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What Makes New Orleans a Jazz Mecca?

How New Orleans’ jazz community came back from Katrina swingin’.

Benoit Rousseau

Sitting backstage before the Preservation Hall Jazz Band closed the 2016 Montreal Jazz Festival, bandleader Ben Jaffe relaxed in a starkly empty dressing room. The soundcheck had run long — wireless mics were acting up — but as the rest of the band headed out for a quick bite to eat, the 45-year-old bassist and tuba player took a moment shed light on the history of New Orleans jazz. Jaffe’s gaze was relaxed, shaded by blue-lensed glasses, but he was quick to point out the misconceptions from many people interested in the genre. “People are focused on the music, and it’s not the music, it’s the musical families,” said Jaffe. “It’s the line that you draw through it. What is the connection from today to then, and what’s the connection from today to tomorrow?”

Jaffe’s father started the New Orleans-based Preservation Hall Jazz Band in the early ‘60s, one of the first white musicians to openly perform with black musicians. The band was formed to preserve and further the traditions of New Orleans jazz, a style that draws more on musical traditions of the Caribbean and West Africa than other jazz styles. To protect that heritage, traditions were passed from one band member to the next, creating a lineage of players. “That’s what’s important to me,” said Jaffe. “And emphasizing that aspect of our tradition is what will ensure its future.”

Jaffe was raised in the French Quarter, and grew up steeped in the New Orleans jazz community. After attending Oberlin College for a degree in music, Jaffe returned to Louisiana to lead the band into the new millennium. In 2006, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band was awarded the National Medal of Arts, the most prestigious honor given for achievement in the arts. Under Jaffe’s leadership, the band released their 31st album in 2013, their first album of all-original material, titled That’s It. The band is legendary in the jazz pantheon, and has shepherded New Orleans jazz into a new era, staying true to their roots while making new musical statements. “Instead of us interpreting music I wanted to find compositions that reflected the personality of all of the band members and something that captured the energy of where the band is today,” said Jaffe.

Q: What inspires you musically?
A: I’m inspired by regional music, and particularly regional African music from the west coast of Africa, particularly the Congo and Nigeria and the regions that were where most of the Africans who were sold into slavery were from originally. There’s something about that diaspora and how it made its way across the ocean, through the West Indies and through Haiti and through Cuba to New Orleans. The rhythms, and harmonies, and religious traditions melded with these French Catholic traditions, and these Spanish rhythmic/melodic traditions, and emerged as this very unique style of jazz — New Orleans jazz.

Q: What is unique about New Orleans jazz?
A: New York jazz didn’t originate from New Orleans jazz. That’s something that lots of people who understand jazz don’t understand: that New Orleans jazz didn’t beget Duke Ellington, Duke Ellington didn’t necessarily beget something else. They happened simultaneously almost in different parts of the country, and New Orleans music was just like Havana or Port-au-Prince or Cartagena — the musical traditions in all these places happened in a vacuum, surrounded by water.

New Orleans is an island, a lot of people don’t realize that. But we’re completely surrounded by an estuary on the north, the Gulf of Mexico on our south, and swamps and waterways. Cuba, Jamaica, Haiti, the whole Gulf Rim: we have more in common with those cultures than we do with anywhere else in the United States. There’s no other city that has those overlapping cultures. That’s something we’re still discovering as a band — our history.

Q: So you draw inspiration from looking back?
A: Oh my god yes. If you listen to Jelly Roll Morton and you listen to Professor Longhair, you’ll hear a heavy Spanish rhythmic and melodic thread that is part of their music. And Jelly Roll Morton always talks about the Spanish Tinge — that little sprinkle, the Spanish mojo, the little thing exists that makes New Orleans jazz, New Orleans jazz. I heard it, but didn’t understand what he was really talking about.

And then, you go back to the 1850s and you look at New Orleans, and there’s Louis Moreau Gottshalk. At that time he would have been on the top-ten charts of American music composers — his songs were the hottest things; he was a real ladies’ man, with the thousand-dollar diamond pins; he was a classical composer who traveled to Cuba. And in Cuba he composed a piece called the Bamboule, which is a rhythmic pattern that you find in most new orleans music. But the Bamboule came to us from Africa, probably through Cuba. Gottshalk alone brought that rhythm with him back to New Orleans. There’s no doubt in my mind that that’s one of the ways that African rhythms, then reinterpreted through a Spanish lens, then came to New Orleans. It doesn’t take much for one song to change everything.

Q: How does the New Orleans jazz community differ from other jazz communities?

A: The New Orleans jazz community is unlike any other scene that I’ve experienced anywhere. There’s a reason why New Orleans is so rich in music, and why musicians stay there, and why music has been passed on, as a career, from generation to generation. It’s not just one or two musical opportunities, it’s not just a “go to Nashville and hope you write a song that gets recorded by Taylor Swift.” It’s working musicians going out and playing gigs to appreciative audiences.

And jazz in New Orleans is something that is woven into the culture of our city and traditions of our city. Having music at your funeral — an African-American tradition — to accompany the procession, is one of the greatest honors that you can receive. Also, every Sunday about 46 times per year, there’s a parade that a different African-American social aid and pleasure club sponsors. These aren’t things that are announced to the general public, and you’re going to see this community of people who go to every one of these parades. It’s kind of like going to your favorite bar and seeing all your favorite people.

Q: How have things changed after Katrina?
A: The hurricane had lots of interesting impacts on our community. New Orleans is, interestingly, in some ways better off today than we were 11 years ago. Then in other ways, there are parts of our community that we’ve lost and that are not going to return. With all of this growth and advancement in our city, traditionally African-American neighborhoods are being taken over. And that’s hard to watch happen because the people who are getting pushed out are the ones that are some of the most important pillars of our cultural community.

There was a period where our future was very uncertain, and we, individually and communally, began a process of understanding exactly how important these traditions are — because it’s not something physical, it’s not something you can pick up and look at and sell or pass on, it’s a tradition that your ancestors passed on to you. And now you’re the custodian of that tradition. And that was something that all of us, as a collective and individually, had an epiphany about at some point — that we are the custodians of this tradition, and it’s our responsibility to ensure that the city comes back in a way that celebrates those traditions in an important way.”

New Orleans Jazz Listening
Jelly Roll Morton:

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Louis Armstrong:

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Professor Longhair:

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Preservation Hall Jazz Band:

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Dirty Dozen Brass Band:

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