When The Del McCoury Band teamed up with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band to record the album American Legacies, the merging of the two bands represented more then just a simple musical collaboration. The union brought together two groups who serve as the ambassadors of their respective genres, stewards of American music heritage. Over the years, beyond being of the foremost musicians in their fields, both The Del McCoury Band and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band under the direction of Ben Jaffe have taken on roles tasked with spreading the legacies of bluegrass and New Orleans Jazz music.
Del McCoury has not only spread bluegrass to the younger generation (quite literally) through teaching and playing with his own sons, but he has participated in countless collaborations throughout the festival circuit and embraced the various derivations of traditional bluegrass such as newgrass and the jambands. Similarly, Ben Jaffe and Preservation Hall have reached new audiences by incorporating New Orleans Jazz into collaborations with My Morning Jacket, Ani Difranco and Tom Waits, among others.
In what was undeniably one of the greatest honors I’ve ever had as a writer, I sat down with both Del McCoury and Ben Jaffe at the Ameritania Hotel just around the corner from the Ed Sullivan Theater right before the bands took the stage to tape their performance for the David Letterman show later that night. In speaking with Del and Ben, it takes all of about five seconds to see why everybody wants to play music with them. They radiate charisma and come across instantly as truly genuine people who are happy to be doing what they do. What follows is an intimate conversation that touches on the cross-fertilization of the two genres of music, the surprising similarities between New Orleans Jazz and bluegrass, the importance of family, and honoring one’s heritage.
Hidden Track: I was going to ask this to both you, but before Ben gets here, Del, when you were first starting out in music and learning your chops what led you to your style, to bluegrass, and to your instrument?
Del McCoury: I learned to play the guitar when I was about nine. My brother taught me to play. When I was about 11, he bought a record of Earl Scruggs and when I heard him play that three finger style banjo, it turned a light on. I thought, “That is what I want to do!” I learned it, and I played it until I went to work for Bill Monroe.
He needed a guitar player and a lead singer, which I thought, “I don’t know if I can do this?” I had played with him here in New York City, my first time in this town. Later, I went down to Nashville, because he offered me a job, and when I got there he still didn’t have a lead singer and guitar player. All along I think he …