I got all fired up and started this blog and then quickly ran out of steam. However if anybody would like to contribute an article or pictures or anything related to Jazz-Age Banjo players just leave me a comment and we’ll do it.
From allmusic.com :
Fred Guy spent most of his playing career with the Duke Ellington Orchestra. He grew up in New York City. Guy worked with Joseph C. Smith’s Orchestra and then led his own group. However after joining Duke Ellington’s Washingtonians in the spring of 1925 (replacing the group’s former leader Elmer Snowden who left after a money dispute), Guy was with Ellington for the next 24 years. He played banjo up until the early 1930’s and his rhythmic and percussive style was an asset to the early band. However after switching to guitar, Guy tended to be inaudible and (since he never soloed) an increasingly minor force in the music. When he departed from Ellington in 1949, there was no need to replace him. Fred Guy (who never led his own record date) was never again a fulltime musician, working as a manager of a ballroom in Chicago. He was long forgotten (except by jazz historians) by the time he passed away in 1971. ~ Scott Yanow, All Music Guide
Duke Ellington And His Orchestra – The Brunswick Era Vol I 1926-29 features Fred on Banjo.
Here is a nice podcast episode from THE HISTORY ANEW PODCAST Presented by Antony Pepper that features some Duke Ellington tunes with Fred on the banjo.
Charles Bocage was a banjoist who played with Piron’s New Orleans Orchestra, one of the most popular bands in New Orleans in the 1920s. Charles was born in New Orleans in 1900. He passed away Nov. 4th, 1963.
You can here Charles and Piron singing on “Kiss Me Sweet” (nfo.net)
Johnny St. Cyr, another famous banjoist also played for a short time with Piron’s orchestra while the Bocage’s were playing a country club job with another band:
“Piron had a job at the Country Club evenings from two ’til six. Four strings, guitar, bass, banjo, violin and piano. Before that time he had Peter Bocage, plus Charles Bocage, who could sing. Charles learned to play the banjo on the job with help from Pete. Before Piron got the job at the Country Club, Lorenzo Tio, Jr., had hired the Bocage’s. He had Pete and Charles Bocage playing out at West End on Sunday afternoons. So I played that job with Piron at the Country Club for about three weeks, Saturdays and Sundays. About the fourth week Tio lost his job, and Piron came to me and said, ‘John, I’ll have to let you go. Tio lost the job out there, and I must take Pete and Charles back with me, and I can’t use you as you are not a member of the regular band.’ ‘Suppose you tell him (C. Bocage) I owe you some money?’ I said. Piron answered, ‘I couldn’t make him understand that.’ I said, ‘O.K. you stood responsible for getting me back in the Union, and I still owe you $12.00 — when you give me a job, I’ll pay you back.’ He (Piron) had me up before the Board, so I told them, ‘Well, the conditions were that I was to work with him Saturday and Sunday afternoons and pay him S4.00 a week, until I’d paid the whole amount, which was $24.00. I worked three weeks and I paid S12.00, but he let me out and took someone else and I can’t pay him if I don’t work. The Vice-Chairman of the Board said, ‘Piron, return the man to work until he pays you.’ But Piron had no jobs, except for the regular band on Saturdays and Sundays. It was then that I went back to my plastering trade and worked around New Orleans.”
Well this is going to get confusing. There was a Will Johnson, who was a banjo player, and then a Bill Johnson who was a bass player who also played banjo.
This post is about BILL Johnson the bass player who switched to banjo. This page says “…Jazz author Mervyn Cook (1998) reports that when “King” Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band (featuring Louis Armstrong) recorded in 1923, their bass player, Bill Johnson switched to banjo (an open-back Vega No. 9 Tubaphone tenor, as seen below) for rhythm after playing his standup bass caused the recording stylus to jump out of its recording groove!”
Adding to the confusion is that the above ancedote may not be true at all. In fact there is speculation on who is really playing the banjo. This blog is a fascinating read. Here is an excerpt:
To refresh your memory: when I did the “Canal Street Blues” blog a couple of week’s ago, I used David Sager and Doug Benson’s Off The Record: The Complete 1923 Jazz Band Recordings as my primary source. In his notes, Sager writes about bassist Bill Johnson playing banjo on those earliest King Oliver sessions and that was good enough for me. Of course, I should have consulted Willems’s All of Me Armstrong discography to see if he had differing information. Willems lists Bud Scott as the banjo player on the date and added this note, which relies heavily on Irakli de Davrichewy’s notes to the Masters of Jazz CD Louis Armstrong, Volume 1 1923:
“Note: The dates of the first sessions are clearly confirmed by Gennett studio files, but, other than the name of the band, no further information is given. The personnel have thus had to be established from aural evidence, with the only real doubt revolving around the identity of the banjo player, generally listed as Bill Johnson. True, on certain band photographs Johnson can be seen holding a four-string banjo rather than a string-bass. Yet interestingly, careful listening to the various recordings involved, especially Canal Street Blues, reveals the presence of a six-string banjo tuned like a guitar. Certainly, the boomingly low notes of a double-bass or bass drum could not technically be absorbed by the recording equipment of the time.”
“Johnson was supposedly on this tour, but he was unable to record. Based on the evidence of photos and the audible absence of a double-bass, it seemed logical to attribute the banjo part to Bill Johnson. But despite scrupulously detailed examination of discographies, I have been unable to unearth no single recording on which Johnson plays either four or six-string banjo. Moreover, Johnny St. Cyr, who was with Oliver and who later played with Johnson, has stated (Jazz Finder, December 1948) that he never saw Johnson play any other instrument than double-bass. Bud Scott is known to have arrived in the band early spring of 1923 (Record Changer interview, September 1947) and since there is a distinct similarity between the playing here and that of Scott on later recordings, I opt (always with very little hesitation) for Scott as banjo on the King’s first recordings.”
Well I’ll be damned.
Here is somebody playing the banjo with King Oliver’s band on Just Gone. Credits list the banjo player as Bill Johnson.
Here is the AllMusic Guide’s bio of Bill Johnson:
Bill Johnson’s career reached back to virtually the beginnings of jazz and he is credited with being the first jazz person to pluck (as opposed to bowing) the strings of his bass, an innovation that led to the string bass eventually replacing the tuba. Johnson started out as a guitarist, switching to bass in the late 1890’s. He worked in New Orleans as early as 1900 including with the Peerless and Eagle Bands, playing tuba for their parades. Johnson left New Orleans originally in 1908, playing jazz in Los Angeles and helping to introduce the as-yet unnamed music to the West Coast. His group, the Original Creole Band (which included Freddie Keppard), traveled throughout the country before breaking up in New York in 1918. Johnson freelanced, settled in Chicago and during 1922-23 was a member of King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band, playing both bass and banjo. Although he did not record that often (and only led two titles in 1929 which were really features for the singing of Frankie “Half Pint” Jaxon), Johnson was a fixture in Chicago for over 25 years, making records with Johnny Dodds in 1928 and working with Bunk Johnson in 1947. Bill Johnson retired in the early 1950’s and settled in Mexico and later Texas, living to be 100. ~ Scott Yanow, All Music Guide
Isaac L. “Banjo Ikey” Robinson (July 28, 1904 – October 25, 1990) was a prolific banjo player that recorded with Clarence Williams’ Jug Band, Jabbo Smith’s Rhythm Aces, Richard M. Jones’ Jazz Wizards, Franky “Half Pint” Jaxon, Alex Hill and his Orchestra, Birtha “Chippie” Hill, and his own bands.
Ikey was born in Dublin, Virginia, andbBy the age of 14 Ikey was already a professional singer and banjo player for several Virginia groups. In 1926 he moved to Chicago, where he played with Jelly Roll Morton and the Sammy Stewart Band. In 1929 He made the fantastic recordings with Jabbo Smith and the Rhythm Aces (which according to Jabbo was Ikey’s band).
Here is some info on Ikey Robinson from something called “weeniepedia” (?):
I wish I could find more pictures of Ikey, but this is all I could find, which is suprising considering how prolific he was.
Bob Gillette played with Bix Beiderbecke & the Wolverines, and the New Orleans Rhythm Kings.
I just noticed that it looks like he is playing a 5 string banjo with the 5 string removed.
Bill Eastwood played with the Halfway House Orchestra, New Orleans Rhythm Kings, and the Norman Brownlee Jazz band.
The Halfway House
The Halfway House was a supper club located halfway between New Orleans and Lake Ponchartrain. The group Eastwood played with was formed around 1923.
Recordings of the band can be purchased Here:
Norman Brownlee Jazz Band
(courtesy of nfo.net)
One of the early “white” jazz bands. This early dixieland group is not remembered today, but was well known and very popular in the 1920’s.
In private correspondence, Henry Brownlee, Norman’s son, has mentioned that on “Dirty Rag”, recorded December 1925 in New Orleans; Okeh # 40337), the sidemen consisted of:
(My father, Norman Brownlee, Pianist, had several top-notch sidemen in his band.)
* Sharkey Bonano, cornet. Emmett Hardy was the band’s first Cornetist. But, Emmett, a dim, legendary figure, never recorded and died at the young age of 22. His playing is reputed to have influenced Bix Beidebecke (who died at age 28).
After Emmett Hardy died, he was followed by trumpeters Wingy Manone, Johnny Wiggs, Sharkey Bonano (who was on the Okeh recording of “Peculiar” and “Dirty Rag” recorded December 1925 in New Orleans; Okeh # 40337)
* On trombone was mainly Tom Brown and George Barth (who doubled on Sax and Bass.
* Mellophone was played by Billy Braun who doubled on piano.
* Bill Eastwood was on Banjo, doubled on Guitar and Baritone Sax. (“but the record was cut with my uncle, Behrman French, on banjo”.)
* On clarinet he had Larry Shields; then after Larry went to New York, his brother Harry Shields came in (he is on the record).
* Alto/Baritone Sax was played by Hal Jordy.
* On drums was Alonzo Crombie. Dad said — “you start a piece, go out and eat lunch, and when you got back Al Crombie’s beat was as steady as when you left! Like a metronome!”
“He had other sidemen, of course, over the years. Also, most of the members doubled on other instruments, Dad also played string bass; Eastwood played piano; almost all played saxophone (Dad played Tenor Sax as well).”
“My Dad played a short stint on String Bass with Paul Whiteman when he was in town. And, he was a good friend of Jack Teagarden. I remember when I was about 10, Jack’s band came to New Orleans to play the old St. Charles Theater and Dad took me to hear them. Jack spotted him in the audience and made him go up on stage – they greeted each other like lost brothers! I was in awe! Of course I got to meet him and his brother Charlie. The Dorsey Brothers said Dad had the first “Swing” Band in America. Dad’s String Bass is in the New Orleans Jazz Museum.”
This entry on the wonderful Norman Brownlee Orch., was graciously submitted by his son Henry. F. Brownlee.
The New Orleans Rhythm Kings had different banjo players and I don’t know which tunes Eastwood played on.
You can search the entire archives. Its pretty amazing.
From February 1931:
Len Fillis has done two more muted tenor banjo solos. They are of his own compositions Banjokes and Dizzy Digits (Col. DB354). The piano accompaniments are by Arthur Young. Both performances are in the most modern rhythmic style and the technique displayed is quite breath-taking. Without doubt two of the best instrumental performances we have had for many a day.
The New York Public Library Digital Collection has this picture entitled “Japanese Banjo Player” from an unknown date in the 1880s.
Is that a Banjo? Sure, why not?
Arthur Taylor was a banjoist who played with King Oliver’s band.
Songs recorded with King Oliver include:
What do you want me to do?
Sweet Like This
Frankie and Johnny
New Orleans Shout
St James Infirmry
When You’re Smiling
Mule Face Blues
Don’t You Think I Love You
Shake It And Break It
Everybody Does It In Hawaii
Played with Dave Nelson (King Oliver’s Nephew) and the King’s Men On:
I Ain’t Got Nobody
Some Of These Days
When Day Is Done