There seem to be so many jokes about the banjo and banjo players like these that in any other setting it might be classed as 'Discrimination'! I remember reviewing an album by the California Feetwarmers in 2014 and had high expectations of it. Sadly, for me they let the album down and I found myself asking: "Where are today's great banjo players?"
I thought I'd take a lighthearted look at the banjo in jazz ....... and discovered a few surprises.
The banjo had a place in early jazz and in America there is a Jazz Banjo website ‘For the four string banjo enthusiast’ (click here) and a radio station - Jazz Banjo Radio.
From those early days, check out Johnny St Cyr playing Jelly Roll Blues.
In September, 2014, we asked 'Is anyone prepared to stand up for banjo players?'
Yvonne Probert, Louis Lince and Jim Douglas recommended listening to banjo players Spats Langham, Keith Stevens, Dave Morewood and Brian Mellor. Maggie Peplow said Louis Lince himself plays a pretty mean banjo. Christine Woodward said: 'I don't want to play in a band without a banjo player, and I don't want to listen to one either. Same with the brass bass.' Jim Douglas recalled that he used to work with the Clyde Valley Stompers predominantly on banjo and also several years with Bob Bates: '... but horizons expand. Louis and Henry Red Allen's taste encompassed all styles and who's going to argue with them? I also worked on a couple of gigs with Kid Ory on guitar and he was most complimentary as was Ken Colyer who actually asked me to play guitar. Maybe my banjo playing stinks!'
After our correspondence in September Peter Maguire sent us another cartoon. The suggestion seems to be that all banjo players go to hell where they are put under the control of some sinning, evil, classical conductor / composer. This is clearly discrimination towards banjo players and more blatant evidence of banjo bigotry!
What do we want? Justice for banjo players. When do we want it? We want it now.
Band of Angels
But hang on a minute! It seems that there are other things going on.
Tony Augarde reminds us of the playing of Bela Fleck: Tony says: 'In your feature on the banjo, you ask where today's banjo players are. One answer is Béla Fleck, a really virtuosic banjo player. My review of one of his albums is here'.
Try this amazing video of Béla Fleck and the Flecktones with Branford Marsalis playing Sunset Road. '
Trombonist Jackie Free also points out that there is a new wave of banjo players coming through, even though Jackie's recommended, jaw-dropping, video is folk rather than jazz music. The Sleepy Man Bano Boys video is of a bedroom practice of Earl Scruggs's Flint Hill Special with brothers Jonny Mizzone age 8 on banjo, Robbie Mizzone age 12 on fiddle, and Tommy Mizzone age 13 on guitar.
As we continue our look at the banjo in jazz the jokes continue:
'Saint Peter, wanting the new arrivals to feel at home, promised to spend some quality time with each one. He asked his first arrival of the day, "Hi! What's your IQ?" "150," he said."Great," said Peter, as he showed the man in, "we should get together tomorrow and discuss the Theory of Relativity for a while." He asked the next person, "What's your IQ?" "120," she said."Fine, fine," said Peter, "I'd love to take some time with you Wednesday to discuss current world politics." To the third person, he asked, "What's your IQ?" "42," drawled the fellow."Fantastic!" cried Peter, "I've been looking for years for somebody who could help me perform a banjo duet!" The message in this story? Banjo players go to heaven.
Not convinced yet? OK, try this video of Gregg Garrett on guitar and Will Tate on banjo playing Scrapple From The Apple. Garrett and Tate are part of the band 6 Mile Express, a group of four youths who have been playing since they were children. They were being featured at the Townsend Old Timers and Heritage Festival in 2011.
Mike Durrell has written sending the cartoon below. I, too, hate people who speak loudly on mobile phones in confined spaces!
"I am trapped in an elevator - wait, it gets worse."
Peter Maguire sends us this cartoon originally sent to him by Ron Rubin:
The caption says: 'Stop! Stop! What's that sound? What's that sound?'
Clearly the problem is with the cellist who seems to have her instrument on her lap and is trying to play it like a banjo.
Alan Bond says:
'I'd like also to add my two penn'orth as regards the banjo, a much maligned instrument. I think a lot of it stems from the recording producers, promoters and engineers of the 'trad' boom, most of whom seem to have not had much rapport with jazz musicians. How I hate the term 'trad' - there is nothing traditional about any kind of jazz and I much prefer the generic term 'dixieland'.'
'In most live performances at the time I never found the banjo to be obtrusive and I think a lot of the remarks came from the 'modernists' (and I don't use the term in a derogatory way as I had a foot in both camps) who seemed to resent the popularity of the 'trad' bands, short lived though it was. In a way, I was glad that the lads in these bands showed their independence by not knuckling under to the tin pan alley gang, who tried to manipulate them in the name of profit. That, as much as anything else, led to the later shift away from jazz to the likes of the Beatles etc.'
'Most of the real jazz fans that I know of have never been seduced by the propaganda of the 'pop' world and the fast track to fame and fortune philosophy that it engenders. I have always been firmly of the opinion that jazz is truly a small venue, intimate music and not generally suited to large venues such as concerts though I would allow that their are exceptions. It would be ridiculous for any jazz band to play in a venue with upwards of 50,000 people when most of them will only see the band on a massive TV screen and hear them though the amplification system. Why pay colossal sums of money for that when the effect is exactly the same as sitting at home listening to a CD ?'
Shotgun Jazz Band
'Popularity has its price and it seems to be that as long as jazz can rub along I see a much healthier future than to be manipulated by those in the recording industry who have their eye on a fast buck, which is where the banjo came/comes into the equation. Thankfully, these days we don't have the rigid divide that separated the two camps to the point where, in my experience for example, you never told anyone at the Marquee that you were going on to Ken Colyer's for the all night session and you never told anyone at Colyer's that you had come from the Marquee. We just liked jazz and weren't prepared to accept a divide.'
'As regards the 'New Orleans' genre I think the following link will reveal that the jazz scene in the USA is not as dead as some would like to think. The Shotgun Jazz Band is very like some of the better Ken Colyer bands and what the trumpet player lacks in technique she makes up for in enthusiasm - well worth a look as the band has a rhythm section that knows the price of corn - rock steady and driving.'
'Finally, on the subject of banjos, I am a bit of a blue grass fan and there is plenty of excellent banjo picking to be found on You Tube from some of the many great practitioners, not the least of whom is the actor Steve Martin, who can hold his own with the best of them. There are too, some excellent banjo players around and about on the jazz scene here, most of whom put to shame the majority of the guitar strummers of the 'pop' world.'
We reached the end of 2014 without a Champion for the banjo emerging. Would there be a surprise revival during 2015? Would a Banjo Champion appear in shimmering haze from desert sands like Omar Sharif in Lawrence of Arabia; incognito like Bruce Wayne in Batman; in leather like Xena, Warrior Princess, or indefatiguably like George Formby?
It seemed not. Nothing much changed.
A Rabbi and a banjo player are travelling through the country with their friend from India when their car gets stuck in a ditch. Stranded, they walk to the nearest farmhouse and knock on the door. A farmer and his beautiful daughter answer the door. The farmer says he'll be glad to put them up for the night and they can go for help in the morning. However, there is only room for two in the house, one of them will have to sleep in the barn.
The Rabbi volunteers and goes off to the barn. A few minutes later, there is a knock at the door, it's the Rabbi, "I cannot sleep with a pig, it's sacrilege."
Then the Hindu volunteers to sleep with the pig and goes off to the barn. A few minutes later, there is another knock on the door, "I cannot sleep with a cow, sacrilege."
So, now the banjo player takes his banjo and goes off to sleep in the barn. A few minutes later, there is a knock on the door - it's the cow and the pig!!!
What did happen was correspondence recognising a forgotten banjo player named 'Banjo George' Baron ...
Jimmy Thomson wrote: 'Did you know that Cameron Mackintosh's dad was Spike Mackintosh, trumpet player with Sandy, Wally et al. I met him at Six Bells, Chelsea. Also have you come across Banjo George Baron? I sat in with him and Eggy Ley at Tattie Bogle Club in 60s - see photo to the right. Banjo George had a connection with early dance bands, and singer, Lois Lane.'
George Baron played banjo in a group known as Andy's Southern Serenaders (directed by Harry Leader) which made some records for Parlophone in 1935. Apart from being fondly remembered, there does not seem to be much information around about George - does anyone else remember him?
Maureen Connolly sent us this picture of 'Banjo George' Baron. The picture was taken in around 1957/58, with George playing Maureen's husband's (David Snell) Clifford Essex banjo.
That set off memories for Mike Walmsley: 'The photo of George at the Tatty Bogle brings back many happy memories for me, (incidentally it is Eggy Ley just on his shoulder with the clarinet or his usual soprano sax), the other gent I do not recognise. I was introduced to the "Tatty" by the late Les Muscutt. We used to go there with our guitars late on a friday or sat night. Anyone could sit in as long as it was acoustic.'
'One of the regulars who taught me a lot about rhythm guitar was Neville Skrimshire. Another was the mystical character Alan Leat, a generous sort of gent who hired some top level players to 'jam' at a pub in Chelsea on a thursday night, I remember playing there with Lennie Felix and Dave Shepherd at times. Other sitters in that I remember included an Italian gent who taught guitar at Guildhall (?) and my favourite 'trad' guitarist/banjo Tony Pitt. On a good night even the sitters in received a token payment!'
'One must mention "The Moose", with the hook in his nose and the ring on a string that you had to attempt to catch on the hook. I believe the Tatty is still there and you still have to go in the top of Kingly Court and find the door under the fire escape. George was an unforgettable character, very generous, full of enthusiasm and knowledge. He emigrated to Sydney, Australia and in 1976 when I had the good fortune to make a record with Graeme Bell who was visiting Toronto, I asked if he knew of George, (now well into his 80's) and he told me he was playing in a Sydney pub and that they fetched and delivered him by taxi. Those were the days.'
'I have many fond memories of George, learning and understanding chord sequences playing with him at "The Tatty Bogle" along with Eggy Ley, Neville Skrimshire and Les Muscutt. Just after I qualified I was a Houseman at St George's Hyde Park Corner and George called on a Saturday morning asking if I was free? As it happened, I was. He asked me to meet him at a tube station in the West End with my guitar. I did so and he said we were going to a house nearby, the occupants of which were at the church, where their daughter was getting married.'
'We arrived before they returned, but George spoke to the man in charge of catering to guarantee a supply of beer and smoked salmon and we sat in a room until returning 'party noises were heard. George then said: "Start playing some melody" and to my surprise the parents of one of the parties came in greeting George like a long lost friend and requesting various tunes from the '30s - '40s which we played. Out came the fivers and we left several hours later considerably 'better off'. I think my share was the equivalent of 2 months NHS House Officer stipend (we got 1 pound a day then!). Apparently George used to serenade the parents before WW2, and they obviously remembered him.
Many times we used to gatecrash parties with George after a night at the Tatty and were always welcomed by people who knew George. Happy days, now long gone, as someone said our kind of music has an audience of senior citizens and their parents.'
John Jack also wrote: 'As I rambled through your Banjo article I was brought up short by a passing mention in the piece on the Tatty Boggle to the "late Les Muscutt". I first encountered Les when he became part of the Dobells tribe; his wife worked with Teresa Kendel, later Teresa Chiltern of blessed memory, in Collets, a few floors below my flat, which was immediately opposite the Kendell's in Charing Cross Road, so we would sometimes shout across, or at least wave!!.'
'The Muscutts lived round the corner in Lisle Street and we tended to often end up at one or others’ pad to continue a evening’s roistering. After Les moved to America to work in the Red Garter bar circuit, initially in New Orleans, he also took part in some classic recording sessions. I believe they then moved to the West Coast. It's now a long while since I had any news of them. I do hope the mention of Les now being the "late" is unfounded - would appreciate knowing.'
Mike Walmsley said: Les Muscutt played (with Banjo George from 'The Tatty') at my wedding reception in '66, leaving shortly after for New York. He later went to New Orleans, leaving for a short time to play with Trummy Young, possibly in Hawaii, later returning to N.O, running a band there. He had to retire after heart surgery and I regret to say that he died last year. Babs is still in New Orleans.
Ian Simms says: 'Here's an interesting snippet about Banjo George: he went off to Russia "just to have a look at it" (his words) and came back with a pretty little folk tune. Kenny Ball heard it, George said he could have it if he liked, and Kenny turned it into a No. 1 hit with Midnight In Moscow!'
Gerard Bielderman in the Netherlands replies: 'Just read the short story of Banjo George about Midnight in Moscow. I strongly doubt if it is true. Kenny Ball recorded the tune in September 1961 but there was already a Trad version on the market (Storyville A45042), played by the Dutch New Orleans Syncopators and recorded on January 4, 1961. I've always thought that Kenny heard it and saw the hit potential.'
Despite all this respect, still the banjo dissing takes place: A guy walks into a bar, and goes up to the bartender and says "Hey, I just heard the funniest banjo joke, want to hear it?" Bartender: [Pointing at the wall behind the bar] "You see that Black Belt? Well, that's mine for karate, and I play the banjo. [Pointing to the end of the bar.] You see that burly guy in the tank top with all those muscles? Well, that's my brother, and he plays the banjo. [Pointing to a table.] You see that Hell's Angel over there with all the black leather and the spiked collar? Well, that's my cousin and he plays the banjo. Now, do you still want to tell a banjo player joke in here?" Guy: "Hell, no, not if I have to explain it three times."
YouTube brings us this video of a banjo player who can banjo up a storm at 92 years old. Nat Piccirilli is a Rhode Island musician. He plays guitar, violin, mandolin and banjo. He's also an accomplished winemaker, gardener and golfer. Nat's been married to his wife Frances for over 66 years. He's played with Bob Hope and actor Jack Lemmon and for President George Bush at his home in Maine. He continues to play as a member of The Aristocats, who have been entertaining Rhode Islanders for years. Those who captured him on video say: 'Nat is a Rhode Island treasure and we were thrilled to sit down and speak with him about his music.' Here's the video:
So it seems that there are three groups of people.
Group one - those who think the banjo is a joke. This is for you:
A man was walking around Dover when he happened upon a little antique shop, so he went in and took a look around. Way up on a high shelf he saw a little brass mouse figurine, and he really liked it. He asked the owner how much it was, and the guy said, "It's £20 for the mouse, and £50 for the story that goes with it." Well, the mandidn't care about any old story, he just liked the little brass mouse, so he paid the guy £20 and walked out with the mouse in a brown paper bag. As he was walking home, he noticed the figurine was hollow with two little holes. Holding it up to his mouth, it made a melodious whistle. No sooner that he started, he was being followed by three little mice. When he stopped, they stopped. When he turned left, they turned left. "Whoa, this is creeping me out," he thought. As he walked, the mice were joined by more mice, until our hero looked like the Pied Piper. He started to run, and he wound up at the edge of Dover's White Cliffs. All the mice in town are right behind him. He is so freaked out that he throws the bag with the brass mouse over the cliff and into the water, and all the little mice jump after it, fall into the ocean, and drown. "Man, this is weird!" he says. He goes back to the antique store, and the owner doesn't seem surprised to see him. "Ahhh, you've come back to hear the story!" he says to our dilapidated hero. "No, man," says he, "I was just wondering if you have any little brass banjo players?"
Group two are those who value the banjo in classic jazz. This is for you - the Wilbur De Paris band playing Beale Street Blues with Eddie Gibbs on banjo. The full line up is: Wilbur DeParis (trombone), Sidney DeParis (trumpet), Omer Simeon (clarinet), Don Kirkpatrick (piano), Eddie Gibbs (banjo) and Freddie Moore (drums) recorded at Jimmy Ryan's, New York City in May 1952, a bonus track on a Wilbur De Paris album Wilbur De Paris Live In Canada 1956.
Eddie Gibbs was born in 1908. He began playing banjo seriously in the 1920s withWilbur Sweatman, Eubie Blake and Billy Fowler. From 1937 he was with Edgar Hayes, touring Europe in 1938, joined Eddie South's band in 1940, and thn moved on to play with Luis Russell, Claude Hopkins and Cedric Wallace. He started playing bass with a trio at the Village Vanguard but returned to playing the banjo in the 1950s. After playing both bass and banjo in the 1960s he retired in the 1970s and died in 1994.
Woody Allen used a Wilbur De Paris track of I Found A New Baby with Eddie Gibbs on banjo in the 1995 film Mighty Aphrodite (click here to listen).
Then we come to Group 3 - those who recognise the talent of today's banjo players.
Mike Alamsley says: 'I notice no mention of my long time favourite who is still working the international club scene, the demon Eugene Chadbourne, scourge of country 'n' western bars, the avante garde clubs, and guitarist / banjoist extraordinaire.' Here's a video of Eugene and a rocking banjo playing Roll Over Berlusconi in 2009.
'He turns up about once a year either at the Vortex and / or the Cafe Oto in Dalston. He has lots of records on his own label, Fireant, which are full of surprises; like for example "Jesse Helms Busted with Pornography” the C&W Opera by Eugene Chadbourne and friends including Lol Coxhill.'
'By the way, soprano virtuoso Lol often gigged with fretless banjo player Gerry Fitzgerald, another name perhaps not familiar to you. Must 'pling' off now as it's soon time to dash to Dalston for Charly Hart and his merry minstrels at the Vortex.'
And here is another video with Béla Fleck this time with Edgar Meyer and and Zakir Hussein playing Happy Drum Drum Monkey Girl - this can make you rethink your ideas about the banjo in jazz completely. Béla Anton Leoš Fleck was born in 1958. He is an American banjo player now widely acknowledged as one of the world's most innovative and technically proficient musicians on the instrument.
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