The Banjo and Jazz

banjo jazz

Though now associated with rural mountain music, the banjo has a rich heritage dating back to Africa’s Pan-African culture.

Minstrel shows popularized the banjo in America through offensive performances that featured white performers dressed up like black slaves to represent African slaves as caricatures, and this led to its widespread use. Although these performances were offensive and racist, they helped spread its popularity and lead to its eventual widespread acceptance by society at large.

The History of the Banjo in Jazz

As ragtime and later jazz music evolved, the banjo was modified to fit these styles. By 1900, its fifth string had been removed because it got in the way when strumming, and instead was played using a plectrum instead of finger picking like guitars; this instrument soon became known as a plectrum banjo and helped give birth to Dixieland jazz music.

At one point in time, Earl Scruggs made five-string banjos very fashionable; thanks to him and other players such as Del McCoury. Unfortunately, as rock and roll became mainstream and jazz musicians transitioned away from playing it altogether, banjo usage fell. Still, plectrum banjos remain quite prevalent and chances are good you may hear someone playing one at any jazz club today!

The tenor banjo was immensely popular in early jazz and jazz-influenced popular music due to its loud volume and ability to compete with brass instruments on recordings despite still being audible acoustically. Furthermore, its convenient tuning made chord playing on it extremely accessible – something which made this instrument highly sought-after among jazz musicians.

Early jazz evolved toward chord-based arrangements, diminishing the tenor banjo’s popularity among jazz musicians but maintaining its place in traditional Dixieland jazz. However, many early composers, such as Ferde Grofe included it in orchestra arrangements like Rhapsody in Blue featuring Ferde Grofe including this banjo in Rhapsody in Blue version with this version featuring Tenor Banjo accompaniment.

Early American banjos used gut strings and were designed like gourds with animal skin stretched over its surface, popular among African enslaved people in their limited free time for self-expression and entertainment. Over time, this instrument became part of white culture via minstrel shows; unfortunately due to this cultural tug-of-war between white culture and African cultures via minstrel shows it has come to be perceived primarily as a five-string banjo when its role is just as significant for African and other communities across cultures around the globe.

The Clawhammer Style

Clawhammer banjo is a unique style that combines single note playing with chord strumming for maximum versatility, lending itself perfectly for either leading songs itself or supporting other instruments. Furthermore, its singing accompaniment makes it ideal for traditional and folk tunes.

Clawhammer banjo places more of an emphasis on melody notes compared to 3-finger bluegrass due to its rhythmic pattern limiting how many notes one can play at any one time, forcing players to focus more intently on the essential melody lines of their tune being performed than 3-finger players who tend to produce a wall of sound, filling all gaps between melody notes with additional chord tones.

One of the greatest misconceptions about clawhammer banjo is that it must only be played on an open back banjo. However, any 5-string banjo can be set up properly to play clawhammer; typically this means using slightly heavier strings than is typically employed, and increasing action slightly. Sometimes skin or hide heads can help ease into playing clawhammer more naturally; and make striking strings easier with fingers.

Clawhammers operate through wrist movements that can move in two main ways: up and down like you were knocking on a door or side-to-side like shaking water off hands. For maximum impact, many clawhammer users also move their thumb leftward for greater hammering action.

Steve offers an introduction to clawhammer technique by playing “Cripple Creek” in open G tuning (DGDGBD). He demonstrates a basic version of the melody before providing insight on how to embellish it using double stops, palm slaps, and other clawmonic techniques. Finally he gives you some ideas for playing this tune using thumb-on-third string for that classic banjo sound.

The Dixieland Style

Dixieland jazz blends earlier brass band marches, French quadrille dance music, biguine and ragtime with collective polyphonic improvisation in which musicians simultaneously play multiple complementary melodies at once. A typical “standard” Dixieland band typically comprises trumpets or cornets, trombones clarinets as well as an eclectic rhythm section comprising guitar (tenor with plectrum), string bass or tuba bass guitar or tuba tuba piano and drums – these instruments make up the typical “standard”.

Four-string banjos with their bright percussive chord strums and flashy tremolo picking glissandos quickly became staples of Dixieland bands of the 1920s as their loud percussive chord strums and flashy tremolo picking glissandos were easily heard over simultaneous improv by trumpet, clarinet, and saxophone players composing this genre. Tenor banjos became the fretted instrument of choice due to allowing chord voicings as well as melody notes while maintaining its traditional fingering pattern.

Dixieland bands provided backing orchestras for many prominent songwriters of that era, such as Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith as well as early country music singer Jimmie Rodgers, during this era. Additionally, Dixieland bands frequently toured with black jazz performers during this era as well. Following WWII and its swing era influence on Dixieland music players (many retired or switched genres altogether), but its revival in 1950 saw many semi-retired players return into active duty resulting in “Progressive Dixieland,” an innovative style which combined polyphonic improvisation with bebop-style rhythm for performers like Spike Jones & His New York City Boys and Steve Lacy among many others who played this genre.

Modern jazz musicians, particularly from the bebop era, may see Dixieland as no longer being an essential component of jazz; however, others find it just as captivating and entertaining as any other form of the music. Some of today’s most beloved artists such as Benny Carter and Kenny Burrell began their careers by performing Dixieland. Additionally, no matter if performing traditional jazz or blues bebop styles – banjo remains a vital element in every good Dixieland band!

The Blues Style

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, tenor banjos with fifth strings set into resonator tuning pegs became increasingly popular in American folk music. African musical traditions fused with European folk melodies in the Antebellum South to produce blues music; an expressive musical language that encompasses people’s sorrows, hopes, and daily experiences in bondsage relationships – it soon found a natural home on banjos initially used on plantations by African American slaves.

By the 1920s, jazz music was rapidly growing in popularity and banjo players were being utilized as rhythm instruments in both ragtime bands and Dixieland ensembles. It proved an ideal rhythm instrument due to its ability to cut through a combination of trumpets, trombones and saxophones without being overwhelmed by other instruments; fast chord changes with complex melodies also contributed to making banjo players an essential part of jazz music.

Early jazz performers such as Earl Scruggs and Bela Fleck, both of whom were master banjo virtuosi, helped popularize its use in jazz. By the 1930s, however, a new generation of banjo players developed a distinctively unique style of playing blues and jazz on it called “screwpin’ the blues” or “bluegrass jazz.”

This specialty form of banjo jazz combines elements from both blues and jazz music as well as elements such as ragtime, Dixieland, and other forms to form a unique yet captivating genre.

Though the rise of blues and jazz on banjo has been more apparent over recent decades, earlier recordings also feature banjo players; for example Earl Scruggs of Flatt & Scruggs Band’s recording of “Flatt Hill Special” stands out as a timeless banjo jazz classic.

If you want to learn banjo jazz, the best place to begin is watching videos of Don Vappie playing his instrument online. These videos will give you an understanding of its sound while showing how the tenor banjo can create authentic blues and jazz sounds.