By David Garner and Mary Caton Lingold
If you stroll into Preservation Hall in New Orleans next weekend for a show, you will most likely hear Carl Le Blanc strumming the tenor 4-string banjo he inherited from former Preservation Hall banjo player, Narvin Kimball. Born and raised in New Orleans, Le Blanc did not grow up playing the banjo or listening to the older generation play traditional jazz. Instead, he began his music career playing electric guitar and listening to Jimi Hendrix and James Brown. Throughout the history of the genre, it has been common for banjo players to initially prefer other instruments. Johnny St. Cyr, a banjo player always cited by younger banjo players as an inspiration and who played on many of the most important early jazz recordings, began his music career playing the guitar and recorded largely on a hybrid guitar-banjo.
Narvin Kimball, the original owner of the banjo Le Blanc uses, played second banjo on an album titled Banjos on Bourbon in 1963 with fellow Preservation Hall band member Emanuel Sayles. Sayles, born 1907, enjoyed a long career playing with Fate Marable, Jones and Collins Astoria Hot Eight, and later in Chicago with various bands. Recorded a few years after the beginning of Preservation Hall, Sayles clearly demonstrates the two typical techniques of playing the 4-string tenor banjo: chordal strumming and cross picking. In chordal strumming all four strings are struck with a plectrum in a forceful up and down motion either as accompaniment or as the lead line by using the top string for the melody. Cross picking refers to playing a one-note-at-a-time melodic figure using a plectrum to strike single strings instead of all four strings at once.
Whether at Preservation Hall or listening to any number of bands playing traditional, classic, Dixieland, or New Orleans jazz, the banjo is seen as an essential member of the ensemble, never upstaged by the guitar. How did this 4-string hybrid instrument played with a plectrum become a fixture in the Dixieland band?
S.S. Stewart, Banjo Manufacturer
In the nineteenth century, industrialism and innovation in manufacturing increased in tandem with the popularity of the banjo. This led to an explosion of experimentation in the banjo-making world. This period in America played a pivotal role in the history of the Dixieland banjo by fostering technological advances to the instrument, which would allow it to be adopted by many musical genres and eventually jazz. S.S. Stewart began making banjos in 1878, and along with others, led the way in developing hybrid banjos—banjeaurines (patented by Stewart in 1885, a fourth higher than a standard 5-string), piccolo-banjos (half the size of a standard 5-string), cello-banjos (tuned a fifth lower), bass banjos, plectrum-banjo (which eliminated the 5th string), banjolin (combination of a banjo and mandolin), ukulele-banjo (ukulele neck and strings, banjo body, also known as uke banjo), tenor banjo (4-strings, tuned like a viola), and the guitar-banjo (guitar neck and strings, banjo body).
Stewart was perhaps more widely known not as a banjo maker, but as a writer and salesman. From 1882 to 1902, he published S.S. Stewart’s Banjo and Guitar Journal. The journal, though it includes the guitar in the title, was primarily concerned with the banjo. In the publication, Stewart advertised his instruments, distributed banjo sheet music, and featured articles. He also used the journal to propagate his mission, which was to “elevate” the banjo’s place in society and distance the modern and lavishly decorated banjos he was making from the instruments that were known as the handiwork of enslaved people.
By this time in banjo history, the instrument had moved from being the province of African Americans and minstrel performers to an instrument enjoyed by high-society ladies and fretted instrument clubs at ivy-league universities. While the rare banjo hybrids can still be found in out of the way music shops, the primary banjos that survived this prolific period were the 5-string and tenor banjos—the latter to be adopted as the instrument of classic jazz.
Vess Ossman and Ragtime Banjo
Ragtime is most commonly associated with the piano but before 1910, Edison recordings of ragtime music played on the piano were rare. A precursor, “jig” piano, refers not to the type of song, but to the minstrel era dances they accompanied. In this style, players would apply banjo figuration in the right hand while imitating a marching band accompaniment with the left. If you listen to the way melodies are rendered on the 5-string banjo by players like Vess Ossman and Fred Van Epps, as well as in the music Scott Joplin, it is not hard to hear the lineage.
James Reese Europe and the Tango Craze
James Reese Europe along with Will Marion Cook helped to popularize the new banjo hybrid instruments in their ensembles. James Reese Europe’s Clef Club Orchestra and Europe’s Society Orchestra were two popular groups that had substantial banjo sections. Europe’s groups played many arrangements of ragtime tunes, but the banjo’s role is quite different than what is heard in Vess Ossman’s recordings. Instead of ragtime being performed on a 5-string banjo in the foreground, Europe’s banjo section played S.S. Stewart style hybrid 4-string banjos that stuck to the background strumming the instrument on the beat.
James Reese Europe collaborated often with the choreographers/dancers Vernon and Irene Castle and among other accomplishments, the Castles brought the tango to America in 1912. Tango became an extremely popular dance and music form in the 1910s and into the 20s. Europe composed a number of tango songs including one dedicated to the Castles called Castle Innovation Tango. The type of banjo that was used to play this popular dance was the banjo we know today as the tenor banjo, which has four strings tuned in fifths (c-g-d-a) instead of the standard 5-strings (G-d-g-b-d). An important contributor to why the tenor banjo stood the test of time and became the iconic instrument of Dixieland jazz was the popularity of the tango. The banjo type was originally named for the tango (tango banjo), and later mutated into the name tenor banjo. There is no doubt that both Europe’s fame and recordings of the banjo being used in ensemble ragtime music as well as the popularity of the tango/tenor banjo during the tango craze helped push the banjo into traditional jazz.
In the 1910s and 1920s, there was a new explosion of banjo virtuosi like Vess Ossman and Fred Van Epps in the previous decades. This time, however, they were playing the newly popularized tenor banjo. Performers like Harry Reser contributed to the technical advancement of the 4-string instrument and paved the way for banjoists like Emanuel Sayles to develop the style further. Virtuosi like Reser helped to popularize the tenor banjo further, which led to its inclusion in early jazz. In 1917, a few months after the Original Dixieland Jazz Band recorded the first jazz tunes, the Frisco Jass Band became the first jazz band to record with a banjo strumming in the rhythm section.
It is easy to assume the importance of the banjo’s role in traditional New Orleans jazz when listening to the Preservation Hall bands. This, however, was not always the case. While the banjo was heard in the early nineteenth century in Congo Square, it was the guitar that inaugurated New Orleans jazz rhythm sections, not the banjo. Much has been written on the transition from the banjo to guitar in jazz, citing reasons of timbre and recording technology. Equally important to this transition is the earlier move from guitar to banjo in the 1910s. In records of New Orleans musicians dating back to the 1880s, there is a clear trend of performers slowly moving from guitar to banjo. Brock Mumford performed on guitar in Buddy Bolden’s band from around 1900, which was the norm in bands from this period. By around 1915, musicians begin to be listed as guitar/banjo players. Finally, around 1920, musicians are listed as primarily banjoists.
Just as Carl Le Blanc of Preservation Hall and Johnny St. Cyr began on the guitar, all of the significant New Orleans banjoists of the 1920s and 1930s seem to have started their musical training on instruments other than the banjo. Nick Lucas recalls, “believe it or not, though, when I started at this club I was playing an instrument called the banjeaurine—a mandolin with a banjo head on it—because they wanted more volume than a guitar.” (p. 13) George Guesnon states, “now I played a little ukulele, but I didn’t think it would fit into any musical group. … I got to talking with Earl and he told he [sic] that I could tune a banjo up like a ukulele and sit in with them.” (p. 75) Lawrence Marrero, another important figure in New Orleans banjo says his “first instrument was a guitar … then I left guitar and went to playing bass violin, then I went to banjo… When I was a child, around 1910, all the bands I knew about were using the guitar, not banjo.” (p. 82) Similarly, Louis Keppard recalls that his “first instrument was guitar when I was about 14 years old.” (p. 86) In his Autobiography, early jazz banjoist Danny Barker tells of his first experiences studying music: “I was then studying the clarinet, taking a few lessons with Barney Bigard until he left for Chicago and the King Oliver band. The ukulele craze was rampant then, and my aunt had a banjo ukulele… I started practicing day and night for about a month.” As noted earlier, Johnny St. Cyr, one of the most influential banjoists in early jazz, also began on the guitar: If someone wanted to take up guitar or banjo today, I’d advise the banjo; it’s what the public wants. Personally, I prefer the guitar. It’s the first rhythm in a Dixieland band. Banjo has been popular since around 1917. It was already popular out east, before that the guitar was always the foundation. I play a four-string tenor banjo. I still use the same banjo that I bought in St. Louis in the 1920s. (p. 73) Interestingly, many of his most famous banjo recordings, such as on “King of the Zulus” from Louis Armstrong and His Hot Five were made playing a hybrid guitar-banjo:
“The banjo was never a central instrument to jazz, . . . The banjo, in the end, had merely hitched a ride with the new music of ragtime and jazz into modernism.” (p. 110) While this quote from Karen Linn’s important book on the history of the banjo in America supports the claim that the so called “traditional,” “classic,” or Dixieland jazz bands of recent history inaccurately place importance on the banjo’s role in the ensemble and in the history of the music, it also gives me pause. What does it really mean to be a central instrument to jazz? The violin, for example, is not one of the first jazz instruments to come to mind, yet it plays an important part in the formation of jazz in turn of the century New Orleans. Perhaps it is true that the banjo is not a central instrument to specific sub-genres of jazz, such as bebop and free jazz, but the instrument has played an important role in the genre’s history.
Click here for the bibliography of materials supporting this essay.
For more information about the Banjo and Jazz in New Orleans, see Jazz Banjoists of New Orleans
Without much documentation except personal experience playing banjo and guitar, it makes sense to play banjo as a rhythm instrument in tradition jazz band in the days prior to readily available amplification; you simply needed to be heard in a band full of horns and drums. Double Bass player Chester Zardis used to position his bass towards the back wall in order to bounce his sound off the wall.
Many jazz guitar players in the early days played 6 string banjos tuned like the guitar probably because you could barely hear their guitars. Some switched to tenor banjo. Some guitar players with money bought expensive archtop guitars. A few played resonator guitars to increase volume. The common theme in all this was to punch out the rhythm loud enough to be heard. If I had to guess, that is why chord solo were also popular in the early days. Mario Maccaferri understood this when he designed his Gypsy Jazz Guitar for Selmer.
This all likely changed when Charlie Christian showed up in Benny Goodman’s band with an electric Archtop guitar playing the single note solos of Rose room like a clarinet.
As much as I like Charlie , I still like the chords solos.
For a Musician , there is nothing better, than listening to a good Acoustic Band in a small club or an acoustically designed theater without amplification.
I am a Philadelphia Mummer with The South Philly String Band. I play plectrum banjo and enjoy your articles. PHL 17 has a website that you might be interested in that supports this long standing tradition ( The Philadelphia New Years Mummers Parade) of banjo playing. The routines have gotten more complicated as well as the playing. You can also find us on YouTube. If you have an interest in a future article on banjo playing in Philadelphia please feel free to contact me via Email. Hope I can be of support. Thank you
Thank you for this comment, Michael — Great to get that link to the site & generally to connect with this really fascinating banjo tradition in Philadelphia. It would definitely be interesting to add materials on this topic!
It must be fate. I received an email from Mr Dubois today upon returning from my archtop acoustic guitar set up. While at the shop I came across a B & D Silver Bell tenor banjo, The shop will hold it for me while they set up also. Must be something in the air today.
I am new to the Philadelphia mummers .
It reminds of Mardi Gras but with Tenor banjos.
Also I recently returned from a New Orleans trip and I am please to say there is a new/young generation of jazz banjo players on Frenchman street. The French Street Club Scene has a nice on line page if anyone is interested. Came away with hope and enthusiasm.
I’ll look into it 🙂