Yuletide jazz in Beaver Creek
Vail, CO Colorado
BEAVER CREEK, Colorado – Tuba player Ben Jaffe defined each childhood Christmas season by its sounds. Growing up in as musical a city as New Orleans, that wasn’t too uncommon; it was even easier because his father, Allan Jaffe, ran the small, historically significant Preservation Hall and played tuba in its house band. Ben’s direct access to the city’s jazz lifeblood led to Yuletide performance opportunities early on. He fondly recalls playing the Christmas Eve midnight mass at Saint Louis Cathedral and strolling around the French Quarter with his father and a few other band members every holiday season, blowing jazz arrangements of familiar Christmas tunes.
“It was one of the most memorable experiences of my childhood – getting to go out and perform these songs with my dad,” said Ben, who now runs the multi-generational group (Allan Jaffe died in 1987).
Preservation Hall Jazz Band brings a continuation of Jaffe’s childhood experience to the Vilar Performing Arts Center in Beaver Creek tonight at 7:30 p.m. “Creole Christmas,” an annual Preservation Hall tradition, will include many of the same songs from Jaffe’s childhood alongside some clever newer arrangements – “Blue Christmas,” “Swinging in a Winter Wonderland” and “The Dreydel Song,” among others. Jaffe said there will be enough traditional New Orleans jazz – a polyphonic mix of clarinet, tuba, banjo and some more familiar jazz instruments famously played by Louis Armstrong and King Oliver – to bring listeners the experience of being in New Orleans for the holidays.
Jaffe, who celebrates his 40th birthday in January, is still making traditions, albeit customs tinged with a bit of regret. Very few jazz musicians (aside from, say, Wynton Marsalis) make any money from CD royalties, so artists who want to perform for a living have to tour at a nearly constant clip. This means Jaffe’s on the road with his bandmates for more than 150 days of the year, and that can get a bit stressful.
“It’s always a challenge to be away from home, to be away from your family. We are essentially professional athletes and spend our life on the road,” he said. “It definitely means that you have to have strong and encouraging family who understand and appreciate and support your lifestyle. You’re not always home for birthdays, and you’re not always home for events like Thanksgiving and New Years and Christmas.”
Whenever Jaffe takes Preservation Hall on the road, he encounters musical prejudice (The moniker “jazz” is a blessing and a curse, he said.). Frankly, some people hear the word jazz and turn off, refusing to even give the music a fair trial. Jaffe believes that if listeners can just get past the label, they would find a lively, rhythmic sound. Put simply, New Orleans jazz is historical dance music.
“A lot of people don’t even realize that New Orleans jazz was the popular music of the 1920s. This was music that you would go out and hear,” Jaffe said. “In a lot of ways it’s kind of like hip-hop. Louis Armstrong to me was the Jay Z of the 1920s.”
Unlike the sit-and-process music of the bebop era or some of the complicated harmonic movements found in modern and free jazz, New Orleans jazz is an easy-flowing, fun sound. In the ensemble, the clarinet has a sprightly, vivacious tone on up-tempo numbers, a perfect lead voice in a band filled with sounds not usually represented in the contemporary jazz landscape. At its core, New Orleans jazz is movement music; considering the penchant for overeating at the holidays, this aerobic sound is swinging through Eagle County just in time.
“It’s not uncommon for someone to get up and spontaneously start dancing in the middle of our shows,” Jaffe said. “When the Preservation Hall band is playing, it’s hard to get people to sit still.”
Jon Ross is a freelance music writer based in Atlanta. Send comments about this story to email@example.com.
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