different races. Integrated entertainment in the Deep South was uncommon at that time and was even outlawed in Louisiana due to a 1956 law banning the practice. The band at Preservation Hall has performed at Carnegie Hall, the Lincoln Center and internationally. The multigenerational band's charter members performed with jazz pioneers such as Jelly Roll Morton and Louis Armstrong. The ancestral musical roots of current members date back to the 1850s.
Jaffe says that playing the tuba while performing with Toussaint and serving as Preservation Hall's director as he succeeds his parents in running the family business are rewarding and intimidating. With five decades of music to present in Livermore, he compares the show to a Motown review, moving from Preservation Hall's signature old-time jazz to piano solos to jazz standards to much-loved Toussaint favorites, like "Mother-in-Law," "Working in the Coal Mine," "A Certain Girl" and "Lipstick Traces."
Jaffe walks a tightrope, while leading a venerable operation whose musical masonry has strength like stone -- New Orleans jazz traditions dating back 100 years -- but also, a living organism he says must respond to and reflect current culture.
"It's like holding a gigantic pole and every step, you have to readjust your balance. Part of being an artist is that constant search for identity," he says.
The search has taken him into collaborations that have earned him accolades for preserving the cherished language of jazz and acrimonious reactions for straying into the land of hip-hop (Mos Def), gospel (Blind Boys of Alabama), rock (My Morning Jacket) and other genres.
"I always ask myself if my father and the musicians I grew up with would be proud of a project. Would they find it respectful of the tradition? It comes down to intent," Jaffe explains.
Peace of mind comes from 82-year-old clarinetist Charlie Gabriel's thumbs-up and "You're right on target." He says he doesn't want to be the guy who makes things for people who ride on horses right at the advent of the motor vehicle. "We're not a museum, we're a living, breathing organism," he says.
There isn't a collaboration he says Preservation Hall can't make better by being involved. With music's universal language providing community and connection, Jaffe is ever-mindful of Preservation Hall's birthright. He says by not "living in a bubble," barriers dissolve between German- and English-speaking musicians ("I don't know a lick of German, but I can understand it if they're talking about a piece of music," he says) and between musical traditions ranging from Fats Domino to Madonna to classical music to jazz music's best improvisation.
"The future collaborations I'm most interested in are with film, photography, dance, literature and other performing arts," he says. "Katrina is the bitter pill we've had to swallow. Out of tragedy, we've experienced renewal. When you lose everything and all you have is what you are wearing on your back, you reflect on life. For me, that was a new level of appreciation for New Orleans and what we have today."