Modern Jazz Banjo

In my last blog, Eine Kleine Banjo Snobbery, I stated the goal of “normalizing” the four-string banjo as a “modern jazz” instrument. This of course begs the question; “what do you mean by modern jazz?” I would certainly never claim to be an “expert” on the subject, but I do know a thing or two and am learning more every day through research and study. Let’s turn to the all-knowing internet for an answer to start with:

“Any of various styles of jazz [Bebop, Cool, Modal, Hard Bop, Free, Straight-Ahead, Fusion, Avant Garde, Latin, Soft, etc.] that have evolved since the early 1940s and are marked generally by harmonic and rhythmic complexity, emphasis on chord progressions rather than melody, a tendency to draw on classical forms and styles, and eclectic, allusive melodic tags in improvisation. Also called progressive jazz.”

I would also add—based on my experience in small-group modern jazz as a saxophonist—there is a typical way the music is organized, a standard first established by the Beboppers. To begin with, by the time of Bebop, all participating instruments had evolved into viable “soloists,” and were demanding equal time in the spotlight. A combo typically consists of a rhythm section (piano, bass, drums, guitar) and a “front line” (usually horns in varying combinations, but it can be any “lead” instrument, to include piano or guitar). In a typical song presentation (especially in a jam session), the form will be (or slight variations of this):

All lead players play a “unison head” (the melody—consisting of the verse and chorus—with very little harmony or counter-melody), then the leads each “take a ride” (solo, 1 or more times through the chorus; this will often include the guitar and/or piano), then will move on to the remaining rhythm instruments, typically ending with the drums. Often, “trading 4s” comes next (each soloist—including the rhythm players—will take 4 bars each in the order that they soloed, usually a couple of times through the chorus).

Sometimes—instead of or in addition to trading 4s—there will be a “shout chorus” or two, consisting of free-for-all “collective improv” or a rhythm “riff.” They’ll then return to the unison head but with a bit more freedom. There will often be some form of “drum tag” to end it all. This whole thing can take up to 20 minutes or more, depending on how many band members there are and how good they are!

On a typical gig when I was in the combo (stationed in Korea), our sets would consist mainly of the “3-B’s” of easy-listening jazz; “Blues, Ballads, and Bossa’s” (our audience was mostly older Koreans who didn’t necessarily know a lot about jazz—more than most Americans, actually). From that base, we would play some Bebop, Swing, Modal, or Fusion, depending on who was on the stage any particular night. “Two for them, one for us,” was the motto.   

Included in the modern jazz song list are several “standards”; these are the “American Songbook” tunes that us banjoists would be more familiar with. Otherwise, most tunes are from the “Real-Book”; songs written by great modern jazz musicians, basically as frameworks for improvisation. Many have simple melodies, but with very twisty and busy chord progressions (two chords per bar, typically), with lots of “substitute” chords and chains of “ii-V-I’s.” Since most of them don’t have lyrics, they are meant to be showcases for soloists.

I believe it is significant to note that while Bebop was the beginning of the “modern era” of jazz, it was also the “beginning of the end” for jazz as a popular music genre. You couldn’t sing or dance to it, so fans left in droves for the growing genre of “rhythm and blues” (which led directly to “rock and roll,” the thing that really killed jazz). This is “musician’s music”; the musicians play as much or more for each other than they do for an audience, and thrive on pushing each other to new heights of musical absurdity. This is a good thing for the evolution of music, if not for its popularity. A relevant quote from my recent blog, Stereotypes:

“Without evolution and temporarily-misunderstood/disliked music (which doesn’t sell), we’d still be banging rocks together!”

Ron Hinkle

The banjo for the most part was a stored-in-the-closet relic from the past at that moment in history, and so missed the evolutionary boat. My “proof?” How many banjoists do you find in the jazz history books? Maybe a couple, but they are merely nostalgic footnotes to “early jazz.” There are certainly modern-day exceptions to this, but the banjo in general is not seen as a modern jazz instrument.

While I talk about “modern jazz,” the music I am referring to for the banjo is that “great American Songbook” list. Sure, I plan to get good and confidant enough that I can take my banjo to a straight-ahead, Real-Book gig or jam session as well, and participate on an equal footing with the other front-line players. I anticipate that I will be automatically relegated to the rhythm section (if allowed in at all, being a banjo player), but I want to be able to jump in and take a multiple-chorus ride, just like the other guys and gals in the front line! I may have to do this with my plectrum guitar at first; most of the others won’t know the difference. They’ll see a guitar and expect a guitar.

To do this, I know I’ll need to be able to go just a bit beyond the ubiquitous chord melody (understatement of the year), and into the “too many notes” realm inhabited by trumpets and saxophones. This to me represents the ultimate in musical expression and skill, jazz-wise. I frankly don’t care if anyone cares how many notes I’m able to play (other than the other jazzers); having the skill and confidence to do so makes everything else easy by comparison. The way to make a reputation back in the day was to get into “cutting sessions” (competitive jam sessions) and come out on top; sucks to be the loser!

Easy by comparison is my whole point. Of course, you can apply modern jazz elements to earlier jazz (and even banjo band songs); it is part of the same language. There is not a whole lot of educational material available from the “pre-modern” era though. Listening to and copying old recordings will always be the best way to learn, but the growth of jazz education in the modern era means that style is more accessible. They’ve gotten it down to a science (as well as an art), and anybody with the desire to learn (and music reading skills) can do so.

So, what do I mean by “normalizing the banjo for modern jazz?” Simple: If only a few do something different, it is seen as a fluke; it’s too easy for a fluke to look like a “freak of nature,” and not like a copiable example. If lots of folks do it, it becomes normal. When something is normal (like the modern jazz guitar), more tend to see it as something that they too can do (and as something worth their time to do). This I believe will have the effect of attracting a different, hipper crowd to the banjo. There is nothing wrong with the current crowd, mind you; it’s just that there are not enough of us around to maintain a “critical mass!”

I’d like some assurance that the banjo will outlive me and my pizza-parlor-revival generation! A lot of us talk about making the banjo “relevant to today”; well, I’m trying to do more than just talk! Modern jazz is not exactly a hot topic either right now, but it is certainly more relevant than the banjo!  

2 comments on “Modern Jazz BanjoAdd yours →

  1. I hate to be be Captain Buzzkill here, Ron, but let me offer a counter example… since you mentioned bebop, which I don’t play, or even wish to play, I am going to mention gypsy jazz.

    I don’t profess to be another Django, but my other hobby besides plectrum banjo is jazz guitar, and I hang out a lot a website called where lots of great guitar players go.

    A few years ago there were some enthusiastic postings by a hotshot bluegrass banjo player whose musical ambition it was to have the five string banjo be accepted as a gypsy jazz instrument.

    To be blunt, there was little or no enthusiasm among the gypsy jazz musicians for banjo. yes, the guy was a solid player and everything, but it was still just weird to hear Scruggs-y style banjo rolls in a gypsy jazz setting.

    That poor bastard could spend his whole life honing his gypsy jazz five string banjo style, but the truth is, no matter how good he got, he would never be truly welcomed to a gypsy jazz session.

    That kind of rejection is not unique to the banjo… I’m sure gypsy jazz players would also be averse to welcoming more mainstream jazz instruments such as piano, drums, trombone, trumpet or clarinet… because once you start adding adding those kind of instruments you begin to lose the essential character of gypsy jazz, namely that the guitar and violin are the stars!

    So while I wish you all the support in the world In your quest to abandon chord melody In favor of a more misically sophisticated plectrum banjo style, I would really encourage you not to bang your head against a bebop brick wall…

    1. Will; You are anything but Captain Buzzkill! Your comments inspire me by pointing out the areas that need attention; I wish more would jump into the fray! For example, you have inspired me to write a blog that I am tentatively calling “Acceptance.” This one is going to take some thought.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

For security, use of Google's reCAPTCHA service is required which is subject to the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Use.

I agree to these terms.