HT: Ben, I had heard that you contacted Del and the gang with the idea of combining the New Orleans Jazz sound with the bluegrass sound. What prompted the thought of merging the two genres, and specifically asking these guys?
Ben Jaffe: Originally, Del came down when he accepted our invitation to be on a benefit album for a music education program that we did post-Katrina. That was actually the first time Del and I ever met, and honestly the first time I ever really took the time to understand Del’s background and bluegrass music. I had always listened to bluegrass, but I never really understood its roots. I didn’t know who the people were like Bill Monroe and Earl Scruggs, or the different banjo and mandolin styles. I had always wanted Del to sing a song with us though, because I had always been a fan of his voice and I knew it would sound great. We just had to find a chance to get together and do it.
HT: There are definitely some similarities between the two genres and the two sounds, not the least of which is the energy, but what would you say are some of the differences?
BJ: Bluegrass is mostly string music, while New Orleans Jazz has a heavy syncopated rhythm that is propelled by the percussiveness of the drums. But I gotta tell you, there are way way more similarities between the two musics. What I’ve come to realize is harmonically a lot of the same type of songs that are popular in their genre of music are also popular in ours.
DM: Yeah, a lot of the banjo tunes are originally old jazz tunes, like Earl Scruggs recorded things that I didn’t realize years ago, but they had originated in jazz. Bill Monroe, the same thing; he heard jazz when he was young and a lot of his bluegrass sound came from jazz.
BJ: It’s been a great learning experience. Hopefully, we’re responsible for opening a lot of people’s eyes to the connection between jazz and bluegrass, because there have been some western songs merged into jazz and vice versa. I mean, a good song is a good song.
HT: One of the things that struck me immediately in thinking about the collaboration is that you’ve both sort of taken on this role of the ambassadors of your respective genres. Del, you’ve been doing it forever with Telluride Bluegrass, the newgrass stuff, the jamband collaborations, and your festival Delfest, while Ben you’ve branched out with stuff like My Morning Jacket, Ani DiFranco and all sorts of others. So, it seems like a really interesting pairing between the two of you.
BJ: I think it’s important to understand that New Orleans music exists because of the importance we put on tradition and our history. Everybody in our band is a descendant of a musician. Some of the guys in our band, their families have been playing music for over 100 years in new Orleans. Then you look at Del’s family, Del was brought up with brothers who played music and had the experience of working with Bill Monroe and was handed a torch, and now he’s got his children in the band. There’s a beauty in that, and that’s something in New Orleans that is very precious. It’s definitely one of our connections. It’s a value that I’ve come to really appreciate about Del and his extended family, really his whole band, they are all sort of his family.
DM: Actually, they are [laughs]. I think of ’em that way. The boys in my band, you know there’s a lot of great newgrass players, but they really respect the traditional bluegrass. Like Jason, he’s still pretty young, but his favorite fiddle player was Chubby Wise, who was in the first bluegrass band in the 1940s with Bill Monroe, Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs. That’s who he listens to. He doesn’t listen to younger fiddlers or guys his own age.
My boys are the same way. Rob listened to Earl Scruggs, but I taught him that. I said, “Now look, if you’re gonna listen to a banjo player and learn the right way to play things, tone, timing, and all those things that go along with it, listen to Earl.” He popularized that three finger roll and he’s a genius. Then I said to Ronnie, if you want to learn to play the mandolin, you need to listen to Bill Monroe. There’s Sam Bush, Bobby Osbourne, Jesse McReynolds, and great mandolin players to listen to, but Bill had the basic thing. When it comes to mandolin, he was the one who invented the rhythm chop like the drum beat. Before that, they just played lead. He initiated the chop rhythm, and it’s really prominent on his records.
Bill Monroe and His Bluegrass Boys – Live at Mechanics Hall – Dark Hollow[audio:https://glidemag.wpengine.com/hiddentrack/wp-content/uploads/2011/08/Bill-Monroe-and-His-Bluegrass-Boys_04_Dark-Hollow.mp3]
So, they did it. When they were young, they listened to southern rock too and I can hear that in their playing too, but they definitely listened to the inventors.
HT: In terms of the album, how did you go about about picking the songs, especially some of the crazier tunes like Jambalaya, as well as picking between the different genres?
DM: It’s funny, it came easy didn’t it?
BJ: [laughs] It came really easy actually – almost too easy. Ronnie had mentioned a couple songs to us and we had performed a couple times live, so we had learned a little of Del’s repertoire. A couple we started to introduce into our shows. Jambalaya seemed like a fun one, because again, that’s a song that crossed over. It was Hank Williams who wrote it and that crossed over to New Orleans Jazz, really early on actually. I knew that song growing up and I had no idea who wrote it. My godfather used to sing it in his brass band and it was one of their big popular songs. There’s a lot of songs like that, even You Are My Sunshine. But the repertoire came really easy, we just looked for songs that we thought Del would sound good singing. Really, we just had a ball hanging around for three days.
DM: We really had no advance sessions where we practiced or anything. We just went into the studio and did ’em.
BJ: We were kind of flying by the seat of our pants, but when you have a group of musicians that is willing to collaborate and that is this good and this open – you know, Ronnie and Robert are such good improvisers and Alan and Jason are so quick on their feet – it was super easy for us.
DM: Same with those guys. You just can’t hook ’em up wrong. [laughs] It’s gonna come out right every time.
BJ: It’s funny, when we were in the studio, we had different names for the same thing, like Del was just talking about the chop rhythm, we call it a chunk. We call a turnaround a “tag.” They call it a “dogtail.” I never heard that before, but I said, “Oh right, a dogtail? Bring it back around again.” So, there were all these similarities, like I started listening to Ronnie and he also plays a really syncopated rhythm on the mandolin, and he emphasizes what we call the syncopated beat, the two and the four, where we clap on the offbeat in jazz.
DM: Yeah, we call it the backbeat. [laughs]
HT: What advice would you both give younger musicians who might be thinking they need to go into something more hip or radio-friendly as opposed to the true roots of American music.
BJ: I don’t think there is anything hipper than what we’re doing, personally.
DM: It’s true. And, I think kids hear a certain thing when they are a certain age and you can’t get that out of their head, man. That’s what they are gonna strive to do. That’s the way it was with me and Earl Scruggs. I thought, “There is no other music but Earl Scruggs.”
Later, I found out that he got tunes from jazz like Dear Old Dixie, Limehouse Blues, Milenberg Joys and Chimes Blues. Those came straight from jazz. So, alter you figure out that music comes from all over and spreads out all over the place. It ain’t just one little thing. But you know, I think when kids hear something, you can’t change it. They are gonna stay with that first thing that really knocked them off their feet.
That would be the advice. If there is something hard and they are passionate about it, keep doing it, because they’ll get better. And don’t listen and think, “I wonder if this is going to play on the radio?” I probably should have, I just didn’t. I just did what I wanted to do, and the heck with airplay or whatever.
BJ: For us, that’s always been one of those things that don’t even think about, but when it happens it’s great. Like it’s amazing being on the Letterman Show, especially with them having this hybrid of these two bands tonight. They had U2 on the show two nights ago. To think that we’re on tonight, that is super cool.
HT: Do you guys still get nervous for something like this?
BJ: Yeah, you get excited.
DM: Exactly, excited I think is the better word. You get excited and think, “I wonder if I’m gonna remember the words?” [laughs] Sometimes I do forget, I get excited and forget the words.
HT: Last one. So, you have New Orleans, New York, Nashville, North Carolina, and all these places mixed in here. Who has the best food?
DM: Oooh, the best food? I bet it’d be New Orleans. The best variety of food would definitely be New Orleans.
BJ: New Orleans! We always eat good when were down there.
DM: Me too! Of course, I like any kind of food. I’m not real particular. Now my wife is – she’ll only eat certain things – but you know, Ive never gotten sick from eating anything. I probably have a stomach of iron. One time, this fiddle player was in my band and we both ate the same thing in this restaurant and he got poisoned by this food, but man I just went on. I didn’t feel a thing [laughs].