I t’s been nearly five years since Hurricane Katrina devastated the city of New Orleans, but the impact is still felt by one of its best-known bands.
While the members of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band survived the natural disaster — as did its historic home, Preservation Hall — for a year no one came to New Orleans, which made it difficult for any band to make money.
“It dismantled our families,” PHJB director Ben Jaffe said of the hurricane. “It sent people across the United States.”
Given the band’s cultural significance in the city, several legendary artists — including Tom Waits, Richie Havens and Pete Seeger — recently recorded a benefit album, “Preservation,” to help finance repairs to the band’s 260-year-old home and its outreach programs. Meanwhile, indie rock band My Morning Jacket has invited PHJB to tour with the group beginning this spring.
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“This is going to be a lot of fun,” said My Morning Jacket drummer Patrick Hallahan. “I’m looking forward to some collaborative opportunities.”
Before PHJB tours with the indie rockers it will perform at the Clark Center in Arroyo Grande on Friday. There the group will share the musical tradition begun by Jaffe’s parents, Allan and Sandra Jaffe, who launched the band in the 1960s.
At the same time, audiences shouldn’t be surprised to hear newer influences in the band’s cadre of traditional jazz musicians, even if some of the guys in his band are decades older than their 38-year-old director.
“The first time the guys looked at me like I was crazy was when we did a Kinks cover, ‘It’s a Complicated Life,’ ” Jaffe said.
Jaffe was exposed early on to the New Orleans area’s culture, growing up near the Preservation Hall, a former tavern, photo studio and art gallery. In 1993, five years after his father died, Jaffe, a tuba player,
took over directing duties. After years of trying to find his own voice, Jaffe finally hit his stride, he said, a few years before the hurricane. Ever since, the band has been working to regain that momentum.
The benefit album — which also features hip in-die acts such as Ani
DiFranco and Andrew Bird — is a big move toward that goal. For that record, featuring mostly traditional songs, Jaffe had each of the guest artists travel to New Orleans so they could record in the historic hall, performing live with the PHJB.
“It’s kind of biblical to make the journey to the Temple of Jazz,” he said. “There’s something magical that happens when you’re in that place, and you can hear it in the tracks.”
Jaffe can tell you a story about each artist who performed in the tiny building, which hasn’t been painted at least during his lifetime.
After Richie Havens recorded, one of the PHJB members commented, “Man, you are one soulful brother,” Jaffe recalled. And Tom Waits told him the hall was “sacred, hallowed ground.” My Morning Jacket front man Jim James also recorded at the hall, using an old amp that hadn’t been used in 50 years.
When James saw the amp at the hall, Jaffe said, he asked to use it.
“It sparked, then it smoked, and then it came on,” Jaffe said.
The recording that resulted, “Louisiana Fairy-tale,” features some interesting background noises, Jaffe said.
“If you turn the track up high enough, you can hear the cars going in the background,” he said.
After all, the Preservation Hall has never featured air conditioning. So during recording sessions, the doors remained open, capturing traffic noises and garbage truck air brakes.
While recording, Jaffe and James found they had much in common.
“They struck up a pretty good friendship through that,” Hallahan said.
A year after James recorded there, Jaffe got a call from the band’s management, asking if the PHJB could tour with them, beginning April 20. While that will introduce the band to new audiences, performing on a rock tour won’t be a problem, Jaffe said.
“The older guys in the band don’t know who Jim James is or My Morning Jacket,” Jaffe said. “But they recognize good music.”
And good music is what Jaffe wants to come to mind when people in the rest of the world hear about New Orleans.
“I’m embarrassed that our city is known for the ‘Three Bs’—beer, beads and Bourbon Street,” he said. “My New Orleans is Louis Armstrong.”
Reach Patrick S. Pemberton at 781-7903.