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The Banjo and African American Musical Culture

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The Washingtonians, New York, 1924. Band members, from left to right: Sonny Greer, Drums; Charlie Ivis, Trombone; Otto Harwick, reeds; Elmer Snowden, banjo; Bubber Miley, Trumpet; and Duke Ellington, Piano. (Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.)

From just before World War I to the mid-1930s, the tenor banjo and the guitar banjo's propulsive rhythm drove everything from small trios to large orchestras. The tenor banjo emerged around 1910. The mandolin-like pairs of strings on the mandola banjo were hard to tune and did not produce the same strong clear tone that single strings did. Musicians eliminated one string from each of that instrument's four pairs of strings, reducing the number of strings from eight to four. Banjo manufacturers followed, marketing the instruments as tenor banjos. Tuned like a viola, the tenor banjo instrument had the banjo's loudness and access to the harmonic possibilities of the mandolin. Pitched higher than five-string banjos in fifths with the strings at C, G, D, and A, tenor banjos allowed their players to easily play treble block chords that cut across several octaves up and down the banjo's neck. Played with a flat pick like a mandolin, without the five-string banjo's fifth string locked at a fixed note, tenor banjos could produce brilliant chords in any of the keys required by horn-based bands, making them popular for dance music.

Even in a small jazz band like the Washingtonians pictured above, blaring brass and saxophones could overpower rhythm accompaniment from the small guitars then available. The band, let alone the audience and dancers, could not hear such rhythm. However, the tenor banjo's driving treble chords could cut through screaming brass and strident piano. By 1920 this instrument propelled the hundreds of African American jazz orchestras that swept the United States and then the world. Jazz banjoists like Elmer Snowden, Zach White, Johnny St. Cyr, Bud Scott, Noble Sissle, Fred Guy, Icky Robinson, Danny Barker, and Freddie Green later became major jazz guitarists, band leaders, and composers.

Many African American jazz banjoists, particularly players with New Orleans roots such as Johnny St. Cyr and Bud Scott, were guitarists who switched to the banjo and played banjos configured like the guitars (called guitar-banjos). St. Cyr said that he made his own guitar banjo at first because he could not get work as a guitarist, as his guitar was not loud enough.

In 1924, "Papa" Charlie Jackson (1887-1938, born William Henry Jackson), who played guitar banjo with a flat pick, became the first male African American to make solo blues records. A Chicago street busker who had worked in minstrel and medicine shows, Jackson recorded show business blues and ragtime-influenced tunes from 1924 to 1934.

The jazz banjoists of the 1920s and 1930s were the last major expression of black popular banjo playing. Their cosmopolitan lifestyle and urbane, often tuxedoed, appearance, dignified demeanor, and increasing musical sophistication all contrast with the mistaken idea that African Americans abandoned the banjo due to shame over its association with degrading racist imagery, rural roots, or slavery.

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