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Nov 9, 2018 - 11:39:37 AM
386 posts since 10/21/2009

AND have few and short solos?

[OK, for the purists...(most) banjo players (most of the time), in a band, historically and now. I’m not asking about the rare exceptions (like it’s a banjo player’s band).]

Yes, it’s a newb question, that continues to puzzle me.

1) Convention?
2) Instrument weight? Probably not...bluegrass banjoists in bands typically stand.
3) Band dynamics? Horn players are more in number and more dominant... and/or band leader plays a horn (fill in other loud instrument). (Uh, so why don’t banjo players stand their ground??)
4). “Banjo isn’t as loud as brass”; yup, yet, even when amplified the banjo is not turned up to similar volume of horns and clarinet (which are typically amplified too (?) but banjo is amped softer(??)).
5). “You don’t understand, the banjo is a percussion instrument”; yet there are great players past and present who prove that the banjo is fully capable of lead solos just like any other instrument in the band. (And yes, they can be played just as long as any other instrument that solos in the band.)
6). “The banjo has historically been associated with 1) claims or “jokes” that banjo players are stupid, and/or 2) black face players, or 3) the banjo has African American roots (we know, the racist stuff)..so apparently.. ergo, the banjo is a negligible (and dispensable) part of (most) bands.” Huh? I don’t even understand the connection between the former and the latter for today (let alone disagreeing with the “thinking” behind it).
7). As for sitting, is there some playing or tone reason? (Obviously, sitting means one is less seen by the audience than other band members who are standing.)
8). “Most banjo players are ‘old’,” ie, too hard to stand. Well, last jam I went to there was a 95 yr old trumpet player who did a bang-up job (meaning, very good); he walked up onto the platform directly to a microphone—he did not look for a chair and no one offered him one. Nor did he go physically to, or play in, the background. And yes, he played quite a few songs and never sat down. (It is one example, but in my experience, while someone in his ‘90s playing is not all that typical, the rest is typical, as long as it’s another musician than a banjo player.)

What happens in a jam that has an audience if you (any or all): put your chair in the front row alongside the brass and clarinets, move a microphone to your instrument, ask and keep asking that the volume be turned up comparably to the horns, play a solo every bit as long  as the other soloists, or stand like the horn/clarinet/sax players? Is that persona non grata so there is some backlash or substantive, ongoing resistance and refusal to change what seems like unquestioned “norms,” or what? I don’t get it. Why don’t banjo players subtly but continually insist on change, by their actions, just by not accepting this marginalization?

I think all of the above is killing the jazz banjo.

Yes, I am frustrated. I am annoyed with band members and very good banjo players (maybe some of you :) ) who keep letting this happen. Like I said, I think this behavior is killing the instrument, that is already struggling to survive. (No, I’ve never played in a trad jazz jam, I hope to one day, that’s part of why I’m asking.) Some of us go to jams or concerts to hear the banjo, listen INTENTLY to how you experts and pros play, hope to watch your fingers, all because we love the sound and might want to learn to play well or better ourselves. Good luck with trying to get that in a concert/jam.

Maybe I am missing something. Harang over.

Thank you,
Rockyjo

Edited by - rockyjo on 11/09/2018 11:55:19

Nov 9, 2018 - 12:33:25 PM

5081 posts since 8/28/2013

Killing the instrument? That seems like an overreaction to me.

Jazz, particularly trad jazz, is and alway has been an ensemble kind of music where no individual is more important than any other. Anyone can take a solo, and sometimes the banjo plays alone. Trad Jazz also uses a "steady rhythm" and that's mostly the banjo's job. It's not supposed to drown out the horns and winds, but to help them keep the pulse of the music and return to the beat when they've played a syncopated solo or duo. And even though a banjo might be in the back, I've never had a hard time hearing one in a jazz setting.

I have heard quite a few pieces where the banjo does take a solo, sometimes fairly extended. I can't recall the title, but there's an old Louie Armstrong piece where in one entire section, it features only Armstrong and his banjo man, Johnny St Cyr. There's also a prominent banjo part in Jelly Roll Morton's "Black Bottom Stomp." Harry Reser led his own group and usually stayed out front of them with his banjo.

As far as sitting down on the job, I think it's the most intelligent way to play. I read many complaints made by bluegrass players about back problems, but rarely any from four string players, or even from Classic five string banjoists, who also sit when playing.

If you're trying to actually see the banjo, I'd suggest that you look at videos of soloists such as Reser or Ortuso or Peabody or Mario dePietro. Most Trad Jazz players sitting in the back are playing typical jazz chords or partial chords, anyway, and if you don't know those chords, you won't benefit whether you watch or not.

I think it's wise to consider that the banjo is not the only instrument in the world and that sometimes, others have to be given the spotlight. There are other ways to learn besides trying to pick out hand movements that are sometimes so rapid that you'll never catch up with them anyway.
 

Nov 9, 2018 - 1:40:38 PM
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beegee

USA

20886 posts since 7/6/2005

They sit in the back so they have a barrier from the rotten tomatoes hurled at the stage.

Nov 9, 2018 - 2:47:37 PM

Ryk

USA

155 posts since 11/20/2011

They're heavy !!! Way heavier than a trumpet. I certainly play much better sitting. And they're not always in the back. Enjoy this one: youtube.com/watch?v=jQA2uULWjHU

Ryk

Nov 9, 2018 - 4:42:30 PM

2078 posts since 3/30/2008

r , It seems you've put some thought into this issue, & it is an interesting claim, but I have to disagree on all points. I've looked at many photos within books documenting music history, & have watched a good slice of what's available on youtube, & have never noticed the downplaying of the banjoist or the lack of showcasing the instrument. I also haven't noticed that the banjo is dying or fading. I actually have never heard so much banjo in my life, showing up in popular music, advertisements , movies & tv soundtracks.

Again, I think your observation is interesting, but it may be the result of a narrow anecdotal impression,  & would be difficult to document.

Edited by - tdennis on 11/09/2018 16:48:24

Nov 9, 2018 - 5:07:43 PM
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beegee

USA

20886 posts since 7/6/2005

So the rest of the combo can bask in the mellifluous tone? If they were in front nobody in back could hear them.

Nov 9, 2018 - 6:08:59 PM

rockyjo

USA

386 posts since 10/21/2009

Hah! Beegee you crack me up! Thank you for the smiles; in all my thoughts about this subject, your first point never crossed my mind, so consider it the honorary #9 in my list! :)

Well, my response to others so far may take more than one post (in the interest of the length of a post).

Please keep in mind, and I thought it was clear, that my comments ONLY refer to 4 string trad jazz banjo (and not ukes); yes, I agree that 5 string banjos played in bluegrass or old time, as well as uke banjos, are in a heydey, if not something of a rebirth period, while 4 string trad jazz banjo playing languishes and seems to continue to shrink in players, bands, and audiences (at least in the US). I thought the last point was not debatable as it has even been lamented in BHO over time in multiple posts. Is there really a debate on this point? If it’s growing “healthily” or accelerating overall, we are living in different worlds, which may be true due to geographic differences, but I certainly have not seen widespread, increased interest in playing or hearing 4 string trad jazz banjo live or online, in any recent time period... Demographically, neither is it picking up an overall wave of new converts..

Pls enlighten me if you’re seeing healthy, widespread new interest in the US..and where..

Rockyjo

Nov 9, 2018 - 6:36:14 PM

rockyjo

USA

386 posts since 10/21/2009

GE Porgie,

I think you missed one of my points and made another one: first, my point was that, where there is a banjo in a band, it is “below equal” to the other instruments in what I have observed repeatedly in the last 5 yrs or so, in volume, visibility, and length and number of solos, and that seems to be commonplace, and I don’t understand why. Nor why it is practiced or accepted by banjo players.

Second, if we have to go to several examples of pieces with banjo solos, as in your 3rd paragraph, it basically proves my point that banjo solos are more unusual. Compare it to bluegrass, it is a non-subject about 5-string banjo solos there, because banjo breaks are part of something like 99.9% of bluegrass music.

As for the “steady rhythm” which is “the banjo’s job,” most bands I hear have a drum set playing that job, and many have found that the banjo is therefore dispensable; another way to say this is if we are going to accept that the 4 string banjo is primarily a rhythm instrument and not a solo instrument, I suggest we are really in trouble because, while a strummed banjo adds a little “shushing” to the band’s sound, it’s not enough different than a drumset (if it can be heard over the drums), so doing without a banjo in the band is easy and one less person to pay (or if there is no pay, coordinate with).

Thank you for mentioning dePietro and Ortuso, I haven’t heard of them and will look them up.

Best,
Rockyjo

Edited by - rockyjo on 11/09/2018 18:36:36

Nov 9, 2018 - 7:17:12 PM

rockyjo

USA

386 posts since 10/21/2009

Thank you for the clip, Ryk; I hadn’t heard of Vince and his band so will listen to more of him.

All, Ryk’s view is that 4 string banjos “play better” sitting down—do others agree also? It is one of the things I was wondering. For Ryk and those who agree, how do they play better when one is sitting (I’m not referring to possible back aches from the weight)?

tdennis,
I wasn’t going way back in history where 4 string banjos were more popular than guitars.

I suggest that the “downplaying of the banjoist” is partly evident in that, unless it’s dubbed some sort of “banjo band,” there is basically never more than one banjoist relative to often 5- to what looks like 8-10 horn and reed players. If there is 1 banjo player and, we’ll say, 5 horn/reed players, by definition if every musician takes a solo (which is typical for the bands I’ve seen (although often not the banjoist)), the banjo is (very) underrepresented in the piece, and the concert. And, as I said, what I’ve observed is the banjo solo is seldom even close to being as long, for some reason. And no one seems to question it. For the countless hours that all the musicians put into practice, it seems like banjo players, who have to practice as much as any other musician, would want and create more playing time. Certainly as a listener, it seems oddly imbalanced. As a newbie player, it’s a bit de-energizing.

You may have a different experience.

I have observed what I state countless times (live and online) so it seems to be the norm, and I’m trying to understand why, and if there are substantive musical or cultural reasons, that I should appreciate, as to why banjo players seem to conform to that (not ideal, in my view) status quo.

Rockyjo

Nov 9, 2018 - 7:36 PM

377 posts since 9/6/2014
Online Now

A very interesting little dialog going on here. I can't think of a situation that I have seen where four-string banjo players stand up, other than the annual Mummers' Parade in Philadelphia on New Years Day. They have a long series of string bands in outlandish costumes marching through downtown Philly , usually in 2-degree weather. Since the Mummers have to march, they have to stand (and some of them are so boozed up they probably don't know if they're sitting or standing). Aside from the Mummers Parade, I can't recall seeing a four-stringer play standing up. My observation matches Rockyjo's -- every four-stringer who I've seen, plays sitting down.

So Rockyjo, I can only conclude that if all thesefour-stringers (including me) play sitting down, they must find it easier or more comfortable to sit than stand. I sit because my tenor banjo is very heavy, so it's much more comfortable for me to play sitting down. And if I'm more comfortable, I can play better.

As to downplaying of the banjo compared to other instruments, I don't know. I'm interested to hear what others have to say, who are more knowledgeable than I am on that one. Very interesting post, so thanks for posing these questions.

Nov 9, 2018 - 7:50:18 PM

151 posts since 9/6/2016

Perhaps coming forward in jazz history a decade later than the four string’s heyday will illustrate what you have observed: Think Big Band. The archtop acoustic guitar serves much the same function in that setting (e.g. Freddie Green in Count Basie’s band) as the banjo does in trad jazz. It’s serving as a kind of glue to the rhythm section. From what I have learned so far, that’s the prime role.

Of course, Charlie Christian’s electric work demonstrated the way guitar could be used as a lead voice with his horn-like tone and phrasing.

I guess it’s a context thing. Maybe a stereotype thing. A tenor or plectrum banjo can play lead in a combo setting; there are plenty of precedents from way back (e.g. Harry Reser). That it’s often helping to carry the rhythm section doesn’t mean it’s confined only to that any more than a five string is limited to Scruggs rolls and bluegrass. That said, it’s probably true that most people taking up the five are going to try for Scruggs rolls and bluegrass; most people taking up the four are probably going to focus on carrying the rhythm section. Those are great sounds and people are still drawn to them. That doesn’t mean someone can’t step out and become a banjo version of Charlie Christian. Probably just a matter of time before that happens.

Nov 9, 2018 - 9:57:32 PM

1131 posts since 4/8/2009

This is typical of The Woody Allen Jazz Band/Eddy Davis Musical Director.
We play a concert every Monday night at The Cafe Carlyle in Manhattan. We always sit and I take a solo on every tune. I would say we are the only U.S. professional Hot Jazz Band playing full time in America. We also tour regularly around the World. So how in the world have you overlooked us? Please everyone take a look at a working professional's website:
TheEddyDavis.com
There have been many great Hot Jazz Banjoists in my 78 years in the world of "Hot Jazz". Sorry you missed or overlooked great 4 String Jazz Banjoists. This band has many many youtube from all over the world. Take a look sometime. Eddy "The Manhattan Minstrel" Davis
Woody Allen and Eddy Davis' New Orleans Jazz Band in Amager Bio 10/7 2017


Nov 9, 2018 - 10:34:28 PM

rockyjo

USA

386 posts since 10/21/2009

Hi Eddy,

I didn’t overlook you. I consider the band you play in to be your band. See my second paragraph, “..rare exceptions (like it’s a banjo player’s band).”

On the contrary, given the decades you’ve been playing and seen/heard so many other trad jazz bands (that are not led by a banjo player), I thought you might have some answers to, or perspective on, my questions and hoped you’d chime in... 

Rockyjo
 

Edited by - rockyjo on 11/09/2018 22:37:01

Nov 10, 2018 - 5:18:47 AM
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1131 posts since 4/8/2009

OK -- Rocky, if you want what I think -- If you are referring to all these so-called Trad Bands -- They have always been around and they've been called "Weekend Warriors" -- To be "Brutally Honest" they are quite often made up of Doctors and/or Lawyers or Professors or what-ever and can't play anyway. So why should they Stand Up or even be Heard for that matter. Let them all set in the back row. But I guess they think they are learning --- Now don't you wish THEY WOULD LEARN AT HOME? But, with the sad "State Of Affairs" in the so-called Music Business -- No business -- No music. Don't you think all of this is the problem? Most of these so-called banjoists can't really play -- so who should hear them at all -- BUT, you know this is not a perfect world. It was still pretty fine when I was young and there was "Paying Work" to be a part of. BUT still there was a lot of bad music around. Back in my "Chicago Days" I kept a 7 piece Jazz Band going and paying them a weekly -- living salary! Man I wish you could have heard those fine musicians. Those Were The Days My Friend!! Eddy (A Minstrel)

Nov 10, 2018 - 6:40:13 AM
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Players Union Member

CGDA

Italy

1844 posts since 1/4/2009

That's why I always sit and refuse playing with marching bands.


 

Nov 10, 2018 - 6:56:39 AM
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49 posts since 3/19/2018

i always sit when playing its easier to reach the whiskey glass!

We are all in the gutter
but some of us are looking at the stars

Oscar Wilde

Nov 10, 2018 - 7:42:35 AM
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Ryk

USA

155 posts since 11/20/2011

rockyjo,

I'm self taught on banjo and practically so on guitar. It always seemed to me the best way of doing something was the way it's done classically or the way the 'old guys did it.' Guitar was easy to get the information for ... but for the banjo it was slowly acquiring the tutors put out by the old masters Grimshaw, McNeil and Black along with the more modern tutors. It was all about the angle of the neck up and down, the angle away from the body and how much the fingerboard is rotated. It's taken practice to get that all down ... but it has been well worth it. I find it impossible to replicate that while standing ... plus four back surgeries and the bone grafts and bolts that came along with them makes sitting much more comfortable.

Ryk

Nov 10, 2018 - 8:07:49 AM

majesty

Canada

247 posts since 3/20/2011

You are bang on, Eddy. Most four string banjo players never pay their dues and study/learn to play properly. They can't or won't learn to read music, and learn proper rhythms such as samba, tango, waltz, polka, rumba, etc. Major and seventh chords are just about all you hear from banjo players in most senior home concerts. Jazz banjo is not dead, and probably will never be dead. But today, the deafening electric guitars, basses, and amplified drums drowning out the vocalists are the latest craze.

As to the original poster's complaints about banjoists, I have a few comments as well:

You cannot learn by watching banjo players and what their fingers do. You need a good teacher, who plays your type of banjo.
Yes, sitting is better. I stand a lot while playing out of necessity, but sitting places the banjo and arm/wrist in the proper position, which allows smoother playing for chords, and tremolo. It also reduces fatigue.

A good banjo player is a very important member of a jazz band. The horns, and reeds depend on the banjo player for the right chords. Play one wrong chord for fun with some horn players, and they will probably tell you. As such, you have to be at the back, or in a position where they can hear you. Most horn/reed players have always shown me respect.
The most heard comments from onlookers are: I have a banjo at home. No, I can't play it, it's too hard. I just strum it, cause I like the sound of it. If asked what make it is, the usually reply " I don't know".
In the 1924 issue of the FRETS magazine, an advertisement reads " Banjo players in orchestras can earn $100. a week". That was a lot in those days.Today, the banjo is not as profitable or popular, so not as much effort is being put into learning to play a tenor banjo.
I can understand some of the original poster's frustrations, but maybe he should start with a good banjo teacher.

Nov 10, 2018 - 2:14:46 PM
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342 posts since 6/4/2015

Rockyjo,

The prerogative of the newbie is to shake us gnarled veterans up, from time to time, with fresh perspectives on accepted practice.  The questions you are asking valid, and very much to the point. Tenor player myself, I'll try to respond from that angle as best as I can.

1) Convention:

Yes. Partly anyway, I think.

2) Weight:

Yes, I think that, too, is quite often a factor. In my own experience, I have more control over the fingerboard sitting down than standing up. My "Morris" weighs quite a lot and is, for that reason, not very suited to streetparading. I'm not in a band any more and my street parade days are long over as well, but when soloing standing up, I invariably find that I'm much less versatile than when sitting down.

- Bluegrass banjoNIsts typically stand:

The general preference in Europe is sitting down as well, I believe. Except in the UK, where, generally, standing up seems to be much more popular. On evidence of historical YouTube footage and personal observation at live concerts, banjo players in Kenny Ball's and Chris Barber's bands, for instance, are always playing standing up. So did Sheila Collier's, playing a 5-string with the fifth string removed - and this didn't gell at all. That's only three mentioned, yes, but I'm sure that I have seen many more British banjo players performing like this. Furthermore, I remember the banjo player of (Australian) outfit Max Collie's Rhythm Aces very vividly still. Don't know if playing standing up is the norm in Australia, too, but this fellow hung his instrument literally down to his knees! Never saw anything the like. Neither before nor after meeting him.

3) Band dynamics:

There are reasons that brass and reeds take up position in front of the rhythm section.

One has to do with projection (the band performing without a PA, presumably). The other with internal communications. In this fashion, each member hears what any other is doing. And being capable of hearing ánd seeing each other thus properly opens the field to anticipating on and/or reacting to what anybody else is doing, as to riffing, breaks, applying syncopathic patterns and the like. This, if executed exemplarily, will infallibly boost the dynamics of whatever the tune performed.

Furthermore, in the rhythm section, bass, drums and banjo serve to provide the fundament for the wind section, at the front to thrive on. Collectively as well as individually, I'd argue that bass, more than drums, is responsible for steady pulse, rather, than rhythm. Two different things altogether. Rhythm, and variations as well as accentuations thereof, thus on the drummer's plate. In the meantime, banjo is to give the wind section harmonic support. And if piano is also involved, the harmonic onus will be more on piano than banjo, usually, in my experience.

Nevertheless, piano and banjo may work well in tandem, too, giving the wind section even more floor room. But each of those three (or four) also have ample license to break away from their assigned roles, in solos or features. Yet like each member of the wind section need to be able to see and hear each other, so do all three or four in the rhythm section. Where separate set pieces  wil be going, at given gig, also communicated verbally, by visual contact, or by a series of hand signals known to all 

4) Banjo isn't as loud as brass :

Curious then that banjo, in the era of electric amplification not yet even being a blip on the horizon, was the go-to match with brass and reeds. And in rooms where a PA is not required, that still applies today, I feel, in a standard six-piece Trad setting.

5) "Banjo is just a percussion instrument", etc.

Here we go again. Sigh.

Banjo's awful reputation dates from the first Trad craze of the 1950s. On this crest, banjo became extremely popular with old men absolutely shorn of any real musical talent. Hence the myth that intelligence is best left at the door, if you intend to learn to play the banjo, and endless banjo "jokes" always casting aspersions on players' IQ.

Even after more  than half a century, banjo hasn't ever seen fit to get rid of that kind of bias. And as to banjo being unfit for soloing, I'll just say that such an allegation doesn't merit any breath.

6) See 5).

7) Sitting, part 2:

There are no codified regulations, for sitting down or standing up. That's largely a matter of convention and personal choice, I think. But Rockyjo also applies "standing up" as meaning "standing up for your rights", as banjo player. That suggests at least that banjo players are consistently browbeaten by their wind instrumentalist overlords.

I don't think so. Unlike Eddy Davis, I'm not happy with solos in every number. In a four-hour set, I'd 'rather have one single stunning special feature coming from my heart than half-baked solos in every number throughout the night. But the bottom line here is that if I want the limelight, so as to show off my prowess, I will be given it any time. In other words: I always have a choice here. Any excellent Trad band a team, ideally, of which each and every individual part has every chance to shine solistically. But this cannot else but happen within some organisational frame, however loosely.

8) "Banjo players are old"

Well, you may have a point there. A BHO regular since several years, I have yet to find any teenage interest here. Are there any twenty-something BHO contributors reading this, I wonder? I assume a smattering of thirty- and forty-somethings is populating these pages as well. But I suspect the majority of BHO readers and active correspondents is well-north of fifty.

In yoof eyes, banjo isn't cool. Partly because of the heavy prejudice it still can't get around, but also because it is a favourite of middle-aged and elderly men, predominantly. Which is, rightly or wrongly, tantamount to stuffy and dull, from the perspective of the young. More bad PR for banjo then.

Furthermore, I recently had a conversation with German banjo builder Karsten Schnoor. I asked why there are so few banjo professional builders left, all over Europe, compared with twenty years ago. Karsten's opinion that European Trad "forgot" all about educating, motivating, and nurturing the next generation. And I agree. Dogmatism of the 'New Orleans' fundamentalist set first and foremostly to blame for efficiently drowning all initial enthusiasm coming from young(er) people. They really have a knack for being punitive of every note even slightly diverging from any "documented" on 78 rpm shellac records from the 1910s and 1920s. And in their hang for preserving the style, they have managed to fossilize it instead, if not to kill it off altogether.

I hope that George is right, in that the death of banjo is still a long way off. Stateside not, perhaps. But for Europe I'm not optimistic, to be honest. Jamie Cullin, for instance, managed to re-enegise genuine interest in pre-Sixties jazz, among the 16-25 demography. If briefly, and at the start of his career. However, I don't see any sign of anyone compatible, in the banjo community, of reversing banjo's fortunes the same way.

Veerstryngh Thynner

Edited by - Veerstryngh Thynner on 11/10/2018 14:50:54

Nov 10, 2018 - 2:24:07 PM
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Ryk

USA

155 posts since 11/20/2011

Veerstryngh,
Many, many thanks for your post.
Ryk

Nov 10, 2018 - 2:43:02 PM
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49 posts since 3/19/2018

weekend warriors we need more of them !

cant play, they can play. without them Eddie you would playing to nobody but yourself
we don't need negative comments about fellow Banjoists .

Nov 10, 2018 - 3:15:02 PM

342 posts since 6/4/2015

No disrespect intended, Eddy, but I agree with parlour player. What I seem to read into your post is that in olden days everything was better. Yet at the same time I'm not sure that this is what you wish to convey.

Veerstryngh Thynner

Edited by - Veerstryngh Thynner on 11/10/2018 15:16:01

Nov 10, 2018 - 4:05:12 PM

malarz

USA

276 posts since 1/5/2007

With all respect to Eddy Davis,we need more “weekend warriors” to continue the tradition, no matter at what level of ability and talent. I’m 65, just started to play earlier this year and am having a great time despite my level of inability and talent and late start in life. I’m not playing for audiences much but am playing with friends for fun. And, am having loads of it.

I listen to you, Eddy, for inspiration and guidance and just for the sheer joy of hearing you play. No way I’ll ever ever get to your level of experience and talent. But, I’m having fun not only on the weekends but also anytime during the week when I can take time from work and family responsibilities to put that banjo on my lap—yes, I sit—and play away.

Ken

Nov 10, 2018 - 6:09:03 PM
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5081 posts since 8/28/2013

quote:
Originally posted by rockyjo

GE Porgie,

I think you missed one of my points and made another one: first, my point was that, where there is a banjo in a band, it is “below equal” to the other instruments in what I have observed repeatedly in the last 5 yrs or so, in volume, visibility, and length and number of solos, and that seems to be commonplace, and I don’t understand why. Nor why it is practiced or accepted by banjo players.

Second, if we have to go to several examples of pieces with banjo solos, as in your 3rd paragraph, it basically proves my point that banjo solos are more unusual. Compare it to bluegrass, it is a non-subject about 5-string banjo solos there, because banjo breaks are part of something like 99.9% of bluegrass music.

As for the “steady rhythm” which is “the banjo’s job,” most bands I hear have a drum set playing that job, and many have found that the banjo is therefore dispensable; another way to say this is if we are going to accept that the 4 string banjo is primarily a rhythm instrument and not a solo instrument, I suggest we are really in trouble because, while a strummed banjo adds a little “shushing” to the band’s sound, it’s not enough different than a drumset (if it can be heard over the drums), so doing without a banjo in the band is easy and one less person to pay (or if there is no pay, coordinate with).

Thank you for mentioning dePietro and Ortuso, I haven’t heard of them and will look them up.

Best,
Rockyjo


You've been listening to the wrong bands, I think. I've heard many bands that did not have drums, and even when they did, the functions of banjo and drums were a bit different. Certainly, some of the rhythm can be sustained by a decent dtrummer, but a drummer does not supply anything at all in the way of chord structure (something that's very important when a melodic improvisation is being played--it keeps the soloist from going off-course harmonically) while also supplying some rhythm.

I also disagree that the banjo has suffered because it's in the back, doesn't get enough solos (which, as my examples show, is simply not quite accurate) or hasn't enough volume compared with the other instruments.

The banjo has become less popular because the music itself has become less popular. Trad jazz was already being supplanted by "swing" by the early 1930's, and "swing" really had no use for the banjo. The sound had become different, and the banjo would have been too harsh and was therefore replaced by guitar. Music changes; you don't hear very many lutenists or harpsichord players or crumhorn virtuosos these day, either.

Nov 11, 2018 - 2:20:45 AM

342 posts since 6/4/2015

George,

I tried to address the points Rockyjo is raising myself, in my longer post somewhat further up, and see now that you and I are pretty much on the same page, regarding Rockyjo's arguments. But I'm under the impression that he hasn't yet read our posts, at this moment in time, so we'll just have to wait for his reaction, I guess.

In the meanwhile, I know of one instance that clavichord was actually used in a Trad setting. The Dutch Swing College Band recorded  I Found a New Baby, sometime in the 1950s, with clavichord substituting piano. It gells very well with the rest of the band. With Arie Ligthart's swinging guitar in particular. And I believe a clip is still available on YouTube.

I also can't help imagining, in connection with your post, what Trad or Swing would sound like on Period instruments and played by bona fide jazz pros. Sackbut and crumhorn (or serpent, perhaps) for trombone and clarinet/saxophone, respectively; lute, cister, or vihuela substituting banjo/guitar; and medieval hand drum and tambura as percussion. But what to use instead of modern-day trumpet and double bass I can't yet think of. Trumpet especially, since Medieval and Renaissance trumpets don't have valves and only produce natural tones.

I'd really like to see some symphony, chamber music, or Period orchestra taking up that challenge. :-)

Veerstryngh Thynner

Edited by - Veerstryngh Thynner on 11/11/2018 02:24:24

Nov 11, 2018 - 8:31:51 AM

5081 posts since 8/28/2013

Interesting thoughts, Mr. Thynner. Early instruments playing trad jazz would be rather difficult to get right, though, because of some of the limitations of the instruments themselves, such as those valveless trumpets. If I recall, the serpent is not a very versatile instrument, either.

I am intrigued by your comment about the clavichord being used, but I suspect you may mean harpsichord. The clavichord was a very quiet keyboard instrument and most likely wouldn't be heard at all in a trad jazz group. Of course on a recording, it could have been heavily amplified.

Harpsichord has been featured on quite a number of tunes from somewhat later in jazz history. "Delicado" comes to mind immediately, but there have been others that I just can't recall.

One other thing I might mention that the OP may not read (he so far seems a little frustrated with some of the responses to his initial diatribe) and that is that there are, in fact, some fairly youthful practitioners of four-string playing. Only just a few years ago, one event here in Greenville had an appearance by a North Carolina dixieland outfit. As far as I could tell, no one in the group had reached their 30th birthday. I used to regularly hear a trad jazz trio playing at the Rose Bowl Swap Meet which also featured a young tenor player--younger than the others in the group. I also have a recording of a progressive rock group (Tin Hat Trio) which features the tenor banjo on several tracks.

As I postulated earlier, I doubt if it's the banjo being perceived as an inferior instrument that has led to its decline, but it is the music itself. A new way to use the banjo might help its popularity, because whether we like it or not, trad jazz is no longer mainstream, but is more the realm of a select group of aficionados. 

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