Were it not for my believing that something really special was about to happen, I would not have been at Preservation Hall on this Sunday evening. I am guilty of having dismissed the hall as a place for tourists wanting to merely hear the Dixieland standards. The more affluent among them might be willing to shill out the few extra bucks that, a sign says, it costs to hear the band play “The Saints.”
This night would be different though. There was nothing at all standard about what was going to happen on the hall’s tiny stage.
A day earlier at the 2011 Jazz Fest, I was in the crowd at the Lagniappe Stage listening, and moving, to the Del McCoury Band, perhaps the greatest contemporary bluegrass group. At one point, and to my surprise, McCoury brought to the stage Ben Jaffe – the co-manager of Preservation Hall, the place that his father, Alan, founded. Jaffe plays the tuba (okay, the sousaphone) and joined in with McCoury’s all-string band for a couple of songs. To my greater surprise, McCoury announced that he and his guys would be appearing with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band the following evening.
It does not take much for there to be “standing room only” at Preservation Hall. A couple of chunky people or a mid-sized family can quickly absorb the limited seating along the front row. Everyone else stands, including the couple next to me who were there because it was their anniversary and they had visited the hall on their honeymoon 20 years earlier. They were there for the memories not for the event having never heard of McCoury.
Others knew: Jazz and Bluegrass are two of America’s great music forms, each honed in a great southern city, but with a difference. Jazz evolved in New Orleans but was named in Chicago. Bluegrass evolved in the southern mountains, but was named in Nashville. Each city would provide the stage and the characters for their respective music form to find audiences, though seldom have the music or the audiences, blended.
That changed this night as fiddle and mandolin joined with saxophone and trumpet. The performance was at its finest during one song in which each musician had his own solo. The gap between the music from the hills and the sounds from below sea level was non-existent. The pairings seemed natural.
All of the musicians have played before bigger houses, but I suspect it was the event more than the capacity that drove them.
Members of McCourys band always wear suits with ties when they play, as they did at the Jazz Fest and again on the humid stage of the hall. Like the Preservation Hall musicians they are their art’s ambassadors and by their presence show that there is a dignity to their music.
I worried that the experience would be lost forever, evaporated in ephemera and remembered only by those who were there, not including the anniversary couple who left early. So I was glad to see Nick Spitzer whose “American Roots” radio show keeps track of such moments and who said that the event had been recorded for broadcast. Yes, this night needed to be saved.
According to McCoury, credit for the event went to Jaffe who had gone to Nashville to meet him and who the bandleader had invited to the Grand Ole Opry. “It was the first time,” McCoury told the crowd, “that there had been a sousaphone on the Opry.”
At one point, I left the viewing area just to walk off the jagged leg pain that had developed from standing so long. The hallway was crowded with those who had found their way to the bar and with musicians who had dropped by, perhaps just to listen to the sound of fusion.
On the next day, McCoury and his group would be heading back to Tennessee and their natural environment. They could be buoyed by knowing that they had reached a new audience in New Orleans. And they never had to play “The Saints.”
Have something to add to this story, or want to send a comment to Errol? Email him at email@example.com.
SOMETHING NEW: Listen to Louisiana Insider a weekly podcast covering the people, places and culture of the state: LouisianaLife.com/LouisianaInsider, Apple Podcasts or Audible/Amazon Music.
BOOK ANNOUNCEMENT: Errol’s Laborde’s books, “New Orleans: The First 300 Years” and “Mardi Gras: Chronicles of the New Orleans Carnival” (Pelican Publishing Company, 2017 and 2013), are available at local bookstores and at book websites.
WATCH INFORMED SOURCES, FRIDAYS AT 7 P.M., REPEATED AT 9:30 A.M. SUNDAYS.WYES-TV, CH. 12.