“A gentleman is someone who knows how to play the banjo and doesn't.” ~ Mark Twain
The idea of someone strumming a banjo usually conjures an image of a Deliverance-type scenario, some overall-adorned hillbilly sitting on a porch sucking shine from a quart jar and plinking out some down-home melody. These days, the banjo is so inextricably linked with the image of old-time country music that it is difficult to imagine it ever held an important position in a jazz orchestra. But the banjo was an integral part of the jazz rhythm section until amplified electric guitar won over.
Well before it worked its way into jazz orchestras, the banjo was immensely popular in minstrel performances, as a parlor instrument and later in recordings of ragtime pieces and tangos. One simple reason for its use in early recordings was volume: Banjos are loud. It helps to remember that recordings done prior to 1926 were made acoustically, no electric microphones or amplification were used in the process. Banjos were sufficiently loud enough in an ensemble setting to cut through in the acoustic recording process.
The banjo had attained such widespread popularity by the late 1880s that amateur “banjo clubs” or “banjo orchestras” began to spring up in cities and towns of any sizable population. Tenor (4 string), 5 string, 6 string, banjo-uke, banjeaurine, banjo-mandolin, bass banjo and even 12-string banjos are some of the many diverse styles of instruments to have been used in these orchestras.
The history of the banjo is just as mysterious, fascinating, and rife with conjecture as the history of jazz and blues itself. With ancient antecedents from the Far East, the Middle East, and Africa, the banjo has become recognized as a uniquely American instrument. What better place to employ it than in the uniquely American music of jazz and the blues?
If you have not seen Terry Zwigoff's film Louie Bluie, I highly recommend that you check it out!