Preservation Hall Jazz Band director Ben Jaffe is amazed he wrangled more than 20 artists to contribute to the band's latest release Preservation (RED). How did he do it? "I put something out on Twitter and got all these people to reply," he says. "I'm just kidding. You don't just get Pete Seeger to come to New Orleans, or Tom Waits. That was above and beyond anything that was going to happen in our lifetime."
Preservation, which will be out Fat Tuesday, features two years' worth of sessions with those artists and many others, all making their first-ever pilgrimage to the hallowed Hall. Also playing alongside the Preservation Hall Jazz Band are Andrew Bird, Ani DiFranco and Steve Earle, among others, with Waits performing the earliest recorded Mardi Gras anthem, "Tootie Ma Is a Big Fine Thing."
"I've always imagined collaborating with other artists for a project," Jaffe says. "Either we were sitting in on one of their shows or they sat in with ours. It was never an exchange of ideas, a chance for two bands to have a musical exchange. It's a rare thing, and so precious."
Artists contacted Jaffe to brainstorm — My Morning Jacket's Jim James texted with song ideas (ultimately choosing "Louisiana Fairytale," which he sang through a rusted megaphone funnel). Merle Haggard called to get the right key for the Preservation Hall staple "Basin Street Blues," a classic performed by Haggard's idols Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys. Sessions began with bluegrass pioneer Del McCoury for "After You've Gone," followed by Jason Isbell's blue-eyed soul on "Nobody Knows You." Richie Havens picks an acoustic guitar on the Richard M. Jones-penned blues standard "Trouble In Mind," and Clint Maedgen leads the Blind Boys of Alabama on the gospel of "There Is A Light." Seeger's banjo picking leads an uptempo "Blue Skies," recorded in the hall's courtyard.
The artists spent only one session each with the band, performing just a few takes — all live, with no overdubs, the way a jazz record would've been recorded in the 1940s. "Just, 'This is exactly who we are, this is what it's going to sound like when we play it live and when we play it on tape.' Nobody records like that anymore," Jaffe says. "But that's the only way we record."
Singer/songwriter Cory Chisel, who joins the band for an update of Bertha "Chippie" Hill's "Some Cold Rainy Day," says the band didn't need any practice for the stripped-down sessions. "They just set up four or five microphones, counted it in, the piano player decided what we wanted for the intro, and boom," he says. "That's just how they do it. Get it right the first time and make sure it's from the gut."
Jaffe didn't want to record an all-star benefit album the way RED Distribution originally intended. "What I thought was important was to create something that reflected the breadth of our history and how important our musical heritage is," he says. Jaffe convinced RED to send artists to New Orleans to record inside the hall. "Not every organization in New Orleans can get everyone to agree to this project," Jaffe says. "It's a testament to the institution Preservation Hall has become over the past five decades."
Preservation Hall opened in 1961 under the direction of Allan and Sandra Jaffe, Ben's parents. The building, constructed in 1750, is permanently worn-in and ragged, but "perfect," Chisel says. "I don't want to say time has been kind to it, because it's decayed, but it was exactly what I hoped it to be. It's the real thing."
"It reminded me of the first time I brought Clint," Jaffe says of escorting the artists into the hall. "Every artist was blown away that something like this can still exist."
Proceeds from the album benefit the Preservation Hall Music Outreach Program, which brings 300 students from school groups to the hall twice a week to "experience jazz the way it's always intended to be heard ... from a joyous, entertaining place where you're able to clap your hands and stomp your feet," Jaffe says. The hall also partnered with the Jazz & Heritage Foundation to create the Preservation Hall Junior Jazz and Heritage Band.
"My dad was very concerned about certain things disappearing," Jaffe says. "I saw it recently happen with the passing of our clarinetist Ralph Johnson. He knows 'Down by the Riverside,' what tempo to play that song at, what key to play it in ... and he knows that that's the song we play when we march into a church at a funeral procession. That's the focus of our junior jazz band — taking a group of students and giving them the opportunity to hear these stories and to experience it and stand by our side, and to let them know wherever the Preservation Hall band is, they're welcome."