Interview: Spencer Moody from the Murder City Devils and Ben Jaffe from Preservation Hall

Photo by Brinkman

Preservation Hall is the kind of place that people describe as magic, as sacred, as singular, as a totem for jazz, community, collaboration. Utterly New Orleans. Musicians came through, brought their friends, never left. It has a courtyard, a cat, a foundation, an educational outreach program and a band. Our friend Ben Jaffe grew up in it — one block away, but within its walls, too. Today, he leads the Preservation Hall Band and is the Creative Director of the Hall, continuing the legacy organized by his parents in 1961. A lifelong New Orleans-native, he said trying to describe his city is like “trying to describe a color you haven’t seen.”

Here, Jaffe chats with Spencer Moody from The Murder City Devils — a Seattle-born noise hero and legendary maverick making music his own way for decades. These two artists featured in our 20th anniversary LP collection, a partnership with Sub Pop Records and Billykirk, and sat down for an inspired tête-à-tête about underground second lines, seeing yourself as part of an ecosystem and being brave enough to show up.

Their records, along with 8 others from Sub Pop’s catalog, correspond chronologically with each of the cities we call home. Housed in a custom Billykirk-designed Ace Hotel XX LP tote bag, it was sold out for a hot beat but is now available again, with all proceeds going to a trio of Seattle-based arts organizations: Arts Corps, Urban Artworks and Sanctuary Arts Center.

Preservation Hall

Spencer Moody:
It’s an honor to talk to you, I’m so stoked on what you do. It’s really cool.

Ben Jaffe:
Oh thanks man. I feel very blessed every day to play with the musicians I get to play with and just do what I get to do. Preservation Hall is a special thing and New Orleans is a special place. A lot of energy. 

SM:
Did you always know you were going to be the band director?

BJ:
Well, let’s put it this way: I didn’t really think I was going to be anything else.

If you grew up in the community that I grew up in, even by New Orleans’ standards, it’s not normal to have a father who’s a tuba player [laughs]. To have the parents I had, who were also involved with organizing Preservation Hall during segregation, and growing up in the French Quarter… I mean it was all perfectly normal to us, but as I got older — and really once I left New Orleans for a little while — I was like, “Oh my gosh, this is not normal.” This is not everybody’s reference point, growing up in the French Quarter and going to jazz funerals and hanging around Preservation Hall every night. Preservation Hall was like a block from our house, so I was there almost every day.

“…my rebellion was that I got into modern jazz.”

SM:
Did you study music?

BJ:
I went to High School for the Arts in New Orleans, and then I was really into modern jazz. It’s funny, most kids rebel against their parents, start a punk band, or a garage band, or whatever. At that time, that would have been the rebellious thing to do for my age. But my rebellion was that I got into modern jazz [laughs].

Ben Jaffe’s father

SM:
Who would that have been at the time? Herbie Hancock?

BJ:
At that time in the 80s, we were really inspired by people like Wynton Marsalis, who had just graduated from the same high school that we all went to. He was this young lion and had just won a Grammy for jazz and a Grammy for classical music, so we were all just wrapped up in his world. And we were all into Miles Davis and John Coltrane and Charlie Parker and Duke Ellington and Clifford Brown.

SM:
So when you say modern, you mean like 80s versions of mild electric drum behind it?

BJ:
You know, it’s funny, I’m gonna totally nerd out for a second with you on this.

SM:
Good.

BJ:
Because there were these divisions in the jazz community at that time. A lot of people felt that Miles in his later years — during his electric period and once he did On the Corner and Bitches Brew — had completely lost his mind and had turned his back on the jazz community. I thought it was just the natural sort of evolution from where he had always been. But people wanted him to be like 1950s Miles, wanted him to continue to play “So What” over and over again. He got so much shit from people for recording that album when it came out. I mean that album had a Fender Rhodes on it in the 1950s; there were songs on that album that would only have 2 chord progressions.

SM:
And it’s a very poppy time for jazz, kind of.

BJ:
Yeah.

SM:
So you never fell out of love with jazz? You love everything. Like, you don’t love every jazz song, but you’re not a snob.

BJ:
I am so not a music snob. I’m really about the person making the music. And where the music comes from, understanding what that person’s reference is. Is this person a righteous person? Are they making music for the right reasons? Are they communicating something? Do they have that special gift and have they spent time invested in their craft? That’s something that jazz musicians understand because it takes so many years just to become proficient in your instrument.

To be able to do the types of things that jazz musicians do — not just technically on your instrument, but also being able to develop the hearing that you need, to develop to be able to hear these very evolved tonalities. That’s something that we respect in musicians, people who spend time on their instrument. It gave me respect for people who spend time in the studio, and even songwriters. That’s a craft that I never really got to spend much time on because I was just trying to shred on my bass so much that I never really spent time on songwriting chops. And that didn’t happen until much later in life.

SM:
Yeah, but the stress is more on being awesome within the confines of the genre. As a jazz musician, it seems like you don’t need to write the songs to express and show the depth of your skill, because there’s inherent room within the form for the most part. Is that true?

BJ:
You’re right, exactly.

This is us. This is all of us. This is all of our energy.

SM:
Was it hard for you as a songwriter knowing where to start?

BJ:
The lyrics and the poetry, writing chord changes, I mean, if I sat down on a piano right now… It happened to me the other day. I had a morning off, I sat down and I played piano for about an hour and just popped out like five songs. Just one of those moments. It was a beautiful day, the sun was shining. I turned on my iPhone and just knocked it out. I just started hearing all these chords and playing these progressions, and hearing melodies on top of it. And that’s usually what I hear, I usually hear rhythm, I hear chord changes, chord progressions. Sometimes I’ll hear a melody and figure out the chord that goes underneath the melody. And then, for me personally, it’s the lyrics that come last. To me, that’s the magic of someone like a Bob Dylan. I just get frozen when it comes to lyrics. I even have trouble remembering the lyrics when I sing. It doesn’t come naturally to me. Some people amaze me when I see them go up on stage and rattle off twenty songs. I’m just like, “God, I can’t even remember ‘Jingle Bells.’” I’m not bullshitting you. My daughter gets mad at me cause we have this routine where we have songs that I sing to her at night like, “You are My Sunshine,” “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” and “Itsy Bitsy Spider” and I can’t fuckin’ remember the words to those songs!

SM:
It’s just a different part of your brain.

BJ:
I really have to focus really, really hard on lyrics. I have to put all of my intent onto lyrics. I’m amazed by people like yourself who can write lyrics and it’s natural. Not that it ever becomes necessarily easy, but it’s part of your DNA.

“Not that it ever becomes necessarily easy, but it’s part of your DNA.”

SM:
Well you know, the thing is, I’m horrendous at singing the lyrics the right way in the right order in a live environment. I’m horrible at it!

BJ:
[laughs]

SM:
And my whole deal, being on stage, is sort of trying to figure out ways to compensate. It’s easier for me to go up on stage and just make shit up than it is to do something that I’ve done hundreds of times or whatever. I don’t know where it is in my brain.

BJ:
I’m fascinated by this. Do you have a problem remembering lyrics or do you like the energy and the freedom of being able to sing what you’re feeling in that moment?

SM:
No, I would much rather be able to trust in my ability to properly remember the lyrics, because then I would have the freedom within that to fuck around in other ways. I feel like what you want is: you master the thing and then it’s there, it’s locked in, and then you can move on from that point. But I never got past that, no matter how many times I do the same thing, it’s like the first time every time. I’ve never been able to push through beginner status in some ways or whatever. It never mattered. And now, all of a sudden, the audience is bigger and there’s more expectation, but we just played in little basements with no PAs for a long time, and no one knew what you were saying anyways. 

When I knew I was going to talk to you, because you are a highly skilled person who has to be able to operate on a certain level — just to be able to be on the stage with the people that you’re playing with, and I come from a very different place — one thing that I thought was maybe there’s a similarity. When I started playing music, it was in punk bands in basements, and most of the people were also in bands, and everyone danced and acted crazy. It was a participatory environment. There’s no stage — everyone’s standing at the same level. Not unlike when you’re marching down the street and there’s a party going on, and, whether they have an instrument or not, everyone’s participating. And you’re kind of going on this energy that you created but you don’t have to sustain the energy the whole time, you just have to keep up with it. And now, all of a sudden, you’re on a big stage and people are sitting in chairs, and they’re not participating, they’re voyeurs. How is that transition for you guys?

The Murder City Devils

BJ:
Yeah, that’s really interesting.

“We understand that this is a language that we speak in New Orleans.”

SM:
‘Cause I find it fucking horrible to have to try to create something out of nothing. When what you want to convey is, “This is us. This is all of us. This is all of our energy.”

BJ:
A lot of artists struggle with this. You know, there’s this protocol that you don’t even have to talk about. I mean, just like at a punk show, if you’re standing up front, you know where the mosh pit’s gonna be. You sorta know. Those underground scenes, you know the lay of the land. The same thing goes for New Orleans music, particularly the brass band tradition in New Orleans. There’s a protocol to it, just like the punk scene. You would never get so close to the band, unless you had been doing this for a long time. Like you could get injured, or you would just kind of get pushed out. If you weren’t bringing the right energy, if you weren’t dancing, if you were like the new kid on the block. You’d just get pushed off to the side and you’d end up back on the sidewalk again. Not in a mean way, you just don’t know the lay of the land yet. We use that energy when we play on stages, you know.

We understand that this is a language that we speak in New Orleans. That became really apparent to me, particularly after Hurricane Katrina. I realized that we were becoming more and more like missionaries for this thing that happened in New Orleans, that was so beautiful that we were so blessed to have grown up with this community. There’s this communal dancing party that goes down the street in New Orleans — we call it a second line — and just like the punk scene, there’s these underground second lines that go on around the city that you kind of have to be in the know to find. You kind of have to know people when you go there, or you have to be brave enough, or just curious enough, or sincere enough, to show up one day and join in. It’s sort of celebrating that. Instead of looking at it as an obstacle at our shows, we’re able to bring that energy to the stage. And then not feeling like we’re like animals at the zoo, feeling like we are just being stared at.

SM:
That’s the privilege of being Miles Davis, is you can just turn your back.

BJ:
Yeah, you just go inwards. What you’re talking about now is this evolution of the musician. From musician to missionary. And that comes with age and time. I can tell you this: I was so fortunate to have grown up the way I did and seeing the role that music plays in church, in our community and in our social life in New Orleans. You’re gonna find ten-year-olds listening to the same music that their grandparents are listening to, or their great grandparents or their parents. And of course, this is an African American tradition that I’m talking about. It adds just a whole ‘nother layer of complication, when you’re taking this experience outside of it. Or, you know, you could also just not give a shit and just do what you always do and just let the people figure it out. 

SM:
Yeah, certainly. But that’s a privilege. There’s an economic element because it’s an extremely privileged place to be to be able to say, take it or leave it, you know what I mean? I’m sure something you learned from your parents is that you gotta keep the lights on one way or another. 

BJ:
Yeah that was very important. You know, man, my dad was really brilliant in that way. He was a business person. And even though he became a musician, in some ways, my dad kind of served the same role that somebody like Bill Graham served up in San Francisco. 

“It’s super punk. Everything they did was DIY and super punk.”

SM:
Was he a really good tuba player?

BJ:
I mean, he wasn’t awful and he wasn’t a slack either. But my dad wasn’t getting up on stage and playing a crazy tuba solo. My dad was very much about the fundamentals of music. He was kind of like a reggae bass player — he held down the bottom. Was he Jacko Pastori on the tuba? No, that wasn’t what he was about. He was steadfast in his role in the band. By the time he discovered Miles Davis and bebop, it was like, what the hell is he gonna do as a tuba player in that world. And as you know, the only thing harder than making a living being a musician is making a living being a jazz musician. How do you do that? So my parents were very ingenious and very naive in the things that they created.

My dad was very steadfast on Preservation Hall being able to support itself and being able to provide a career for musicians. Today, it would have been a foundation — people would apply for grants and would have done like fundraising. But they did it as a commercial endeavor and found a way to make it successful. It’s super punk. Everything they did was DIY and super punk. Moving to New Orleans, being two Jews, opening up a venue that celebrated African American music at a time of segregation. They spent time in jail and court because of the defiance. And it wasn’t so much defiance as it was — defiance is the wrong word, it was because of their conviction.

SM:
Yeah, cause they weren’t doing anything wrong.

BJ:
Yeah, exactly.

SM:
They’re not doing anything wrong. Was there a breaking point, was there an event that happened and then the cops stopped harassing and busting people for going outside of their race and for co-mingling in New Orleans?

BJ:
The French Quarter was a little bit lenient when it came to race relations because of all of the service industry jobs and bars and dance halls and venues that were in the French Quarter at that time. My parents weren’t the ones to go shove something in somebody’s face. What they did they did very quietly and it wasn’t exactly subversive.

SM:
But it is subversive to just do what you want to do, the way you want to do it, and ignore the forces that are going to have a problem with it. They were sticking their necks out, so that’s what’s subversive.

“We were just doing what felt was the right thing to do.”

BJ:
I was thinking about conversations that I’ve had with my mom where she says, “We were just doing what felt was the right thing to do. We fell in love with this community of musicians and were shocked and surprised that the musicians whose records we owned were alive and living and able to still play, so the obvious thing for us was to provide a stage for them to perform on.” They weren’t thinking, “Oh, we’re breaking down racial barriers, we’re doing this.” They were thinking, “Oh my god this is an amazing music community, let’s just have them play here.” It was done for the right reasons, it wasn’t headlines. Because of that, they didn’t attract a lot of attention. They just very quietly existed under the radar. When residents would complain or the cops would come in and you know, my mom and dad would have to go into court.

SM:
What would they call that, a noise thing?

BJ:
It was actually a law on the books at that time, fraternizing law — blacks and whites weren’t allowed to fraternize.

SM:
So it was explicit, totally explicit.

BJ:
Yeah, totally. A white man and a black man could not walk into a restaurant together, in most restaurants they cannot walk in and have a drink together. It was only in these very, very limited spaces, that were in the French Quarter where that was happening. And Preservation Hall was that one space in the French Quarter that actually had an open door policy, and encouraged people of all races to attend. And it became known as such.

SM:
Was there a queer element also?

BJ:
The French Quarter was kind of where the fringes of society can feel mainstream. Again, it wasn’t something that anybody wore on their sleeve out loud. But there were predominantly gay bars a block from Preservation Hall so everybody was intermingling together. Poets, writers, photographers, dancers, artists, visual artists, filmmakers, printmakers. 

SM:
Would your parents have considered themselves beatniks? Maybe not that word, but was that their kind of thing?

BJ:
Because my dad was an Ivy Leaguer, he couldn’t really ever completely commit to the sort of bohemian beatnik thing. Because he had this military background — even though he wasn’t like Joe Military, he was always very politically left — he had a certain discipline about him and I don’t think he fully got with the whole “free love” thing that was happening in the 60s. The Grateful Dead were all a little bit younger than him, so they all sort of looked up to him. My dad thought of himself as more of an Alan Lomax sort of person. He was always the guy that could go stand before the city council. He was always like a proper looking guy who they could send into any situation. He was in service to all of the beatniks and bohemians and hippies and musicians. Those were the people that he served. But him and my mom were definitely not in that Kerouac world. They knew Bukowski, but they weren’t Bukowski.

SM:
Yeah, its a certain type of squareness that’s really endearing and really cool.

BJ:
Yeah, exactly and there’s a need for that too.

Preservation Hall Jazz Band. Photo by Josh Goleman

SM:
What a life it must have been, to be a conduit between the past and today. You had a connection to these people that were old when you were a kid.

BJ:
I feel like by the time I was 17, I already lived like two lifetimes because of the musicians that I’d grown up around. I’ve always loved being around older people. I feel like that’s where the wisdom is, you know? When I joined the band when I was 22, I was the youngest member of the band by something like 48 years —  the next person was like 73 or something. The oldest member at that time was like 91. My role then was very different than what my role is today. Then it was just caring for these musicians the way that my parents did when they came to New Orleans. It wasn’t really until Hurricane Katrina that this next big evolution happened for the Hall.

SM:
Was that mostly just an increased sense of responsibility to the city? To the musicians that lost their homes?

“It’s like you get to go to the hub of the wheel, and God knows where it takes you, but it’s a beautiful place to get to.”

BJ:
Yeah. At that point, you start seeing yourself as part of an ecosystem. The musicians at the Hall have families and the families go to school. The teachers have to have doctors, and the doctors need to go to church, and the church has to have restaurants and places to eat and musicians to play and people to fix things. You’re just living day-to-day. And it was like that for seven or eight years — just one foot in front of the other every day. You just keep moving forward and addressing the needs of your community.

SM:
What was your memory of being a kid and the race relations in the neighborhood you grew up in and your relationship to that? I don’t know if race relations is the right word to use, but the continued prevalence of racism and less opportunities for non-white people and aggression from the police. I would think that you might have an awareness of that that would be greater than the average person and certainly the average white person.

BJ:
Yeah, it’s interesting. New Orleans’ relationship with race is different than every other city in this country. The only time that we felt that we were visiting a place that we could relate to was Cuba and Haiti and parts of Brazil. We could relate to race relations in those countries, because it’s not black and white. It’s all of these shades in-between. It’s not just one line, it’s multiple lines. That makes for very interesting dynamics sometimes, particularly in New Orleans. You have families who have Creole families and black families and white families that all have relatives of all those races. It’s kind of like New York in a way where people get along because they have to. They have to get along, we’re all on top of each other so we have to get along. There’s sort of an unwritten rule that we just have to get along.

And that would drive me crazy just living on top of each other like that, but New Orleans doesn’t make sense to most people. Cornel West actually told me one time — I ran into a friend of mine and we were talking — and he said, “So you’re from New Orleans!” And he said, “I had an aunt, she lived in the French Quarter and I would go visit her in the summers and those were my fondest memories of my childhood. Don’t let anybody tell you any different — New Orleans is so far ahead of everybody else.” And I didn’t really understand. He wasn’t pointing all the things that were wrong with the city, he was acknowledging the things that were right about the city.

And that’s more how I was raised. I was almost raised colorblind in some ways, just one of those things that I really wasn’t aware of until much later in life. Not until I was in college and left New Orleans for a little while, and started talking to people and realizing, “Wow, this is really messed up.” You didn’t realize how messed up it really was. The racial divide was so much stronger in other cities. And I guess also just having parents who were so involved directly and indirectly in the civil rights movement, and so involved in social justice and equality. You just think that everybody’s into that. It’s what you’re surrounded by.

SM:
Yeah, and the education they wanted you to have, I assume, musically but much more than that.

BJ:
My parents were involved in helping to establish what would have been a charter school today, but with a public school then, and they convinced the public school systems to bring in a principle from out of town and they created what we call today “multiculturalism.” Or an emphasis on the arts, and they created this public school in the French Quarter that became a magnet school for the arts community. That’s where I was raised and went to school. The racial makeup of the school kind of set a standard for the diversity of schools in New Orleans today. There is incredible diversity. That is something about New Orleans that I’m very proud of — the diversity at the school level is something that is celebrated.

But still, the issues of poverty in the black community and how that affects schooling in particular neighborhoods of New Orleans. That is part of the post-Katrina gentrification of our cities and how people are getting pushed further and further out onto the fringes of society. I think that’s something that we all feel in all big cities around the country. We are all witnessing that.

BJ:
Have you been down to New Orleans?

SM:
Barely. A couple of times in my life, and never with a local really. I’ve never seen the real side of the city. 

BJ:
I think we need you to see the city from the inside out.

SM:
I’ll try to do it. And if I do, I will be at Preservation Hall every night.

BJ:
It’s an incredible stepping off point. It’s like you get to go to the hub of the wheel, and God knows where it takes you, but it’s a beautiful place to get to. It’s like trying to describe a color you haven’t seen. It’s something that really has to be experienced.


This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.