“It really started many years ago,” says Ben Jaffe, leader of New Orleans’ legendary Preservation Hall Jazz Band.
He could be speaking about the band created by his parents in 1963 to shine a light on New Orleans’ finest traditional jazz musicians. At the moment, though, he’s speaking about how he and his local heroes-turned-global-ambassadors found themselves in Cuba in 2015.
“For any musician, there are certain places you’re drawn to, a mecca. For us, Cuba is one of those places,” says Jaffe, who plays upright bass, tuba and percussion and serves as creative director of both the band and the Preservation Hall club in New Orleans’ French Quarter. “There’s no other place that mirrors the history and culture of New Orleans as Cuba. For political reasons, it’s been off-limits to us. We never had the right opportunity until the (2015) Havana Jazz Fest, and then we started putting pieces together.”
Those pieces were both musical and personal. Jaffe stresses the value of community in his band’s music, itself an outgrowth of New Orleans’ famously unique social life.
In Cuba, he tells Insider, “we focused on personal connections, because that’s what life is — exploring where our lives overlap. All of our experiences are universal. That’s one of those secrets that holds back progress.”
They first played on the Belle with friends My Morning Jacket during 2012’s Forecastle. The next year, for their 50th anniversary, Jaffe and Jacket leader Jim James produced the band’s first album of original songs, “That’s It!”
Approximately 50 people have been members of the ever-evolving band in 50-plus years, and they’ve collaborated with rock bands often — from the Grateful Dead in the 1960s to Arcade Fire recently. It’s part of the Jaffe family’s mission to honor the traditions of their music without limiting it to a novelty act, forever recreating the sounds of yesteryear.
It’s led them to test the limits of many types of folk music, sharing microphones with Tom Waits, the Blind Boys of Alabama, Foo Fighters and many more.
So it’s not surprising Jaffe led them to Cuba as soon as it become viable.
“New Orleans and Cuba have had a very long history. Until the embargo in the ’50s, they were trade partners,” he says. “There was a constant flow of people and culture and information. Cuban music influenced New Orleans music going back to in the mid-1800s.”
The history in Cuba is heavy, continues Jaffe. “There’s spirits and ghosts there. I scratch my head that the trade in humans from Africa — that out of that brutal act can come this beautiful expression: jazz, Cuban music. The trip changed the way we approach our music.”
Cuban musicians and fans showed their openness to the outsiders and received them warmly. Jaffe says it encouraged the band “to keep going, to push harder, go bigger. It’s real clear, especially in these political times — ‘What are you doing? You have a platform — what are you doing with it?’”
The New Orleanians, no strangers to struggle, were humbled by what they saw.
“You’re talking about a country that has suffered in ways that we don’t even know,” Jaffe says. “To go there and see they’re still suffering, simple needs aren’t being met — it eats at your soul. This thing we know in New Orleans, no matter what you’re given in life — Katrina, embargo — there’s something embedded in our DNA, a survival code. Part of that it is to turn to music and art and faith.”
At the same time, Jaffe emphasizes how much joy comes with that music, and art and faith.
“We want people to dance, have a good time,” he says, “but we want people to dance like in church — a religious experience.”
The band came home from the trip inspired and fired up. To ensure they captured the vitality of their new music, Jaffe hired another producer from the rock world to keep them focused on staying modern. TV on the Radio co-founder David Sitek helped shape “So It Is,” the new album, perhaps a necessary decision considering that Jaffe wrote much of the music with saxophonist and clarinetist Charlie Gabriel, who is 84 years old.
The current cross-generational lineup of seven includes three members who only joined within the past two years.
“New Orleans is this very rare place where those types of opportunities actually exist,” says Jaffe, who first performed live with this band when he was 3 years old, “where music is something that’s introduced in the womb. At a very young age, you’re exposed to this incredible community.”
Jaffe says their Cuban adventure brought a new level of seriousness to what they do. “It’s always been fun, but it has a purpose,” he was reminded. “It’s why we play music at funerals — it’s the ultimate honor.”
The Preservation Hall Jazz Band plays on the Belle of Louisville on Saturday, July 15, at 11 p.m. Admission is $25 and is for those 18 and older.