A year ago I hauled my banjo over to a neighbor Steve’s home. He’s an accomplished jazz guitarist in a small local band that is always working.
His wife sings. He’s joined by a vibratone player -- an incredible instrument (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vibraphone) -- and a bass guitarist who together tackle jazz standards, ballads and bossa-nova favorites from Duke Ellington, Cole Porter, George Gershwin and Nat "King" Cole.
We thought it might be fun to try and run the banjo through some jazz paces. I don’t know much about jazz at all. I play Old Time clawhammer banjo, and I know enough bluegrass basics to get me into trouble anywhere I go.
We tried to find some common ground, and started with “Summertime, And The Livin’ Is Easy” a tune I learned off of Doc Watson records while I was playing some guitar in the 1970s. That might have exhausted my overlap into his musical world, though I had just learned “Somewhere Over The Rainbow,” in up-picking style, and we managed to pair up his guitar and my five string with some reasonable success.
After two or three sessions it became clear to me that (1) I lacked the chordal sense that Steve brought to the music (2) I did not have much of a grounding in the basic musical structures that differed appreciably from the bluegrass I/IV,V patterns, and (3) my rudimentary capabilities at bluegrass backup (which I was just beginning to focus on at the time) did not really serve me well in a jazz context – or, more accurately, I did not know enough to be able to translate those backup skills to jazz applications.
Steve, however, was accomplished enough on the guitar that he was comfortable trying his hand at old time music, and we’d end up spending as much time banging away at jazz standards as we did trying to find common ground on “Cripple Creek” and “Barlow’s Knife” and other standard G tuning OT festival favorites.
A few months later, Steve and his band became very busy playing at a new local restaurant that was committed to becoming a jazz venue, so we drifted away from an early bilateral agreement to meet once a week.
During our time together, I compiled a loose leaf binder full of jazz chord patterns, annotated music and makeshift tabs of tunes we tried, and some exercises he suggested I try to become more flexible and capable of figuring out his musical world. After a while, I shelved that book and returned to The Dark Side, immersing myself once again in exclusively old time sounds.
Then, about four months ago, I stumbled into this Youtube video:
And, in its September issue, Banjo Newsletter ran a fine article and a challenging tab of the tune “Georgia on my Mind” by Fred Geiger, a real jazz banjoist:
I thought I’d take a crack at the tune again, and spent an inordinate amount of time trying to read Duck Adkins left hand work. With some heroic assistance from Doub Pearce, a Banjo Hangout musician with incredible musical capabilities and a true teaching streak, I struggled to come up with a reasonable facsimile of the tune by cribbing bits and pieces from these three musicians – Duck, Doub and Fred.
Here’s what I came up with:
It’s far from right. It’s probably pretty far from the musical goal I set for myself. The entire exercise thrust me back to a way of learning tunes that characterized my attempt to get guitar music down in the sixties and seventies. Now, I basically listen to a fiddle tune, figure out a comfortable tuning for the banjo, and find my way to most Old Time tunes -- with effort but not with the backbreaking work that I had to put into deciphering Arlo Guthrie’s Alice’s Restaurant back in the day. Georgia on my Mind was another Alice’s Restaurant-like exercise, a labor intensive drill that compelled me to think about odd, esoteric chord paths that just don’t show up in Old Time, and that showed me the utility of those years of working through three finger rolls with the Earl Scruggs book perched in front of me.
It’s a stretch, and feels very much like what learning a foreign language did – very hard on the brain, draining in an intensive, total-immersion learning environment, but oddly pleasing in the end result.
Until you get your face slapped by someone who is a native speaker of the language.
So far, I’m not venturing outside with this tune, so I don’t anticipate being beaten up by any local jazz musicians.
But I am going to select another tune of this sort and try and work my way through it.