Preservation Hall and Del McCoury bands merge jazz, bluegrass into 'Americana nirvana'
By John Mark Rafacz
Much of the history of American music in the last century can be told through two genres. Jazz, more often than not at home in urban settings, and bluegrass, an offspring of the country, might not seem like natural companions. Along with geography, race has often separated the musical styles. But in a new collaboration, Preservation Hall Jazz Band and The Del McCoury Band find a wealth of common musical ground.
The bands got together to record American Legacies, a collection of instrumental and vocal gems described as “Americana nirvana” by Glide Magazine.
“It started back in 2009 when I first met Mr. McCoury,” recalls Ben Jaffe, Preservation Hall creative director and tuba player. “He came to New Orleans to participate on an album we recorded called Preservation, which was a benefit album for our music outreach program. He came down and recorded a couple songs with us. It doesn’t happen often, or at least it does not happen often to me in life, where you meet somebody and immediately have a connection to that person, something unspoken. And I think the feeling was mutual for him, too.”
The iconic ensembles join to bring classics such as Hank Williams’ “Jambalaya,” the soulful “I’ll Fly Away,” and Crescent City standard “Milenberg Joys” — plus a rollicking hillbilly jazz original “Banjo Frisco” — to the concert stage when they kick off the Center for the Performing Arts season September 28 at Eisenhower Auditorium.
“American Legacies sounds exactly like you’d expect a joint album from Del McCoury Band and Preservation Hall Jazz Band to sound,” writes Bryan Rodgers in Glide. “It’s a riverboat full of rhythmically intoxicating Dixieland, blues, bluegrass, jazz, and gospel that draws heavily on standards.”
While jazz and bluegrass might seem like they have few similarities, the genres actually developed on parallel paths.
“We’re listening to two types of traditional music,” writes Brian Boyles in Offbeat, “that blossomed alongside each other in the first half of the twentieth century, nurtured by two different sets of poor folks — urban African Americans and rural whites — who shared a talent to swing and a fondness for celebration and mourning.”
Bluegrass musician and journalist Jon Weisberger, in the liner notes for American Legacies, asserts that the two musical styles are united in their respect for the past.
“Both jazz and bluegrass musicians are expected as a matter of course to serve apprenticeships, learning the history and traditions of their styles, emulating the legends who preceded them, and channeling their own originality and contributions through the forms and sounds those giants created. And so, whether one looks at Del McCoury’s service with the Father of Bluegrass, Bill Monroe, or the musical lineage of the members of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band — like the McCoury outfit, a multi-generational ensemble — the legacies of two profoundly American genres present themselves for our enjoyment.”
Despite the success of the joint recording, Jaffe says, some people still think jazz and bluegrass are an odd pairing.
“They think of bluegrass and jazz as like making a burrito out of Chinese food or something,” he says. “The more I learned about bluegrass, and the more that I understood about the music, and the more I got to know Del’s family, I was like, ‘Well, you all have very similar values and a very similar tradition that we have in New Orleans.’ The more both of us, me and the McCourys, explored the similarities and these threads that went through both of our musics, the more we realized that they really weren’t that different.”
On the album and in concert, the two bands fashion a hybrid musical style.
“A lot of times what I find is, when people do come together to collaborate, it’s a jazz band playing bluegrass, or it’s a bluegrass group playing jazz — instead of coming together and saying, ‘What is the role of each of these instruments, and where does our repertoire overlap?’ And that’s really what we explored,” Jaffe says. “We found all of this repertoire that we all shared in common — a lot of spirituals and hymns, a lot of blues, a lot of songs. I mean, it was amazing to me when we sat down to actually think about recording together, I started to learn from the McCourys that a lot of jazz standards are actually played by bluegrass groups.”
In some ways the collaboration is merely a contemporary spin on what bands have done for a long time.
“If you look at Miles Davis or any of the jazz greats, a lot of things that became jazz standards were taken from Broadway and popular music — Tin Pan Alley,” Jaffe says. “I look at early bluegrass music, I look at Bill Monroe, a lot of the songs he was playing or Earl Scruggs was playing were popular jazz songs of the day.”
“When I first started playing bluegrass, when I was just a kid, you know, I thought, well there’s no other music like bluegrass,” he says. “But, as years went by, I grew to realize, you know, all this music is related. It’s all akin.”
McCoury, who joined Monroe’s seminal Blue Grass Boys band in 1963, says the bluegrass pioneer learned plenty from jazz when he was young.
“People told me he used to go to New Orleans and stay there for a couple weeks and listen to people,” McCoury says, “which I didn’t know.”
While Preservation Hall performs the traditional music of New Orleans and Del McCoury’s repertoire has its roots in Appalachia, the two bands can also trace their history to southeastern Pennsylvania.
The late Allan Jaffe, who along with his wife Sandra founded Preservation Hall and its now famous band in the early 1960s, grew up in Pottsville. McCoury, meanwhile, was born two years after Allan Jaffe in York County.
“When I met Del a chill and a warmth came over me. I had wished that my dad were alive to have met him and to get to know him, because they’re cut from the same cloth,” Jaffe says. “You know, my dad was the son of a paint store owner. They owned a paint and wallpaper store down on Market Street in Pottsville, right across from the Coney Island hot dog stand. Those were great memories of growing up spending summers there with my grandparents. My dad went on to Valley Forge Military Academy. And not to take anything away from Penn State, but my dad went to the other Penn, and graduated from Wharton (School of Business), and ended up working at Gimbels in Philadelphia. And that’s where he met my mom, in Philadelphia. She grew up there, in Bala Cynwyd.”
On the way back from a trip to Mexico, Allan and Sandra Jaffe stopped in New Orleans. They visited a gallery in the French Quarter, which the owner said was for sale. Throwing caution to the wind, the Jaffes decided to buy it. There they opened what is now Preservation Hall and started a music business.
“It fascinates me. What is it that brought my parents to New Orleans, and what kept them here, and what were those things that influenced them?” Jaffe wonders. “I mean, how did a kid from Pottsville, Pennsylvania, end up embracing New Orleans music? What was the chain of events that took place in his life that lead them to New Orleans?”
Growing up in the cultural corridor that extends from Washington, D.C. to Boston, where numerous touring and local musicians performed jazz, influenced the Preservation Hall founders, Jaffe says.
“Thinking about what was happening in the ’50s when my dad was in college, coming out of high school, and the music that was being played on the radio, and the music that people were listening to, there was a jazz revival taking place at the time,” he says. “There were New Orleans-style bands that were playing up and down the East and West coasts — kind of what they called the revivalist bands that were playing in this older style by primarily white musicians.”
While Allan Jaffe was developing a love for New Orleans jazz, McCoury was growing up in York County and gaining an appreciation for the music of his Appalachian ancestors.
“A lot of my kin folks, you know, they moved from western North Carolina up there to Baltimore to work during the war. They brought their music with them. And my dad’s people all played old-time music, you know, like banjos and fiddles,” McCoury says.
“A lot of my first playing that I did was in Baltimore,” McCoury remembers. “We played those clubs ’cause Baltimore was a big bluegrass town in the ’50s and ’60s.”
Even though his father carried the tradition of Southern mountain music to Pennsylvania, McCoury didn’t learn music from his dad.
“My mom, she played piano, and she taught my older brother guitar chords, and I learned from him,” McCoury says.
“My brother taught me to play guitar, I think when I was about 9. He would sing, and he wanted somebody to play with him, ’cause he was a good guitar player and singer. He played on the radio in Hanover, P-A, there.”
In his early teens McCoury heard one of his brother’s recordings of Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs.
“When I heard Earl Scruggs play that banjo, I thought, Man, this is what I got to do. So I started learning to play, even though I didn’t have a banjo. We borrowed one. And then, I think, when I got out of high school and got a job, I bought one.”
McCoury played banjo for about a decade, but it was his breakthrough gig with Monroe that started him on his path to stardom as a bluegrass guitarist and singer.
“My first date with Bill Monroe was on banjo,” he says. “(But) he needed a guitar player and a lead singer, and I wound up doing that.”
Jaffe says the time spent with the McCourys — Del’s band also includes his sons Ronnie on mandolin and Rob on banjo — has been an education.
“It just made me realize that everything hasn’t been done,” he says. “There’s still music and there’s still things out there that are ready to be created.”
The bands plan to record a follow-up CD soon.
“After we recorded the first CD, we sort of looked at each other and went like, ‘Wow, we didn’t even get to half the songs we wanted to record.’ As we would record one song, we were like, ‘Oh wait, there’s this other song, and there’s this other song,’ ” Jaffe says. “This is something Ronnie McCoury and I talk about. This is something that could just go on and on forever, just like the old jazz albums where two or three times a year jazz players would put out records of standards. We’re like, ‘Wow, we’re creating like a new canon.’ ”
Artistic Viewpoints, an informal moderated discussion featuring a visiting artist, is offered in Eisenhower one hour before the concert and is free for ticket holders. Artistic Viewpoints seating is available on a first-arrival basis.