The World According to Keitho

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Banjo Billy

Posted by keithosaunders on January 10, 2011

Jazz can be easy, especially when you are not constrained by the moorings of harmony, rhythm, and melody.  It’s about freedom, right?  The freedom to play whatever you want whenever you want.

A couple of weeks ago I played a gig at a club with a quintet.  It was an unusual instrumentation.  The band consisted to trumpet, piano, bass, drums, and banjo. 


There have been many outstanding jazz musicians who have played unorthodox instruments.  Toots Tielemans is a world-class harmonica player.  How about Ray Draper, the hard-bop tuba player?  [tubist?]  He even played on one of John Coltrane’s recordings.  There are even jazz whistlers although I’m too disgusted by the idea to go to the trouble of citing any.  Take my word for it, they’re out there.

So what the heck, why couldn’t this guy be the Wes Montgomery of the banjo?  Before we began playing the leader asked the banjo player if he knew the tunes that we were going to play.  (he had compiled a list) 

“Sure!  There isn’t a tune written that can’t be played! ”

Who can argue with this logic? 

 The gig began and at first I thought that someone had left the club’s stereo on.  I was hearing strumming totally unrelated to what we were playing.  It must be the radio, what else could it be?

It was the banjo.  It sounded like he was playing random notes at his whim.  Sixteen bars would go by without him playing when all of a sudden you would hear, “Crackly-splattily-triddelly-umph.  BRINGGG!”   Then nothing for another several bars before, “Screachhity-slumphity-Crack!”

That was Autumn Leaves.

The bass player had a very wide beat and a great time feeling.  The trouble was that he played notes that were unrelated in any recognizable way to the chords.  He played with such conviction, however, that you would never know.  Well, unless you actually knew the chords.  

Banjo Billy, however, was not blessed with a good time feeling.  He was on a deserted island with narry a Professor, Ginger, or Maryann in sight.  As for me, I can cross ‘playing a gig with a jazz banjo player’ off of my bucket list.


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