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New Orleans: Music in the Key of Joy

Ben Jaffe, leader of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, explains the city's rich musical heritage

Preservation Hall Jazz Band of New Orleans - from L to R: Ben Jaffe, Freddie Lonzo, Clint Maedgen, Charlie Gabriel, Joe Lastie Jr. Mark Braud, Rickie Monie

Preservation Hall Jazz Band, L to R, director Ben Jaffe, Freddie Lonzo, Clint Maedgen, Charlie Gabriel, Joe Lastie Jr. Mark Braud and Rickie Monie. — Photo by Clint Maedgen

For visitors looking to experience the city's diverse musical offerings, Jaffe has some insider advice.

"One of my favorite streets in New Orleans is Royal Street. On any given day there may be two or three bands busking — playing for tips — and they may be as good as any bands you'd hear anywhere in the world."

"My other favorite street is Chartres — it's a little more of a secret, untraveled street because it doesn't have as many businesses along it. One of my favorite things to do is to walk from Canal Street to Jackson Square on Chartres. It's like every block is a different neighborhood. As you approach Jackson Square, it feels like you're walking through a time machine to another era."

If you like a cocktail when you listen to music, and the music is on the street, that's not a problem in New Orleans. You're welcome to take your drink "to go," and Ben Jaffe often does.

"It's a great thing to stop at a place like K-Paul's [Paul Prudhomme's famous eatery] or to stop at the Napoleon House [another local institution] and to have something to eat and drink, and then go and listen to some music on Jackson Square."

While you stand there, drink in hand, you might keep in mind that New Orleans is still struggling back to a new normal after Hurricane Katrina. The Ellis Marsalis Center for Music in the New Orleans Musicians' Village is committed to maintaining and growing the city's musical heritage by providing music, cultural and educational programs for both children and adults.

The Preservation Hall Jazz Band has also staked its future on an educational effort to bring teen musicians into the world of jazz. Ben Jaffe explains that PHJB isn't trying to teach kids how to play, but rather to introduce them to the experiences and skills that can't be learned from books or even from recordings. Jaffe, a tuba player whose parents started the Preservation Hall band in a former art gallery in 1961, remembers how he learned the secrets of the New Orleans sound.

"It's like learning Grandma's recipe for red beans and rice — you put a pinch of this in, and a little bit of that, and I can't show you what this is, and maybe I'll show you that. We actually graduated our first class of musicians last year. And they came to perform with us at Carnegie Hall for our 50th anniversary. It's a beautiful and wonderful program."

You may also like: Tours of New Orleans show visitors its charms.

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video extra

In this preview for the third season of Treme, Wendell Pierce as Antoine Batiste is now a music teacher, and he's introducing a young student to the joys of traditional New Orleans jazz. The show's subject is the rebirth of New Orleans, especially as it grows from the bedrock of the city's jazz and culture. The new season premieres on September 23 on HBO.

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