When jazz met bluegrass
Were it not for my believing that something really special was about to happen, I wouldn’t have been at Preservation Hall on this particular Sunday evening. I am guilty of being one of those people who has dismissed the Hall as a place for tourists wanting to hear a jazz band plod trough 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. There was nothing at all standard about what was going to happen on the Hall’s tiny stage.
A day earlier at Jazz Fest 2009, I was in the crowd at the Lagniappe Stage listening, and – it’s impossible not to be – moving, to the Dell 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 (OK, the sousaphone) and to my surprise 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 doesn’t 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 nonexistent. The pairings seemed natural.
All of the musicians have played bigger houses before but I suspect it was the event more than the capacity that drove them.
Members of McCoury’s band always wear suits with ties when they play, as they did at Jazz Fest and again on the humid stage of the Hall. Like the Preservation Hall musicians they are, they’re art’s ambassadors and by their presence show that there’s 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.
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.”