Bill Johnson

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.

Bill Johnson holding both a bass AND a banjo!

Bill Johnson holding both a bass AND a banjo!


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



Published in: on March 5, 2009 at 6:23 pm  Comments (5)