Ben Jaffe, Preservation Hall co-director and current bassist for the band, hopes to permanently alter that perception with the release this week of three new CDs on the band's recently launched label, Preservation Hall Recordings. The label's debut albums include Best of the Early Years, a collection of remastered vintage recordings, including four previously unreleased tracks; Preservation Hall Hot 4 With Duke Dejan, a quartet featuring vocalist Harold "Duke" Dejan, the late leader of the Olympia Brass Band; and Shake That Thing, an anthology of tracks recorded in the Hall itself by current members of the band.
"We don't think of ourselves as a rep band trying to reenact an era that's gone by," Jaffe insists. "Preservation Hall is one of most honest reflections, musically, of this city -- this music was the pop music of its day. And up until now, our recordings have documented a phenomenon, but they haven't accurately reflected that this music is a living thing."
To fully appreciate Jaffe's conviction on this point -- and to understand how New Orleans jazz fits into the American pop music continuum -- one needed only to hear the brass bands playing their own swinging version of Outkast's latest hit, "I Like the Way you Move," at a recent second line for former Preservation Hall Band member Anthony "Tuba Fats" Lacen. (It's a typical New Orleans paradox that funerals frequently offer the greatest affirmation of jazz music's enduring vitality.) Lacen's vocals can be heard on two tracks from the Shake That Thing CD, "His Eye Is on the Sparrow" and "That Bucket's Got a Hole in It."
"It's fun to play jazz here -- but here, you can hear it anytime," says Jaffe, who grew up in the French Quarter, near the fabled music hall his parents, Allan and Saundra Jaffe, founded in 1961. "When we're performing outside of New Orleans, it's the one time a year those audiences can hear this music, and it's like a f--king rock concert, and we're U2."
Jaffe, along with label collaborators Steve DeBro and Albert Lee, hopes to parlay some of that popularity into a larger audience for the band's recorded music, which before now was generally only available through New Orleans retailers or on the venue Web site, or at the venue itself.
Throughout the 1970s, '80s and '90s, the Preservation Hall Band put out eight records on Sony Classical, two of them produced by Jaffe. While that relationship was a mostly amicable one, Jaffe believes the New York City-based label didn't always know how to promote the band -- and too often as a result, the larger retailers didn't know where to put them. "We'd end up between Pavarotti and Previn," Jaffe says, half-jokingly.
So instead of having people from outside New Orleans take only bits and pieces of their music, Jaffe reasoned, why not create a label for themselves? But the local jazz scene, despite its legions of adoring fans, offered precious few models for musicians seeking lasting commercial success. It was only after other local musicians from outside the genre started producing their own recordings and building a national audience that he became convinced the Preservation Hall Jazz Band ought to try and do the same.
"I started reading interviews with Ani DiFranco, and hearing about others in New Orleans who were making a go of it themselves -- it was people like her who inspired me to start thinking outside the box," he says. "At that time, before the industry changed so drastically, we weren't immediately able to do it ourselves. But now we're following their lead."
Because he had dual responsibilities as a performer and producer, Jaffe relied heavily on his sound engineer, Steve Reynolds of Ultrasonic Studios, with whom he worked on two of the three new releases, Shake That Thing and Preservation Hall Hot 4 With Duke Dejan. "He helped me to keep an open ear," Jaffe says. "These records are a real milestone for the band. When recording, the musicians are like actors -- they play their part, but they still won't know what the finished product is going to be, so they had to trust me. These guys all came up to bat, and they all hit home runs."
Jaffe credits his various non-New Orleans-based musical adventures with making him want to do more for New Orleans music.
"It was working with a group of people outside of New Orleans that opened not doors, really, but windows," Jaffe says. "Because when you're here on this island, you can't always see what the possibilities are. But the opportunities have always been there."