An article by Al Rose in the magazine Pickin from July 1979 (pp. 35-37) offers a nice set of details about Emmanuel Sayles career. Born in Donaldsonville, Louisiana on January 31, 1907, he was the son of jazz banjoist George Sayles. He learned to play viola from Dave Perkins in 1922, and mastered the instrument through 15 years of practice. Al Rose notes that the tuning of the tenor banjo, CGDA, is the same as the viola, which allowed Sayles to transfer his knowledge of the fingering from one instrument to the other, though he lowered the tuning to a B flat.
You can hear Sayles playing “Corinne Corinna” on the video below.
The article offers this nice account of the role of the banjo in jazz in the 1920s. The banjo player, Rose writes, was often “the musician in the group who could serve as its never-center, cueing the chord changes for the collective improvisations among the front line instruments and serving as a base for the close harmonies that make the great jazz band.” Rose goes on to explain that in the jazz band the banjo and the piano essentially occupy the same roles, so that one or another is usually used. Although the piano might have an advantage — “There are just more chord options for the piano” — that banjo had one up on the instrument, which is its “portability,” which was “critical during jazz’s early genesis.” “The music was played mainly for picnics, parades, funerals, and lawn parties. In this era, pre-1920, the plectrum banjo had its hey day. It could beat the rhythm. It was loud. It could handle the chording — and there is something the crowd loves about watching those flying fingers.”
You can see watch a documentary about Emmanuel Sayles, That Cat Can Play Anything, that includes several nice sequences of his playing.
Extracts from this documentary were published alongside the 1979 article in Pickin. Asked why he chose the career of musician, he responded: “I could have been a carpenter if I wanted. I could have been a brick-layer if I wanted. And if I’d have continued high school my Daddy told me he could get me in the post office — he had white people to go to. But I didn’t want that. I didn’t want to be nothing but a musician. I can make it short and sweet to you there — cause you made more money and didn’t work as hard as the laboring guy.” He played “Jitney dances,” where he said that “most of the halls used black bands, cause the girls said they could dance easier and better with the rhythm of the black bands.” He also played in Chicago for a time in a band he called the “Chocolate Music Bars.”
What we he do if he broke his hand and couldn’t play, the interviewer asked. “I’d be a very disappointed person, I can tell you that. I’d probably die before my time — over grief. . . . I’d probably grieve myself to death.” Explaining what he considered the role of the musician was, he said: “When I’m on the bandstand, I’m as I’m supposed to be — a musician, an entertainer; and I try to be in a pleasant mood and try to do my best on my instrument, and try to make that audience or those people dancing and listening to the music happy — cause that’s one hundred percent of the job being a musician.”