A Q&A with Jared Hall
Of Velvet Caravan
By Geoff Gehman
Jared Hall learned his first unforgettable song, “Your Mama Don’t Dance,” from his piano-playing, boogie-woogie-ing grandmother. He discovered his future instrument at the home of a fellow who restores Hammond organs and Volkswagen buses. He discovered gypsy jazz, his future groove, in a Budapest restaurant with a band that performed Beatles songs with a Slavic swing.
Such an unconventional musician deserves an unconventional ensemble. For half a dozen years Hall has been playing accordion, piano and Hammond Sk2 in Velvet Caravan, which spices gypsy jazz with bluegrass and honkytonk, Latin and “European redneck.” The Savannah-based performers specialize in styles from all over the map partly because they come from all over the map: Venezuela (violinist Ricardo Ochoa); California (guitarist Jimmy Grant), Massachusetts (percussionist Jesse Monkman), Georgia (upright bassist Eric Dunn) and Iowa (Hall, who also spent considerable time in the Texas music capital of Austin).
On Feb. 15 the Velvet Caravaners will make their debut at the Mauch Chunk Opera House. Expect a gumbo of sparking, sparkling originals (“Margaret”), stardust standards (“Autumn Leaves”) and unlikely choices made likely and likable (a singing, zinging version of “I Will Survive,” Gloria Gaynor’s feminist disco anthem). Expect shots of fun, too. After all, this is a group that ended a Django Reinhardt composition with the Savannah Philharmonic Orchestra by riffing on Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water.”
Below, in a conversation from a Velvet Caravan van headed to a gig in Virginia, Hall discusses his rocky, rewarding time teaching tough middle schoolers to sing; the benefit concert for at-risk youngsters he shared with Run-D.M.C. co-founder Darryl McDaniels, whose rap reboot of Aerosmith’s “Walk This Way” was one of his childhood thrills, and the hip grandma who used “Your Mama Don’t Dance” to teach his fingers to boogie.
Q: Can you remember the first song you couldn’t forget, the one that absolutely laid you flat?
A: “Your Mama Don’t Dance”—and it wasn’t the rock ’n’ roll version [originated by Kenny Loggins and Jim Messina]. The first time I heard it was when my grandmother played it on piano in a boogie-woogie version; I was probably six or seven at the time. Then I heard Poison’s version on the radio; I couldn’t believe that my grandmother was so hip. It all ties into me wanting to become a musician. She sat me there and taught me boogie-woogie and playing by ear. I remember she used to play Louis Jordan’s “Caledonia” and we’d all sit around the living room and sing “Caledonia, Caledonia, what makes your big head so hard?!”
Eventually I took old church hymns and changed them into boogie-woogie. It was a weird sign: I grew up playing in a Methodist church in town and wanting to be a rock ’n’ roll star. Another sign in that similar vein is that I was really into Motley Crue; “Home Sweet Home” was all over the radio at that time. I went to see them [in concert] and my dad took me because my mom was horrified [laughs]. I remember [drummer] Tommy Lee played the piano and that was a game changer for me; I thought, well, I’m going to have to take piano lessons now. Another game changer was when I was in class and a cute girl came over and sat next to me, which made me think: Hey, no one will sit next to me when I’m playing guitar [laughs].
Q: Was your grandmother your first musical mentor in your hometown of Atlantic, Iowa, also the stomping grounds of retired pro football player Ed Podalak, the Swiss Army Knife of the Kansas City Chiefs’ offense?
A: My grandfather was friends with him; he was the big superstar of the town. My grandmother probably was a big influence on me because her piano playing and teaching spurred my mother to put a piano in the house. Practicing piano is what I did with my boredom; when other kids were out playing football, I was making up my own tunes.
Q: What was the first gypsy-jazz tune that entered your bloodstream and made you think this was a fertile field needing to be plowed?
A: It snuck into my life when I was in the college choir and we did a couple of tours in Europe. I remember we were in a Budapest restaurant and we were hearing these musicians playing gypsy music and thinking: Oh my goodness, this is amazing. Then, all of a sudden, they were covering all these Beatles songs. So here I am, all the way in Hungary, listening to gypsy-jazz versions of the Beatles. I came back, looked up the music, and discovered Django Reinhardt. I kind of shelved my interest for a while, even though I was always into Western swing and I was always playing honkytonk and boogie-woogie with different groups. Of course it made a big difference understanding that Willie Nelson’s hero is Django Reinhardt. I really began to notice what an important musician [Reinhardt] was and to discover the importance of the entire [gypsy-jazz] genre.
Still, I didn’t think much of gypsy jazz until my wife and I moved from Austin to Savannah and people told me I had to hook up with these other musicians, [violinist] Ricardo [Ochoa] and [guitarist] Sasha [Strunjas], who were playing in this bistro-style restaurant. When I heard them I thought: Oh my gosh, this is the music I loved so much back in Hungary. They invited me to sit in with them and that was the beginning of this crazy caravan.
Q: What are the origins of the name Velvet Caravan? I’m not aware of any gypsy caravan upholstered in velvet.
A: Eric [Dunn], our bass player, came up with the name. The idea is that just as we move through different cities, we’re moving through different elements of Latin, country, swing, blues–all kinds of stuff–to make this caravan happen. It’s kind of like when the gypsies would move through different regions of the world, mixing some of their culture with the culture they were discovering. We also liked “velvet” because it’s feminine and it could balance with the more masculine “caravan.”
While we’re into a lot of groups and a lot of idioms, we’re not into Velvet Revolver or the Velvet Underground. Although there was this one time when a local paper listed us as the Velvet Underground. I actually like the Velvet Underground; I wouldn’t mind playing some of their songs.
Q: Gypsy-jazz groups aren’t known to feature a Hammond organ. Why did you decide to mix a pretty bold instrument with four less brash instruments? The Hammond certainly makes the layering more luscious and lush.
A: That’s the exact reason. We’re not trying to emulate a gypsy-jazz ensemble or become an authentic version of Django’s Hot Club of Paris. We add lots of ingredients to become this gumbo soup. Some of it is on purpose; some of it is by accident–“Oh, this kind of works.”
I actually began doing the Hammond thing when I was working with some artists in Austin, around the time I was invited to join the Hammond [endorsement] family. I found that the Hammond can add some really sweet undertones to some really cool tunes, as well as a little bit of tension, some nice angst. I’m still discovering how it fits in, although I know that it bridges the other instruments; it magically works.
Q: Who were, or are, your Hammond heroes? Booker T. Jones? Steve Winwood? Lonnie Smith?
A: Ah, Dr. Lonnie Smith. I actually discovered the Hammond in my 20s when I was living and playing around in Iowa. There was this guy I knew who worked in a coffee shop who told me about this guy, Kim West, who restored old VW buses over in Des Moines. I always wanted to have a vintage VW bus, so I went over to Kim’s house to check out a bus and discovered that he also restored Hammonds. His entire house was full of Hammonds. I was just blown away by their sound and their look and I ended up buying a Hammond B-3 and a Leslie cabinet [speaker]. I was single at the time and I put it in the center of my living room and went crazy with it.
My love of Hammond didn’t originate from Booker T. or any other player; it originated from the sound of the instrument in some tunes I loved. I was in this band and I would play the B-3 during tributes to the Allman Brothers [Band] and their keyboardists, Chuck Leavell and Gregg Allman, who were big heroes in our world. I was also big into Tom Petty [and the Heartbreakers] and I loved everything [keyboardist] Benmont Tench played. He was amazing whether he was playing rock or country or Americana—it all gave me such a rush.
After I got a Hammond I occasionally hauled it out on the road with me; it’s a heavy sucker. I couldn’t find that perfect portable keyboard, so I ended up with a Nord Electro–that came the closest. When I was at [the] South by Southwest [Conference & Festivals in Austin] I met a Hammond representative who introduced me to the Sk2, which turned out to be perfect for me. Not only is it portable, it has the capacity of a Wurlitzer [organ] and a Rhodes [electric piano] and it can be [an acoustic-sounding] piano if it wants to be. So now I don’t have to haul the Hammond, although we’re still traveling with a Leslie [speaker], so there’s still a heavy piece of furniture.
By the way, Kim West’s brother, Kirk, was the longtime tour manager [and photographer] for the Allman Brothers; now he’s a big part of the Allman Brothers [Band] Museum [aka “The Big House,” in Macon, Ga.]. So the circle closes and opens.
Q: Can you put your finger on a pivotal rehearsal, concert or tune that solidified Velvet Caravan and lifted the band to a higher, better level, some breakthrough that gave you all that nice fuzzy feeling that you were definitely on the right road?
A: It’s actually been an organic evolution. When we began five or six years ago, we were playing this bistro-like restaurant in Savannah on the weekends, sometimes three times a weekend. We were filling up the place; we were told our nights were the best nights of the week for the restaurant. Then we were being asked to play private parties. That led to “Oh my gosh, we probably should get a name,” which led to: “Oh, my gosh, people are asking to buy a CD, so we better record a CD.”
The real key component has been playing with each other so well and having a lot of fun—sometimes too much fun, if you know what I mean [laughs]. Another key, for me, is when we played our music with the Savannah Philharmonic two years ago. Here we were doing our tunes with an orchestra, in arrangements by our violinist and percussionist, for a sold-out house. Chills ran up and down my spine. That’s when I thought: OK, this is working. Fast forward to our showcase around two years ago at South by Southwest, when we were approached by a booking agent. That’s when we realized: Oh, this means we’re going to hit the road a bunch, which we love. Oh, now this is serious.
Q: What are your offstage duties in Velvet Caravan? What else do you do besides introduce tunes to the band and share driving between gigs?
A: It’s funny you asked that question. Right before you called Ricardo [Ochoa] and I were working on our budget for the next three months, the expenses and spread sheets. He and I share many of the administrative duties. Eric, our bassist, works a lot with venues; he spends a lot of time on the advancing stuff. There’s a constant discussion about “Oh, I should get paid more because I do this and this,” especially now that we’re performing more shows and have more responsibilities. We definitely need to do more interviews for particular shows. Right now we’re trying to do what we can for ourselves without a third party.
As far as songs are concerned, I brought [Bill Mack’s] “Drinking Champagne” to the table. We usually do that one at the after-show parties; it’s always a good one at restaurants, too. Sometimes I like to bounce out and sing it. During shows Ricardo will give a brief synopsis of how gypsy jazz came to be and I’ll play stride piano underneath while he’s getting the audience to feel like they’re in this French café before the full band kicks in.
Q: How the hell did you guys decide to turn the disco feminist anthem “I Will Survive” into a singing, zinging swing tune?
A: That kind of just formulated. We like to do unusual, sometimes strange things during solo moments; we like to mess around with improvisation. We were just messing around with “I Will Survive”; we were playing it in all keys, just having fun. We had so much fun, we said: Let’s do an entire arrangement. It’s a tune people wouldn’t expect from us, which means that we get a good laugh in shows when we say “We actually wrote that in the ’70s.”
Q: Has Gloria Gaynor weighed in on your rather radical rendition?
A: To my knowledge she hasn’t heard it. I would love to hear from her and I would love to do “I Will Survive” with her. We might get a few YouTube hits on that.
Q: Here’s my one People magazine question: What’s your most memorable encounter with a musical celebrity? Did you, for example, have a gas and a kick with Run-D.M.C. co-founder Darryl McDaniels when you two performed a benefit for youngsters in foster homes and without homes?
A: That blew my mind. That was an example of how weird, wonderful things come around in your life when you least expect them. I was working on the William Pilgrim [& The All Grows Up] project, playing piano, Wurlitzer and accordion on albums and videos. The project turned into a whole different thing when we were joined by a musician named Ishmael Herring. “Ish” came to us after he answered an ad and we found out he was this starving artist living on the streets, down on his luck. That led us to help get Ish off the streets, to help homeless kids and foster kids, which led to a benefit with Darryl McDaniels, who is a real champion for foster kids everywhere because he was a foster kid.
Anyway, we’re hanging out in the rehearsal studio and Darryl walks in and it just blows my mind. One of the musical experiences I can really remember when I was young is loving Aerosmith and Run-D.M.C.’s [rock-rap remix] of [Aerosmith’s] “Walk This Way.” When my aunt and I were in San Francisco, we went into one of those booths on Pier 39 where you could cut your own cassette tapes to popular songs and I made a cassette to Aerosmith and Run-D.M.C. performing “Walk This Way,” with my little kid voice doing the rapping. I was probably seven or eight and after that, well, I was a recording artist now [laughs].
So here I am, many years later, rehearsing with Darryl for this benefit, playing Hammond organ and piano on “Walk This Way” and other tunes. And he’s telling us his story about the hard times he’s been through and the success he’s had and he’s breaking down. Hearing him speak was uplifting; performing with him was thrilling.
Here’s a similar story in a different vein. A music organization in Houston hired me to be the strolling accordionist during their cocktail hour. This gentleman came up to me and said, “Oh, I loved your playing.” I thought to myself: Hey, I know who this guy is. It ended up being Chuck Leavell, my keyboard hero with the Allmans; it turned out he was the main musician that night in the ballroom. We got to chat, got to know each other better. The story gets even better. A few years later we moved from Austin to Savannah and a year after that Chuck and his wife bought a house in Savannah. I’ve run into my hero several times.
Q: You’re seriously invested in the musical education of youngsters. You took the Savannah Children’s Choir to Ireland and you participated in the Musical Explorers program run by the Savannah Music Festival with Carnegie Hall’s Weill Institute. Do you have a favorite story about using music to significantly improve a kid’s life or boost a school’s music program?
A: After college I was a teacher for five years in a tough inner-city public middle school in Des Moines. I went into teaching because I had such a great music teacher; I also wanted the challenge. The spring before I began teaching at the school, there had been a drive-by shooting between gangs. You wouldn’t think that sort of thing happens in the middle of Iowa but it does. When I came to the school in the fall I had a couple of second thoughts. I was hired to be the choir director and I replaced a guy who had been there way too long, who had been showing movies to the kids, so there was pretty much nothing there—no discipline, no inspiration. On my first day the kids were all over the classroom, showing me no respect. I got them to get up to sing and two guys told me: “Fuck you, I’m not singing.” And they were bigger than me and really angry people [laughs]. I thought to myself: What am I doing?
I decided to come back for another round and I eventually developed a great choral program with a show choir and a jazz choir. I took the kids to perform in Chicago and Kansas City, where we went to the jazz museum and the Negro Leagues museum to get them to see beyond their neighborhood, to understand and appreciate another world. A lot of my former students have found me through Facebook and have told me how music is still a huge part in their life; in fact, I met a couple of them when we recently played in Des Moines. I also know that a couple of my ex-students have been in jail. They weren’t my good kids; they were the ones from my first year.
Q: And what happened to those two kids who told you to fuck off when you told them to sing?
A: I don’t know what happened to one of them. The other one became my buddy; I won him over. In fact, he told me my music class was the only class he really enjoyed. Not only that, he helped me straighten out the class.
Jared Hall: The Scoop
Velvet Caravan played in his hometown of Atlantic, Iowa, in a community center by a 4-H building and a fairgrounds.
He’s recorded with the Blind Boys of Alabama, toured with the Bastard Sons of Johnny Cash, and played the Kerrville Folk, Austin City Limits and South Carolina Jazz festivals.
Onstage he wears a wide assortment of hats, including a porkpie. He particularly likes headwear sold by Goorin Brothers, a company that likes musicians. He thinks a Goorin store would be a suitable setting for a Velvet Caravan video.
His Bucket List is topped by a desire to tour the world and collaborate with foreign musicians.
His Fuck It List is topped by a vow not to play too often for free. “People are constantly asking you to perform for nothing, saying ‘Oh, it will be great exposure.’ I was doing way too many free shows until around 10 years ago; that’s when I decided I didn’t want my career to be so free. I still do benefits but it’s just too much when 50 invitations come your way at once, especially when they’re paying the caterer but not the musicians.”
He doesn’t mind being mistaken for Elvis Costello’s long-lost younger brother.
Geoff Gehman is a former arts writer for The Morning Call in Allentown. His fondness for gypsy jazz came from his late English mother, who loved her some Django Reinhardt. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.