If there’s one thing you don’t expect to see at Preservation Hall, it’s David Bowie—hundreds of David Bowies in fact, in every incarnation from Ziggy Stardust on up to Lazarus. That was the scene last year when the Hall hosted a second line in Bowie’s honor—arguably the greatest step beyond jazz tradition it’s ever taken. The crowds jammed the streets outside the Hall like it was a big rock show, leader Ben Jaffe obliged them by pointing speakers outside the balcony (and I saw some accidental humor when one poor soul tried to leave a parking space on St. Peter Street as the lyric “Watching some good friends screaming, let me out!” came over the speakers).
When the band arrived, one of the first to appear was clarinetist Charlie Gabriel—at 84 the senior member and a living link with New Orleans history. So it was both fitting and a little surreal that he led the band playing “Oh! You Pretty Things” as a funeral dirge. A cathartic celebration was had by all, and the music (if you could get through the crowds to hear it) was undeniably great. But the question, voiced by many at the time, was whether saluting a rock star—even a beloved and widely influential rock star—is what New Orleans’ most venerable jazz institution should be doing.
“I couldn’t imagine us not doing it,” says Ben Jaffe, the second-generation leader who’s guided the band to a new era. “I’m glad to be part of an operation that is continually growing and maturing, and part of that maturing is acknowledging great artists like Bowie who touched all of us, directly or indirectly. I can’t begin to think of all the little lines that connect Preservation Hall to Bowie—there was [friend and collaborator] Iggy Pop coming from Detroit, him and the MC5 hanging out with the guys who’d played with Miles Davis. And there’s the costumes and theatricality, which is a New Orleans thing. We did that with a permit for 75 people—that’s what we expected, before word got around and people started flying in from all over the country. This is how Bowie wanted to be immortalized—not with flowers in some apartment, but with theatrics and music.”
And if the purists are going to gripe, let ’em. As Jaffe points out, they always have in the past. “I understand people having a certain reaction to our music, and those are people who’ve grown up with it and don’t want it to change. A lot of times you don’t start liking something else in life—believe me, I know a lot of people like that. But New Orleans jazz has always sounded like a lot of different bands, there was Freddie Keppard and there was Bunk Johnson. Sometimes they think of New Orleans music as just one thing, and it never was. And that bothers me, the idea that your pace would just stop and you’d never get to hear anything new. You have to remember that even a song like ‘Bourbon Street Parade’ wasn’t always a standard, things evolve over time.”
The Bowie salute was one of many progressive moves that the band has made since bassist/tuba player Jaffe’s been in charge. He originally joined the band after the death of his father Allan in 1987 (Allan in turn began running the Hall in 1961), and gradually moved into a leadership role over the next decade. “To put things in perspective, when I joined as a member of the band, Willie and Percy Humphrey were still members of the band. After Willie and then Percy passed away, we were a band without a leader. Then there was Wendell Brunious [now leading his own band] who was next in line for that chair, and Narvin Kimball. And when Narvin passed something interesting happened which got less attention, which was the passing of the African-American banjo tradition—people have learned the instrument later in life, but now there wasn’t an unbroken line of banjo players.”
“So there was a lot of soul searching and what happened in the middle of this was Katrina,” he says. “And what happened was that everything in my mind became crystal clear. The idea that you can’t be something you’re not; that’s not being true to your art form. The music that Willie and Percy played was different from what Jelly Roll Morton played, which was different from what Buddy Bolden played. So it’s not like anything gets diluted—with every generation, the music becomes bigger.”
“My biggest fear for New Orleans isn’t for the music, because that’s a reflection of our community. I’m more fearful of the loss of cultural centers and not being able to protect those neighborhoods—when you can’t have a parade in the Treme, that’s a problem—and when New Orleans becomes unaffordable for the artists, the people who give it a flavor. But in terms of our musical future? I’m not worried about that at all, man. Not with all the young brass bands I’m hearing now.”
The PHJB actually began its rebooting before Katrina struck; one decisive move was covering the Ray Davies song “Complicated Life.” Musically speaking, it wasn’t that huge a step—as recorded on the Kinks’ Muswell Hillbillies it was already an homage to Dixieland jazz, and Davies was even living in the Quarter at the time of the Hall version. But it was the first time the band had ever done a song from the non–New Orleans rock repertoire; its singer Clint Maedgen was also one of the first band members with a foot in the rock and performance art worlds. A song choice like “Complicated Life” opened the Hall to a different world of music, bridging to projects like the 2010 album Preservation where they were joined by an all-star cast including Tom Waits, Ani DiFranco and My Morning Jacket’s Jim James, who’d become a frequent guest and collaborator. Some of those guests sat in with the band for a Carnegie Hall anniversary show the following year, and again at Jazz Fest in 2012.
Going back to the Kinks song, Jaffe says, “I was really keen on finding a song for Clint to sing, and I didn’t want it to be a New Orleans jazz standard—but I didn’t want to do some kitschy Top 40 song either. The Kinks started coming into focus because of [Davies’] presence in New Orleans; you’d hear that someone had run into him and that made you go home and start pulling out your albums. It was our first non–New Orleans rock song but my dad had his Beatles albums, and he always talked about doing ‘When I’m 64’—he wanted to make it ‘When I’m 84’ and have Percy sing it. And ‘Complicated Life’ had that beautiful film of Clint delivering food to us in the Quarter. I think that came at a time when everybody needed it.”
The real payoff in all this has been the PHJB’s rebirth as a recording band. The Preservation album had its ups and downs—Waits’ take on Danny Barker’s “Tootie Ma Is a Big Fine Thing” is quite rightly the track everybody knows—but it never felt like a forced crossover move. “It happened at a time [after Katrina] when people were bending over backward to make themselves available, and a lot of projects were being done. And I didn’t want to make a mediocre album, I wanted to make an amazing album, and I didn’t realize at the time how important that album was to me. It was the first time we came up with a concept and tried it out, and the concept was to bring 20 people to Preservation Hall to record with the band. If anyone asked to have a track sent to New York, we just said no. It had to be people who weren’t frightened of working in a live setting, and having two takes to get it right.”
It’s on the two recent studio albums—2013’s That’s It! and the new So It Is (both on Sony/Legacy)—where the current band has really blossomed. Both are the first all-original albums in the PHJB’s history, and the challenge of adding new material to the repertoire lights an obvious fire under the band. Notably both albums were done with rock-oriented producers—Jim James co-produced That’s It! with Jaffe, and TV on the Radio member Dave Sitek is the full producer on So It Is. That doesn’t mean there’s any rock in the mix, but it does mean the albums sound different: Instead of being presented as museum pieces they kick out of the speakers like any vivid, modern recording.
Three band members make their debut on the new album, with pianist Kyle Roussel, trumpeter Branden Lewis and drummer Walter Harris joining the old(er) guard of Jaffe, Gabriel, Maedgen and trombonist Ronell Johnson (Roussel replaces Rickie Monie who was another link to Hall history, having replaced Sweet Emma Barrett). It’s also a far more eclectic album than That’s It!, with the material (mostly written by Jaffe and Gabriel) taking their recent Cuba trip as a jumping-off point. It goes further than that, though: There’s funk, there’s classic New Orleans R&B, there’s a touch of pre-fusion Miles Davis. And there’s the advance single “Santiago,” the kind of song that’s infectious enough to loop in the non-jazz audience—indeed, Rolling Stone has already run a feature touting Sitek’s presence and that song in particular.
Sitek was the album’s wild card: Aside from being the guitarist in TV on the Radio, he’s produced the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and actress Scarlett Johansson, and remixed Beck and Nine Inch Nails, none of which gets anywhere near New Orleans jazz. But as far as Sitek was concerned, he was making a punk record. “That’s really the way I thought of it,” he said in a separate interview. “I wanted the sound to be dirty and gritty, and I was using words like bombastic and off the rails—crazy shit. Their music is joyful and rambunctious and to me, that’s punk.” Instead of recording at the Hall, they rehearsed it there and then did the tracking at one of Sitek’s favorite studios, the Sonic Ranch in El Paso.
In some respects Sitek’s production was quite traditional: All the performances are live, with no overdubs beyond voices and handclaps, and no flying-in of solos. “Yeah, those guys were ready to kill me because I made them play everything 16 or 17 times.” His personal tweaks happened largely in the recording process. “They were fairly certain they wanted to try something new. But what I said was, ‘Let’s try something really old, like recording you guys in the round.’ I was trying to capture the instruments and the way they interact with each other—it was really about getting up close and walking around in front of those horns incessantly. If you have a mike on the trumpet, can you make it so loud you catch the space around it? I wanted the brass to bounce off the wall—if it frightens me and it frightens the walls, let it frighten the microphones as well. Rather than put a lot of baffles between them, just let it all fly around. Only a maniac would do it that way, but I wanted you to press play and have it be right in your fucking face.”
Jaffe has every expectation that the album will get the Hall’s music out to newer and bigger audiences. “This record is really a genesis of our music. It’s been brewing since I was a kid, listening to the midnight reggae show on WWOZ. Hearing dub and saying, ‘Wow, what is this?’—and then going to Jazz Fest and being exposed to soca and King Sunny Ade. We’re lucky to have ’OZ in our backyard, but most stations are afraid to go that eclectic. And now some pretty influential stations are picking up on ‘Santiago’ as a single, and we’ll be playing the main stage at Coachella for the first time. So many more people are going to experience us, that’s what I’m predicting. They’ll find out that we’re a New Orleans jazz band, then they’ll go back and find out what that means. And if we lose the more traditional fans, so did Miles Davis when he came out with Kind of Blue.”
And if the mass audience can get its head around a New Orleans jazz album, so much the better. “Never mind their heads,” Jaffe shoots back. “I’m hoping they can get their booties around it.”